Friday, February 16, 2007

On Serendipitous Browsing

I've been online since about 1988. I started by dialing into Mac- and Commodore 64-oriented BBS's, and when I went to college in 1991 I started digging into the Internet proper. While hanging out with Noel Hidalgo in Chelsea the other afternoon, I bemoaned the passing of Lynx, Gopher, Archie, and Veronica. And tonight, I'm kicking around with two new tools -- and remembering my first journalism job.

In 1995, when I graduated from college, I had two requirements for my first post-graduate job: It not be at a newspaper (in my senior year, I'd discovered the joys of magazining) and it bring me free Internet access. I ended up at Online Access magazine, working with a staff of less than 10 in a small office building in River North, Chicago.

While at Online Access, I edited the HotList section, in which I reviewed and oversaw the review of 300 online services, Web sites, and other online resources. And that aspect of my job changed how I looked at and thought about the Internet. In the beginning of what some might call the commercial Web, everything mattered. The first search engines and directories, like Yahoo, even the first weblogs, were built on the idea that every new Web page was important, exciting, and deserving of recognition. But when you critically consider 300-plus sites a month, quality becomes more and more important.

That said, the early days were days of serendipity. Every link could take you somewhere new, teach you something exciting, introduce you to someone fascinating. Today, the Web is much the same, but the leisure of serendipitous browsing -- of being a Web tourist -- is a more rare opportunity. Our Web use is much more targeted, our threshold for crap much higher, and our time and media attention much more scarce and fragmented.

So it's been with interest and some reminiscence that I've been playing with two new tools (new to me, at least): Medium and StumbleUpon. Both work radically differently, but both bring back some of the once social serendipity of early Web reading.

Medium -- my handle is h3athrow, like it is in most places -- allows you to install a sidebar in which you can keep track of what Web sites you're exploring, as well as what sites other Medium users are using at the same time. I'm not entirely sold on Medium's potential yet, but one of the two capabilities intrigues me. For the most part, I'm not benefitting from the social surfing: If you see that people you know are on a specific Web page, you can go there, too, and join a site-specific real-time chat. Right now, I don't know enough people to take advantage of that. What I can take advantage of, however, is the serendipitous browsing aspect. By seeing what pages people are paying attention to while I'm online, I can learn about new sites and services. For the most part, the sites are knowns -- Digg, Flickr, Blogger, Google (most people seem to use Google) -- but occasionally, I check on other pages that pop up. Additionally, it's useful as a shared presence indicator and social outlet. Many newcomers use the chat for general discussion, and you can occasionally find a conversation worth participating in. The other night, a user was looking for a free copy of the documentary Jesus Camp. It's commercially available for $20, and we debated the merits of BitTorrent versus supporting independent filmmakers.

And today, I started to use StumbleUpon. That tool is another browser add on that helps you find Web sites you might not be actually looking for. When you sign up, you select topics and categories that you're interested in, and when you activate the toolbar button, it takes you a page about a topic you've selected. It's less random than Blogger's Next Blog option, which can make for an occasional ramble of worth, and it's more random than Google's I'm Feeling Lucky button, which is based on your search query. I've yet to explore StumbleUpon's Friends feature, so I'm not sure of the social possibilities of this serendipitous browsing tool, but I think that Medium and StumbleUpon, if used in conjunction, could prove particularly promising.

In fact, I'm considering the idea of Medium-driven StumbleUpon tours. What if a handful of Medium users participated in a real-time StumbleUpon session, sharing URLs and conversation about the sites discovered? What kinds of connections and comparisons could be made? What could be learned?

If you're interested in participating in this, let me know, and I'll consider scheduling a Web tour. Might be a kick.

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