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. No wonder getting Stumblers onside is becoming a key part of website promotion.
But can I trust Stumbleupon to show me a good time? Would a day Stumbling make me any wiser, more culturally enriched, more of a hit at parties? There was only one way to find out...
Bleary-eyed, mug of coffee in right hand, I left-hand-click my way through the Stumbleupon sign-up. First, I have to choose a user name; rhodrimarsden isn't taken, which is a bonus. Then it asks me to tick some interests that define me as a human being. Yawning, I come up with a list that probably marks me out as a generic male, mid-thirties dullard: news, alternative rock, technology, independent film, oddities, humour, food, news. Oh, and of course I have to install the Stumbleupon toolbar, which has added even more icons to my browser – including the crucial Stumble button. Let's give it a press.
I'm welcomed to the Forbidden Library, an exhaustive list of books that have been banned at some point, with the dubious justification for their censorship – mainly sexually explicit language or blasphemy. Among the calls for book-burning sits a judgement by the Alabama State Textbook Committee which, in 1983, called for the banning of The Diary of Anne Frank on the grounds of it being a "real downer". How they expected Anne to put a positive spin on the Second World War, I've no idea.
Another click on the Stumble button takes me on to www.miles.be, which is described as "the best free ear-training resource on the internet" . I download some software and spend 15 minutes testing my ability to discern an E flat from a C. The distant memory of O-level music lessons floods back, and I score a respectable 36 out of 40. Next: footage of Jimi Hendrix playing "Wind Cries Mary" in a Swedish TV studio in 1967. I suspect it's in E major. I quickly check this using my new ear-training resource. Yes, I'm right.
Another video, this time of Gordon Ramsay making perfect scrambled eggs. I should have a go, but I've got no eggs in the flat – just some cereal that contains "spelt", which I bought because I liked the idea of eating something spelt spelt. I tolerate sites thrown my way because I stupidly ticked "humour": a predictable spoof of what George W Bush's Hotmail inbox might look like; some Japanese TV clips I'd already seen on a Chris Tarrant "crazy foreign TV" round-up; some courtroom quotes that have been around for decades, such as: "Were you alone, or by yourself?" The only thing that made me smirk into my spelt was a video swipe at Microsoft: "The company who taught the world to turn their computers off by pressing a button marked Start," it began.
"Is there a worst way to die?" asks howstuffworks.com. The site believes that this is a subjective issue, but does admit that falling into a vat of sulphuric acid at work, climbing out and then dissolving in front of your colleagues is probably among the worst. I need to banish this image from my head, and I find "BriefSafe", an essential product for the regular traveller, designed to hold your valuables and disguised as soiled underwear.
Next up is an image of the head of a pin with the Lord's Prayer etched into it, which was apparently discovered on the body of a prisoner in Sing Sing prison in New York. According to the website, he'd painstakingly done it himself and gone blind. But it doesn't explain why microscopic examination of pins found on dead convicts might be standard prison procedure. I detect a possible hoax, and give it the thumbs down.
I included "news" in my list of interests, but I don't think Stumbleupon threatens any of the world's major news organisations. The only news-related piece I've Stumbledupon so far is a short piece from a couple of years ago telling the story of a cigar smoker who insured his cigars, smoked them, claimed on the insurance, sued the insurance company and won. Without wishing to become one of those people who cry "hoax" at the slightest provocation, I don't believe this, either. Sure enough, the fantastic Urban Legends resource at snopes.com reveals it to be made up. How dare these Stumblers waste my time?
I'm seriously distracted by an interactive time-zone map at timezonecheck.com, from which I've deduced a couple of facts. First, Afghanistan seems to have a time zone all to itself – Afghanistan Time, it's called. Second, if you saunter over the border from Tajikistan into China, you have to move your watch forward three hours. This kind of information is pub-quiz gold.
