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StumbleUpon, the massively popular web discovery tool, peaked 10 years ago — so why are we still nostalgic for it?

·8-min read

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

There was the Vine Era (roughly from 2013 to 2016), when six-second humor and meme culture reigned supreme. Sometime before that, there was the Golden Age of YouTube (during the second half of the 2000s), when Smosh, a teenage Bo Burnham and the spectacle of OK Go running on treadmills could exist as a monoculture.

Somewhere between those, we had the StumbleUpon Era. It was a period 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 input their preferences (think “vegan recipes,” “graphic design” or “house music”), then click a button and be whisked away to some little-known website that matched their interests.

The results were often surprising, featuring anything from independent video games and artist portfolios to academic journals and interactive webpages.

For writer Anna Rosen, StumbleUpon represented a distinct category of online experience.

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

Rosen, who used StumbleUpon frequently when she was in college from 2007 to 2011, said she misses the time when her internet use was so largely discovery-based. To her, our current internet era feels less “patient.”

“If they’re using [the internet] outside of social media, it seems to be less about discovering new things and more about finding the information they need as quickly as possible,” she said.

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

“Back then ‘using the internet’ felt like another activity I would choose to spend my time doing,” she said. “Like, ‘I’ll go to school, then go to lacrosse practice, then I’ll use the internet.’”

StumbleUpon’s arguable peak — the website had 25 million registered users in 2012 — was just a decade ago. Yet its existence feels like part of a different version of the internet, where exploration mattered much more than curation.

As of late, conversations about the StumbleUpon Era have heated up online, sprawling across Twitter, Reddit and TikTok. Amid that nostalgia, new sites like Cloudhiker, Jumpstick and Discuvver have risen to offer new ways of randomly searching the internet.

It’s been 20 years since StumbleUpon’s debut. And the period since then — which saw the site rise to astronomical heights before disappearing completely — 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 would go on to co-found Uber, conceived of the company during grad school after noticing what he saw as a gap in the search engine ecosystem.

“The idea is that when 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, ones you didn’t even know you wanted to find, and that’s where the idea for [StumbleUpon] was born.”

The platform had a strange, circuitous first few years, including a period when it was owned by eBay, another signifier of an earlier internet era. But in the late 2000s its population exploded, thanks in part to a site redesign, expansions to new countries and integration with Facebook.

The website had 5.5 million registered users in 2009. 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.

StumbleUpon never reached those heights, though. In 2013 the company laid off 30% of its employees in an attempt at profitability. Five years later the site came to an end. In 2018 StumbleUpon was replaced by Mix, a discovery service that focused more heavily on curated content, rather than random “stumbles” into new websites.

‘At that time the internet seemed so vast’

The decline of StumbleUpon wasn’t a singular event. It coincided with massive, sweeping changes in how, and why, we use the internet.

When the site launched in 2001, the internet was largely a tool for finding things. The four most popular websites were Yahoo, AOL, MSN and Google, all of which were web portals. Those four remained atop the list through early 2008, when Facebook surpassed MSN.

Back then, being online meant searching for something in one place and discovering it somewhere else — maybe somewhere unexpected.

“I remember at that time the internet seemed so vast,” Vocelka said of her early days on StumbleUpon. “Like all sorts of independent websites for unique features and ideas and niche content.”

By the time StumbleUpon shut down, the picture was vastly different. In 2018, Facebook and YouTube were the world’s second- and third-biggest websites, trailing only Google in popularity. Meanwhile, Twitter and Instagram had also entered the top 10.

The change represents part of the shift to Web 2.0, a term that, while invented in 1999, describes a large portion of our current online experience. Compared with Web 1.0, this updated stage is marked 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’ve almost rendered the term useless. However, what often gets lost in our discussion of the internet is where we’re living our online lives.

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

These platforms, in addition to Instagram, Twitter, Reddit and TikTok, discourage users from leaving them by offering a near-unlimited amount of content themselves. There’s little need to find random, quirky new websites when everything exists in a single feed or “for you” page.

StumbleUpon wasn’t replaced by social media, but in some ways it was pushed out.

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

“My social life [now] also feels tied to social media in many ways,” Vocelka agreed. “Although this is something I am working on reducing.”

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‘It was great to have that feeling again’

The issue presents a strange dichotomy. Sites like Reddit and TikTok offer easier, 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 feeling evident across 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 that he launched in 2020.

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

“The feeling like being thrown back into the 2000s was interesting, and it was great to have that feeling again,” he told In The Know. “I missed that era where the internet was a little bit 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-described outlet for sharing “awesome, usually minimal and single-purpose websites and webtools.” There are also TikTok users like @zoomienarutos, who have used that platform to work through their nostalgia for the so-called useless web. The user has even created a spreadsheet of StumbleUpon-esque sites, complete with descriptions and genres.

Nostalgia is one thing, but a full comeback is another. Woblick is doubtful that any of these sites or tools will ever sniff the popularity StumbleUpon saw in the early 2010s.

“Maybe there is more interest in a ‘fun internet,’” Woblick said. “I just don’t see it to be as successful as StumbleUpon was at that time.”

Even Mix, the website that directly replaced StumbleUpon, scratches a noticeably different itch than its predecessor. The platform is centered on “curators” who find and promote content they like, not dissimilar from Instagram or Twitter.

Rosen has a similar feeling. While she remains nostalgic for the StumbleUpon era, she acknowledges that there’s no going back to it.

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

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The post The internet’s ‘StumbleUpon Era’ peaked 10 years ago — here’s why it still matters appeared first on In The Know.

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