And with a Single Click, He Was Off. the Latest Internet Phenomenon Offers a Virtual Mystery Tour of Worlds Far beyond Google. Rhodri Marsden 'Stumbles Upon' the Next Big Thing

Article excerpt

The first time I ever heard the wheezing rasp of a modem, typed the letters "www" and ventured online was back in 1994. The dotcom revolution was still inconceivable - in fact, the first search engine had only just been invented - but the internet still seemed to herald such rich promise.

I gasped in wide-eyed, youthful wonder at the extraordinary possibilities of the world wide web. In retrospect, I like to think that I pondered the future of humanity - the way this new tool could impact on democracy, end international conflict and save the planet from environmental collapse - although I probably started with a conceited search for my own name.

Much of that promise has come to pass. Dissidents in totalitarian dictatorships use email to communicate with the outside world; Western consumers access a dizzying array of products and services from the comfort of an armchairs. The web has brought people friendships across continents, and allowed scientists to share academic advances with colleagues on the other side of the planet. From Amazon to eBay, Facebook and MySpace to YouTube and iTunes, it is surely the greatest cultural force of our times.

That, at least, is the theory. In practice, of course, the internet also has a scarcely credible capacity to provide distraction. When we surf, we're looking to be surprised, diverted, entertained. Sure, we also want to have our eyes opened to the infinite possibilities that the world holds, but we wouldn't mind having a game of Hangman or Scrabble first. In September, a report by the law firm Peninsula concluded that office workers in the UK spend company time worth 130m each day browsing online. It's the price corporate Britain pays for progress.

It may not be long, however, before aimless internet browsing becomes a thing of the past. A website and associated piece of software called Stumbleupon is revolutionising the way we trawl the web.

The idea runs something like this: currently, we either spend hours wading through websites in search of something diverting, or we have our routines interrupted by emails from friends, urging us to go and visit some URL or other. But Stumbleupon provides a means, via a single mouse-click, to find - or stumble upon - fascinating web pages that we've probably never seen. If the service continues to blossom - and it looks like being the biggest online craze since Facebook - it may one day become as powerful as Google.

The site works by harnessing the critical skills of its users - now approaching four million in number - as they surf. When they're shown a new site, they give it either a "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" by clicking on buttons on the Stumbleupon toolbar, which they've installed on their web browsers - either Internet Explorer or Firefox. Not only do these users provide a vast testing-panel that decides democratically which sites are good and which aren't; they also feed back to the website information about the kind of stuff they're interested in.

With this huge community constantly ranking websites, Stumbleupon is creating an internet utopia where the good stuff is preserved and the dross is filtered out. If you want to see something deemed fascinating by fellow Stumblers, just click "Stumble" on your own toolbar and you'll be brought a randomly chosen page, tailored to your own interests. Bingo.

So, what's the history? Stumbleupon has been around for six years or so, but 2007 has been big. In May, it was bought by eBay for $75m (about 37m), and in the past couple of months, traffic has surged. And anyone involved in publishing on the internet - from news to blogs to video and photos - is beginning to wake up to the power its users wield. Some are saying it's more important to get a good ranking on Stumbleupon than on Google if you want to drive traffic towards your website.

Indeed, once you've installed the Stumbleupon toolbar, your Google searches are transformed, with those ranked highly by Stumblers being highlighted with gold stars. …