The world webcams at opentopia.com threaten to be even more addictive. Under mundane footage of AutoEcosse Motor Sales in Dundee, a chap called " Lightning Fox" has posted a comment: "Fantastic cam! You can see the cars and people buying them!" He can't get enough; two weeks later, he posts: "I see the Aston Martin has been moved."
I can't stop watching these cams – although I'm avoiding the one promising me "100% hardcore webchat" for the moment; it's not even lunchtime yet. I click on a webcam set up in the main square of Most, a town in northern Bohemia. I once played a dreadful gig in Most in 1993. There was barely anyone there. Today, there's barely anyone in Most's main square, so my theory that my band were magnificent and Most is a ghost town is finally gaining weight.
Another way to use Stumbleupon is to check out other sites recommended by any Stumbler. I have a look at the selection thumbed-up by the chap who recommended the webcams, but he seems to like busty women reclining on sports cars. I prefer images of studious-looking women wearing cardigans and sitting on tricycles. He doesn't have any.
Time for lunch. I'm on a regime that allows me a banana and an apple, a one-handed challenge that leaves the other hand free to Stumble. But, annoyingly, I'm getting a load of food sites. Artisan breadmakers are enthusing about their craft at thefreshloaf.com: "Baking is the cheapest, most rewarding pastime." Not if you've outlawed bread from your diet, it's not. Next, khymos.org busts the myth that searing meat somehow "seals in its juices". I blame TV chefs for spreading that lie. Now, can we stop them all saying "caramelised" instead of "browned"? I hope so.
I need to tick a few more Stumbleupon interests and broaden my outlook. I go up to my maximum of 127, including lesbian culture, ethics, petroleum, glaucoma, billiards, divorce, fine arts, kayaking, Wicca, teen parenting, Israel and illusion. What a deep, complex individual I've become.
This has nothing to do with Israel or billiards, but still – it's a great flash game called "Programming language inventor or serial killer?" You're shown photographs and you have to determine whether these men are computing pioneers or murderers. It's not as easy as you might think. My girlfriend and I, pooling our limited knowledge, score 7 out of 10. I actually thought that John W Mauchly, who invented a high-level programming language on a Univac Serial computer in 1950, looked like an axe-wielding maniac. Sorry, John.
Rock stars and their real names. Apparently, Mickey Dolenz is actually George Braddock. I also like the idea that Afrika Bambaataa is called Trevor Nympton, and Sade is Gladys Boot, but I made those up.
This site asks: "How are you feeling today?" You can rate yourself between plus 10 and minus 10, with zero as your "lifetime average" , whatever that is. Today's worldwide average is minus 1.5, but people seem to have very different ideas of what constitutes misery. One rates himself as minus three: "My dog destroyed a $50 pair of shoes belonging to my daughter's friend." Another feels a bit better, at minus two, saying: "My wife woke up some time ago and told me that she was unfulfilled." Ouch.
I'm going to get my hair cut. I'm getting addicted to this Stumbling lark, and I'm tempted to take the laptop with me.
I'm back. I've decided to give something back to the Stumbling community and recommend sites. There's the footage of Van Halen playing "Jump" horribly out of key – but no, someone's already Stumbled upon it. Ah... the official site of the Prague bid for the 2016 Olympics. It's fantastic. There's a potted history, supposedly in English, which includes the wonderful sentence: "At which time Prague begun peep at peas in years 1932 and 1936. But while before for action inspire with politicians and people, in thirtieth years nobody after peas doesnt want. Whole it go out taperingly." I'm 100 per cent behind the bid.
The mass of information is making me feel horribly insignificant, none more so than this: "Secret worlds – the universe within", it's called. It's a series of images, starting with one 10 million light years from Earth, down to a carbon atom in a leaf on a tree outside the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee, Florida.
Random stuff is coming thick and fast, but still nothing about billiards. I know what "Rhodri" is in binary code. I know that there's something called "Paris syndrome" which renders Japanese tourists visiting the French capital stressed and anxious. I've seen some of the Stumbleupon recommendations before, but surprisingly few. One I had seen is the Wayback Machine at archive.org, which keeps snapshots of past versions of many websites. The first they have of The Independent website is dated 16 February 1998; it's a higgledy-piggledy jumble of text and images, with the telling footnote: "Web Designer Wanted".
