StumbleUpon, the massively popular web discovery tool, hit its peak 10 years ago – so why are we still nostalgic?

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

There was the The era is coming (roughly 2013 to 2016), when six-second humor and meme culture reigned supreme. Sometime before that there was the The golden age of YouTube (in the second half of the 2000s), when Smosh, a teenager Bo Burnham and the show of OK Go running on treadmills could exist as a monoculture.

Somewhere in between those we had the StumbleUpon era. It was a time of free 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 random search engine based on recommendations. Users would enter their preferences (think “vegan receipts,” “graphic design” or “house music”), then click a button and quickly navigate to a little-known website that matches their interests.

The results were often surprising, featuring something independent video games and artist portfolios to academic journals and interactive web pages.

For the writer Anna RosenStumbleUpon represented a separate category of online experience.

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

Rosen, who used StumbleUpon frequently while in college from 2007 to 2011, said she misses the days when her internet use was so largely discovery-based. For her, our current Internet age seems less “patient”.

“If they use [the internet] outside of social media, it seems 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 use of StumbleUpon is more like a hobby, as today the internet has become an “entrenched” part of her daily life.

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

StumbleUpon’s questionable pic – the website had 25 million registered users in 2012 — that was barely ten years ago. Yet its existence seems to be part of a different version of the internet, where exploration mattered far more than conservation.

Lately, conversations about the StumbleUpon era have heated up online, spreading across Twitter, Reddit and ICT Tac. Amid this nostalgia, new sites like Cloudhiker, jump stick and Discover have grown to provide new ways to randomly search the Internet.

It’s been 20 years since StumbleUpon debuted. And the period since then – which saw the site soar to astronomical heights before disappearing altogether – can tell us a lot about our current internet age and why we still yearn for the thrill of discovery in line.

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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 the company while in 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 that you didn’t even know you wanted to find, and that’s where the idea of [StumbleUpon] was born.”

The platform had some weird and twisted early years, including a period when it was property of eBay, another sign 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 nearly 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, however. In 2013, the company laid off 30% of its employees for the sake of profitability. Five years later, the site came to an end. In 2018, StumbleUpon was replaced by To mix togethera discovery service that focused more on curated content, rather than random “stumbles” to new websites.

“At that time, the Internet seemed so vast”

StumbleUpon’s decline was not a singular event. This has coincided with massive and sweeping changes in how we use the internet and why we use it.

When the site launched in 2001, the internet was largely a tool for finding things. The fourth most popular websites were Yahoo, AOL, MSN and Google, all of which were web portals. These four remained at the top of the list until early 2008, when Facebook exceeded MSN.

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

“I remember back then the internet seemed so big,” Vocelka said of her StumbleUpon debut. “Like all kinds of freelance websites for unique features and ideas and niche content.”

By the time StumbleUpon shut down, the picture was very different. In 2018, Facebook and YouTube were the second and third largest websites in the world, behind Google in terms of popularity. Meanwhile, Twitter and instagram had also entered the top 10.

The change represents part of the shift to Web 2.0, a term which, although invented in 1999, describes much of our current online experience. Compared to 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 pervasive that they have almost rendered the term useless. However, what often gets lost in our internet discussion is where we live our lives online.

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

These platforms, in addition to instagram, Twitter, Reddit and ICT Tac, discourage users from leaving them by offering an almost unlimited amount of content themselves. There’s no need to find random, quirky new websites when it’s all in one feed or “for you” page.

StumbleUpon hasn’t been replaced by social media, but in some ways it’s been kicked out.

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

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

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“It was great to have that feeling again”

The question presents a strange dichotomy. Sites like Reddit and TikTok offer simpler, more effective alternatives to StumbleUpon, yet many of us still long for StumbleUpon’s particular brand of discovery – a less organized, less controlled, more niche way of discovering content.

It’s an obvious sentiment on 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 websites on the internet”. It was a project born out of his longing for a simpler online experience.

“The feeling of being sent back to the 2000s was interesting, and it was great to get that feeling again,” he told In The Know. “I missed that 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 r/Internetestbeau forum, which has 16 million members, is a self-proclaimed platform for sharing “great, usually minimal, one-time-use websites and web tools.” There are also TikTok users like @zoomienarutoswho have used this platform to overcome their nostalgia for the so-called useless canvas. The user even has created a spreadsheet of StumbleUpon-esque sites, with descriptions and genres.

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

“Maybe there’s more interest in ‘fun internet,'” Woblick said. “I don’t think it was as successful as StumbleUpon was at the time.”

Even Mix, the website that directly replaced StumbleUpon, scratches a noticeably different itch than its predecessor. The platform is centered around “curators” finding and promoting the content they like, no different from Instagram or Twitter.

Rosen has a similar feeling. Although she remains nostalgic for the StumbleUpon era, she acknowledges that there is no turning back.

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

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