Ben Turner remembers StumbleUpon and an earlier era of serendipity on the internet, now replaced by corporate algorithmic feeds.
My browser bookmarks are random. Not just a little out of place, but truly, violently disorganized and disconnected. While some form of under-diagnosed ADHD may be partly at play, I point to one medium as the source for that disarray: StumbleUpon. StumbleUpon, now replaced by the service Mix, was a service that allowed you to hop from one random site to the next, driven only by your own interest and an unseen group of user-curators at work.
The vestiges of StumbleUpon only remain in my bookmarks because its peak was during another era (all of about 10 years ago). I used StumbleUpon on Mozilla Firefox, before Chrome co-opted my bookmarks and had taken over the browser wars. The “SU” symbol sat amid a host of other extensions, jockeying to assert itself in my attention, often winning out.
Remembering StumbleUpon as a service feels somewhat surreal. No app since then has consumed so much of my time, yet there were whole years when I hadn’t thought about the service at all. There was no real connection to any social media platforms for me at the time, no friends also “stumbling” alongside me. But that was the inherent appeal: the idiosyncrasies of your tastes weren’t a bug: they were the main feature, the driving force. With no other app or tool has putting my “interests” ever felt so rewarding, with demonstrable outcomes for my consumption and no imposter syndrome for including “architecture” as an interest on Goodreads without ever having read a book on such a topic. Megan Farokhmanesh wrote of the app that “StumbleUpon was a wacky game of roulette, one that allowed you to click a button and land somewhere unexpected.”
In my experience, StumbleUpon lived on my desktop. This was before I felt I could truly browse on the web, let alone having deeper, more meaningful interactions on a tiny phone screen. You wouldn’t want to find new music on a phone browser before copy and paste was really usable, or explore an internet niche where you could open several tabs in rapid succession to dig down deep and quickly.
Reminiscing on my time stumbling, I wondered, does StumbleUpon have an inheritor? I think the closest we’ve gotten may be TikTok. Despite Facebook and Twitter’s attempts to staple together the unique attributes of other apps and services, those products are still bound by the scaffolding that is their platforms. The algorithms on your own personal version of Facebook are driven by how you’ve muted your politically incorrect relatives or what version of Farmville you stopped plowing virtual fields in.
To fight this poor curation, I have even moved to creating a separate Instagram account for myself in order to personally bend my algorithm to the interests of my mood, rather than my last like. At this point, my Facebook is just a glorified form of an RSS feed with journalistic publications living alongside announcements of graduations; engagements and weddings; and posts where my high school basketball coach earnestly responds to strangers in comment sections.
TikTok might be limited to the app itself, but it’s limited in a way that heightens the experience of using the app. The random rewards of funny videos, instructional life hacks, surprisingly profound albeit brief invocations of dense academic theories: they all come on even footing with generally equal time constraints. Long enough to make an impact, short enough to keep up with my own attention span having shrunken even in the last 5 to 10 years.
Moreover, TikTok wants your feedback. Tell it you like a video, and maybe you too will be taken down the path of other users you also share some small appreciation with. Dislike (specifically, tell the app you’re “not interested” in) a video to scold the algorithm for being so naive. All of this feels like working at an old-timey factory, pushing buttons to affect the speed and quality of a conveyor belt of content perpetually steaming towards you. Showing your love for content on both StumbleUpon and TikTok felt and feels like a source of control, even amid randomness, rather being shown a set of media in an order and at a rate that is predetermined (the instantaneousness of your whole pre-calibrated News Feed on Facebook, the promise and dreadfulness of the endless scroll on Twitter). Instagram now has a feature that shows content you may like once you’ve “caught up” on all the most current posts. StumbleUpon offered a way to never, ever be caught up, and feel all the more happier for it.
StumbleUpon helped me start to understand, almost at a humanistic level, how vast the internet could be. TikTok often yields a similar result, though with a key difference. On TikTok, almost all videos trend toward a kind of visual consistency and repeatability. Silly voices or bits of speech become “sounds”, to be reused, repackaged, and recontextualized. On StumbleUpon, however, a new discovery was almost nodal: your world would open up into something entirely, profoundly new. StumbleUpon was like a network of forest trails, where you follow in the footsteps of others but in ways you can't necessarily predict. On the other hand, TikTok feels like a mine shaft, where you also (somewhat more blindly) navigate to find disparate topics and ideas less connected but still accessed through the same network.
TikTok’s argument seems to be swipe up to experience something new. StumbleUpon’s founder described its mission as “click a button to find a cool webpage.” There is something about that sense of both finding and of the authorship of that webpage I have yet to find replicated in TikTok — or anywhere else in the new social media era. — By Ben Turner
The Dirt: Randomness used to be so much cooler.
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