Restoring Serendipity to the Web

While it’s been around for some time, I only recently stumbled up on StumpleUpon, a fun web service that I recommend trying because it restores serendipity to the web.

I remember worrying during the web boom of the late 1990s — particularly during the portals, PointCast, and subscribe/alert hype phase — that life could become quite boring if I received only the news and information that I knew interested me. Yes, it would be great to subscribe to 27 different technology, software, and marketing new sources. But, I could easily overload; I could gag myself on all those feeds, getting so overwhelmed with content-of-interest that I’d never finish reading it, let alone touch all the stuff I was also interested in, but to which I’d never subscribe.

I reflected on a typical experience reading a newspaper. While a newspaper can’t compete with the web when it comes to real-time information (e.g., news, stock prices), it has two key advantages with which the web still has trouble competing.

  • You can read a newspaper on a jammed subway train or taxing airplane
  • Newspapers provide what I call the “serendipity factor.” That is, while reading one story of interest you’ll scan the page and inevitably find other stories that interest you, too.

In my opinion, the web is quite bad at providing serendipity. Serendipity is important because it keeps us from becoming too narrow, too stovepiped, too boring, too unworldly. It’s well known, for example, that innovation often comes from cross-field or cross-experience insights. So if we steep ourselves only in the information of our discipline, then we narrow ourselves, making ourselves less, not more, creative. In an era highly focused on specialization, breadth remains incredibly important.

So it was with great delight that I stumbled upon StumbleUpon, because it introduces serendipity to the web. Among other things, it adds a toolbar to your browser whereby you press a “stumble” button and be automatically transported to a website. Then you vote for where you landed (thumbs up or down) and your preferences are recorded in an effort to improve the probability that you’ll thumbs-up future stumbles. You can characterize what type of stumble you’d like to take (e.g., stumble on people, images, news stories, etc.).

It’s definitely worth trying, but do so when you have some spare time. You can spend a lot of time discovering a whole new web that you’d never found before.

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