Lyrster.com is a nice lyrics search-engine. Just type in any bits of lyrics you know, Lyrster scours sites and comes back with the results within a couple of seconds. I type in "itsy bitsy polka bikini"; sure enough, the full text of Brian Hyland's outrageous 1960 hit is revealed. It informs me that Devo did a version of the song. Now that I'd like to hear.
The outdoor pool at the San Alfonso Del Mar resort in Chile is eight hectares in area, 1km long, and acknowledged by Guinness World Records as the largest in the world. Just saying.
I've just realised I can click a W on my toolbar and get a random Wikipedia entry each time. This reveals to me that "Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" can be parsed as a grammatically correct sentence; that Danish pastries don't come from Denmark; that Edison didn't invent the light bulb; and that there aren't Three Wise Men in the Bible – their number isn't specified, only the number of gifts. But this is Wikipedia, so I take it all with a pinch of salt.
Here's a wry look at the History of the Internet. It concludes: "Since its inception almost 30 years ago, the internet has been transformed from a primitive device for sharing thoughts and ideas into a massive network where people pay to read advertisements for things they don't want, while calling each other 'asshats'." Well, that's a harsh assessment. After a day of Stumbling, I think it's a little bit more than that. Isn't it?
Sites worth stumbling on
Where your stumbling journey begins. From exquisite Danish design to instructions on how to make your own Big Mac, this is a collection of the favourite sites of some 3,893,000 people. As you might imagine, it's pretty comprehensive. The Wall Street Journal, no less, wrote: "Next time you want to wander the web, forget about Googling it. Stumble it."
You might find it tough to find Prince videos online these days, but Jimi Hendrix is no longer around to send out frightening cease-and-desist orders to his fans. Marvel at Jimi's laid-back delivery, Noel Redding's enormous hair and a handful of Swedish youths sitting on the floor looking bored.
The idle surfer is a sucker for bullet-pointed information that's easy to digest. This list of travel gadgets grew from 12 to 26, and then to 52 – it's a selection of perfect presents for the continent-hopping geek in your life, from the iPod hammock to the bottle-opening flip-flop.
Anomalies Unlimited gives you the lighter, fluffier side of conspiracy theorising. Go elsewhere if you want to get embroiled in never-ending discussions about the collapse of World Trade Centre 7; here, you just get optical illusions, ghostly pictures and the changing face of Michael Jackson. "No Whining" is the site rule.
If you imagine that time zones are a series of smoothish lines running north to south, this will put you straight. And it's a handy resource when you need to make a call to Kuala Lumpur but don't want to disturb any slumbering Malaysians in the process.
It's a window on the world, a way of seeing mundane cityscapes from all corners of the globe without having to get up from your desk. If you've ever wondered exactly what the exterior of 3d Computers in Chippenham, Wiltshire, really looks like up close, this is your big chance.
Everyone's got to have a passion that forces them to spend hours arguing in online forums, and for some that passion is bread. Embroil yourself in vigorous debates about sourdough baguettes or lebkuchen, and learn how to maintain a white flour starter. Unmissable, for some people, somewhere.
Ponder the colossal size of the universe and your own insignificance with this handy tutorial. If that feeling of sheer meaninglessness is something you'd like to experience more often, you even have the opportunity to buy a screensaver version of the same tutorial. Brrr.
If you can tell the difference between programming language inventors and serial killers, you're probably into programming languages, or serial killing. Which chap developed Snobol, and which one wiped out entire families in the Ukraine? I'm blowed if I know.
Compare the way you're feeling right now with other people who've stumbled across the site – from minus 10, the "worst imaginable", to plus 10, the polar opposite. The world average is usually around minus 1.5, unless Nigella Express has just been on the TV, in which case it dips to around minus 3.Reuse content