It seems social networks have taken over. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is TIME's 2010 Person of the Year, and the movie about Facebook--The Social Network--won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Facebook, which now has 250 million members, is a close second to Google as the world's top website as of Feb. 10, 2011, according to Alexa.com. Other social networks such as Myspace and Twitter are also among the web's most heavily trafficked sites. Although these sites can extend your network of friends into the thousands, they also have a dark side, from photos of drunken parties that have derailed job offers to millions of inane, semiliterate tweets. More seriously, several youth suicides have been attributed to social network bullying in the past few years.
But there is much more to the social media environment than people-oriented networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace. There are several popular and rapidly growing networks devoted to particular topics or themes. A prime example is LinkedIn, which concentrates on career networking and is Alexa-ranked at No. 13 in U.S. traffic at the time of this writing. With member profiles and interconnections, LinkedIn is similar in structure to Facebook, but its purpose (serious job hunting for adults) creates a more responsible atmosphere.
StumbleUpon and Yelp, two rapidly growing social networks, are not only responsible, but they are fun as well. Each is a classic social network with the basic elements: member-created personal profiles and extensive intercommunication among members. Each also has a specific theme. For StumbleUpon, that theme is member-rated webpages of mutual interest; for Yelp, the theme is based on member-created reviews of restaurants, stores, and other businesses.
This topical focus makes the two networks different and perhaps better than the general social networks. First, each creates a body of interesting and useful content separate from the member information. Second, each has a more responsible and well-mannered atmosphere. In other words, you have little interest in Facebook if you do not have a Facebook profile, but even if you have no interest in the member-to-member aspects of StumbleUpon and Yelp, you can still find them fascinating. (See more in O'Leary's Law of Social Networks in the sidebar below.)
StumbleUpon Uses Old-Time Information Method
The preferred human information-seeking activity predates the web by about 200,000 years: You ask someone you know and trust about a topic. StumbleUpon adapts this venerable method to Web 2.0, calling it an "emergent content referral system." StumbleUpon members select their favorite webpages on specific topics. Other members select a topic and then "stumble" (the site's term for clicking through a series of member-selected pages on that topic). On paper, it sounds silly, but it actually works.
StumbleUpon was founded in 2001, eBay bought it in 2007, and then (in an unusual twist) its original founders bought the company back in 2009. It now claims more than 13 million users and 700 million personalized recommendations per month, and it was ranked No. 70 on Alexa's list of the top 100 websites in the U.S. for February. It is ad-supported, with ad-placed pages appearing and being identified as such in the course of stumbling.
You have to be a member to use StumbleUpon. When signing up, you do two things that are essential to the StumbleUpon process: You create a member profile (not much is actually required), and you select favorite topics from a 500-entry classification system. When you click on the Stumble button, pages relevant to your selected topics appear from the database of "peer-reviewed" pages chosen by your fellow Stumblers. Each page can be rated using a thumbs up or thumbs down. The former are added to your own list of favorites for permanent reference, while the latter can be removed if their ratings get too low. …