StumbleUpon, the wildly popular web discovery tool, peaked 10 years ago, so why are we still nostalgic? | Panda Anku

It’s tempting to think of Internet history as a series of eras.

There was the Vine era (roughly 2013-2016) when six-second humor and meme culture reigned supreme. Sometime before that, there was the golden age of YouTube (the latter half of the 2000s), when Smosh, a teenager Bo Burnham, and the spectacle of OK Go on treadmills were able to exist as a monoculture.

Somewhere in between we had the StumbleUpon Era. It was a time of free-form discovery, marked by hours spent down an endless rabbit hole of obscure websites.

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StumbleUpon, which shut down in 2018, was a randomized, recommendation-based search engine. Users would type in their preferences (think “vegan recipes,” “graphic design,” or “house music”), then click a button and be taken to a little-known website that matched their interests.

The results have often been surprising, ranging from independent video games and artist portfolios to scholarly journals and interactive websites.

For writers Anna RosenStumbleUpon represented a separate category of online experiences.

“StumbleUpon was an era of wonder and magic when we were figuring out what was going to be the internet,” she told In The Know.

Rosen, who used StumbleUpon frequently during her college years from 2007 to 2011, said she misses the days when her internet usage was so largely discovery-based. To them, our current internet age feels less “patient.”

“When they consume [the internet] Outside of social media, it seems less about discovering new things and more about finding the information you need as quickly as possible,” she said.

Katherine Vocelka, a 25-year-old who works in cybersecurity, agrees with Rosen’s view. Vocelka told In The Know that her use of StumbleUpon was more of a hobby, while now the internet has become an “ingrained” part of her daily life.

“Back then, ‘using the internet’ felt like a different activity that I would spend my time doing,” she said. “Like, ‘I go to school, then I go to lacrosse practice, and then I use the internet.'”

StumbleUpon’s dubious peak – the site had 25 million registered users in 2012 – was only a decade ago. Still, its existence feels like part of a different version of the internet, where exploration counted for much more than curation.

Recently, conversations about the StumbleUpon era have been heating up and spreading online Twitter, Reddit and TikTok. Amidst this nostalgia, new websites such as Cloudhiker, Jumpstick, and Discuvver have sprung up to offer new ways of randomly searching the web.

It’s been 20 years since StumbleUpon debuted. And the time since – when the site soared to astronomical heights before disappearing entirely – can tell us a lot about our current internet era and why we still crave the thrill of online discovery.

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StumbleUpon was founded in 2001 by Garrett Camp, Geoff Smith, Justin LaFrance and Eric Boyd. Camp, who later co-founded Uber, conceived the company during grad school after noticing what he saw as a gap in the search engine ecosystem.

“The idea is that if you know what you’re looking for, a regular search engine is great,” Camp said in a 2006 interview. “But there really wasn’t an effective tool for discovering new sites that you didn’t even know you wanted to find, and that’s where the idea lay [StumbleUpon] was born.”

The platform had weird, awkward years in its early days, including a period when it was owned by eBay, another sign of an earlier internet era. But in the late 2000s, the population exploded, thanks in part to a website redesign, expansion into new countries, and integration with Facebook.

In 2009, the site had 5.5 million registered users. Three years later, that number had almost quintupled.

“If we continue at this rate, we could see hundreds of millions of users,” Camp told TechCrunch in 2012.

However, StumbleUpon never reached those heights. In 2013, the company laid off 30% of its employees to become profitable. The location ended five years later. In 2018, StumbleUpon was replaced by Mix, a discovery service that focused more on curated content rather than randomly “stumbling” onto new sites.

“The internet seemed so huge back then”

StumbleUpon’s demise was not a one-off event. It has coincided with massive, far-reaching changes in how and why we use the internet.

When the website started in 2001, the internet was primarily a tool for finding things. The four most popular websites were Yahoo, AOL, MSN and Google, all web portals. These four remained at the top of the list until early 2008 when Facebook overtook MSN.

