StumbleUpon gets to the crux of my problem

Sometimes I regret finding so many things interesting.

You see, I grew up in a part of the country that was extremely remote and sparsely populated, with little cultural diversity, in an era before cable, VCRs, and of course the internet. The majority of my teachers, bless them, were clearly there for the hunting and the summers off. In other words, intellectual stimulation was not a feature of my childhood.

Home Sweet Home

Years later, after some lucky breaks and the support and guidance of some extraordinary people, I find myself doing work that is rewarding and stimulating. Especially stimulating. The internet has given me the freedom to explore everything that intrigues me.

All of this became apparent as I updated my StumbleUpon profile.

It’s as though a genie had poofed out of a lamp and given me the ability to visit the best web sites available on any subject. And unlike the genie from One Thousand and One Nights, I’m given not three wishes but 127.

There is the rub!

And this is just the start

I started with major interests, and realized that I’d checked more categories than I’d left blank. As I dug deeper into each, I was stopped at 127 interests, with the depths of many categories left unplumbed. The word cloud above shows the major selections only.

My first bosses were a pair of brilliant advertising entrepreneurs. One had a degree in history, the other, journalism. Together they showed me the power a person grounded in the Humanities could have in the business world.

They too were cultural omnivores.

I thought of them this evening as I ticked off the many areas of study I wished I had an entire lifetime to explore.

Tonight I might skip sleep. Again. I may just stay up and drink deeply from the well of StumbleUpon, a magical servant who feeds that little boy whose thirst for knowledge insists on being quenched.

StumbleUpon buy begs this question: What’s he building in there?

As you are almost certainly aware, the large media and internet firms have lately been on a buying spree. This week news came of one more acquisition: StumbleUpon, to be purchased by eBay. Tom Waits recorded a spooky little ditty (made even more creepy by the video), called What’s He Building? In this spoken word song, the narrator wonders aloud what his loner neighbor is building in his basement. Well, I’m feeling a lot like that guy, scratching my head and wondering what strategic purpose eBay would have with this social bookmarking site.

With 2.5 million registered users, StumbleUpon behaves somewhat like a search engine. It recommends various categories of sites based on the votes of its members. In this way it uses the collective intelligence of a network of backlinks, in the same way that Google made famous. Instead of clicking on a link that states “I’m feeling lucky,” you press a Stumble! button on your specialized browser toolbar, and a new, fun site is served up for a category you enjoy.

The odds that you’ll like the recommended site are quite high, since your peers have already given it hundreds of “thumb’s ups.” You can add your own Thumb’s Up/Thumb’s Down to refine future recommendations, ala (a song recommendation site which, coincidentally, is a perennial favorite that StumbleUpon recommends to anyone saying they like “Music”).

Wait a minute. What did I just say? Toolbar. Google. Just yesterday a friend was wondering if Google would find its share of users eroding because it introduced Personalized Search. That’s a way that Google uses information gleaned from its toolbar and other sources to customize search results. My friend suggested that Personalized Search’s results will often miss the context of a person’s search. After all, when we go home at night we search on very different things, and for very different reasons — than during our workday. So will there be an opportunity for other search innovation to capture some of Google’s share?

True, three years ago eBay launched A9, a search engine in the stricter sense of the word than StumbleUpon ever will be. But maybe eBay is hoping to bolster A9 with a more social mechanism, to make it some sort of social bookmarking mega-search. Or perhaps they’ll try to combine StumbleUpon with another acquisition:

I’m baffled. Maybe you can help. “What’s he building in there?”