Home StumbleUpon for iPad: Like a Magic Carpet Ride for Your Brain

StumbleUpon for iPad: Like a Magic Carpet Ride for Your Brain

When the iPad was launched, people across the geek-o-sphere condemned it as a dumb chunk of glass “for consumption only” – a tool incapable of facilitating content creation and possibly a threat to the future of human creativity. “The iPad is an attractive, thoughtfully designed, deeply cynical thing,” wrote Alex Payne. “[If] I had an iPad rather than a real computer as a kid, I’d never be a programmer today.”

That may very well be, but the new iPad app that popular web exploration network StumbleUpon released this week goes a long way towards compensating for whatever risks to creativity that the device poses. If you’ve got an iPad, I think it’s a must-have app. That’s true for everyone, including for kids.

If you’re not familiar with StumbleUpon, here’s the gist of how it works: you select categories of topical interest (games, art, cooking, politics), then you click the Stumble button. A seemingly random web page, photo or video is served up underneath the StumbleUpon toolbar. You can give that page a thumbs up, down or just click the Stumble button again. The service then serves up another page that people who have expressed the same interest in your previously viewed content have said that they like – it learns from you in order to make recommendations.

Then you click, click, click the Stumble button while zipping around the web, jumping up and down and clapping like a schoolgirl. At least that’s the way it works for millions, if not tens of millions, of StumbleUpon users. It’s like Pandora for web content. Now it turns your iPad into a magic carpet ride all around the web – and you’ll only be richer for it.

MG Siegler at TechCrunch says the new StumbleUpon app is the kind of perfect lean-back experience that the iPad was made for. I think that’s true, but I think there’s more to it than that.

Stumble vs Twitter

Before The Great Twitter Explosion of 2010, we wrote in early 2009 that StumbleUpon had quietly built a userbase that was twice the size of Twitter’s – without any media coverage or celebrity endorsements. By all appearances, Stumble hasn’t grown nearly as fast and Twitter is now more than 10 times as popular.

That may be because the celebrities so into Twitter have little interest in promoting StumbleUpon. Stumble may arguably be deeply hedonistic, but it’s not particularly narcissistic. Twitter, for all its wonderful qualities, is probably the height of narcissism.

That the freedom that comes from learning, communion, serendipity and the other positive qualities Stumble offers is not as popular as all the things Twitter offers is not at all surprising. Even though both are about social discovery of content of interest, they are very different services.

I think that the Stumble experience is one of the rawest forms of the read-write web around. What the user is writing is their own “taste graph” – a stream of signals concerning their interests that is then used as a platform for development. Today it’s mostly used to serve up more webpages, but in the future the taste graph could be used to offer recommendations and other services concerning all kinds of things. That’s the theory behind mildly competitive service Hunch, for example.

Stumbling Into Freedom

What does the user get, as a result of writing that personal interest graph? They get serendipity and an expansion of their horizons. Freedom lives within many constraints but one of the most important is our own understanding of what’s possible.

By building on top of what we know and like – then quickly expanding out around the related web, StumbleUpon helps us comfortably and enjoyably explore a much larger portion of the web than we might otherwise ever see. One critique of the app: I really wish it showed the URLs you were visiting. URLs are important: to avoid spoofing, to learn about domains, to understand the structure of sites.

StumbleUpon is neither wholly inside nor outside the long-feared silos of like-minded thinkers and their online content, either. It’s a great mix of the known and the unknown.

The service places less emphasis on recency than any human editor you’ll find, too. It’s unafraid to serve up years-old classic videos side-by-side with news from the same day.

In order to most effectively create, we need to know what’s possible. Familiarity with prior art isn’t necessary for everyone and everything – but getting out of your own provincial circles online is a mind-opening experience and is generally a big net-positive.

That’s what Stumble delivers, now more comfortably and pleasingly than ever before – on an iPad: a powerful instrument of freedom.

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