Back then, being online meant searching for something in one place and discovering it somewhere else – perhaps in an unexpected place.

“I remember the internet seemed so huge back then,” Vocelka said of her early days at StumbleUpon. “Like all sorts of independent sites for unique features and ideas and niche content.”

When StumbleUpon shut down, the picture was very different. In 2018, Facebook and YouTube were the second and third largest websites in the world, surpassed only by Google in popularity. Meanwhile, Twitter and Instagram had also entered the top 10.

The change represents part of the move to Web 2.0, a term that, although invented in 1999, describes a large part of our current online experience. Compared to Web 1.0, this refreshed phase is characterized by user-generated content, mobile apps, and the continued rise of social media.

Many of the qualities that define Web 2.0 are now so ubiquitous that they have rendered the term almost useless. However, what is often lost in our discussion of the internet is Where We live our online life.

In the mid-2000s, web portals like Google and Yahoo took users to new places, as did StumbleUpon. But by the early 2010s, most of us were spending a lot more time on sites like Facebook and YouTube, which are mostly self-contained.

These platforms, in addition to Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and TikTok, keep users from leaving them by offering an almost unlimited amount of content themselves. There’s no need to find random, whimsical new sites when it’s all in a single feed or “For You” page.

StumbleUpon hasn’t been replaced by social media, but in a way it has been supplanted.

“I remember they had an app that I absolutely downloaded onto my trusty iPhone 3,” Rosen said of her final days with StumbleUpon. “But it was usually abandoned for Facebook, Twitter and eventually Instagram.”

“My social life [now] also feels connected to social media in many ways,” agreed Vocelka. “Although I’m working to reduce this.”

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“It was great to have that feeling again”

The subject exhibits a strange dichotomy. Sites like Reddit and TikTok offer simpler, more efficient alternatives to StumbleUpon, and yet many of us are still nostalgic for StumbleUpon’s particular brand of discovery — a less curated, less controlled, more niche way of discovering content.

It’s a sentiment that’s evident throughout the internet if you know where to look. In the four years since StumbleUpon became Mix, developers have found their own way to fill the void.

Kevin Woblick is one of them. The Berlin-based web engineer is the creator of Cloudhiker, a free content discovery site he launched in 2020.

Woblick describes Cloudhiker as a way to explore “the most interesting and awesome sites on the web.” It was a project founded out of his nostalgia for a simpler online experience.

“The feeling of being transported back to the 2000s was interesting, and it was great to have that feeling again,” he told In The Know. “I missed the time when the internet was a little freer and people were more creative.”

Elsewhere, StumbleUpon fans have found other ways to simulate the experience.

Reddit’s r/InternetIsBeautiful forum, which has 16 million members, is a self-proclaimed platform for sharing “awesome, usually minimal and purpose-built websites and web tools.” There are also TikTok users like @zoomienarutos who have used this platform to process their nostalgia for the so-called useless web. The user even created a table of StumbleUpon-like sites, complete with descriptions and genres.

Nostalgia is one thing, but making a complete comeback is another. Woblick doubts any of these sites or tools will ever taste the popularity that StumbleUpon experienced in the early 2010s.

“Maybe there’s more interest in a ‘fun Internet,'” Woblick said. “I just don’t see it as being as successful as StumbleUpon was back then.”

Even Mix, the site that directly replaced StumbleUpon, scratches a noticeably different itch than its predecessor. The platform focuses on “curators” who find and promote content they like, much like Instagram or Twitter.

Roses feel the same way. While nostalgic for the StumbleUpon era, she acknowledges there is no turning back.

“Overall, the internet is less novel now,” she said. “People know what they want and they want it fast.”

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The post The Internet’s ‘StumbleUpon Era’ Peaked 10 Years Ago – Here’s Why It Still Matters first appeared on In The Know.

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