A chance encounter in the real world—whether on the street where you live or in a café far from home—can make for a great story. A chance encounter on the Internet, however, doesn't quite conjure that same Eureka! magic. It's not just because of all the phishing schemers and anonymous weirdos lurking around. You lose the cinematic sweep of a real-life run-in because it’s a chance encounter lacking for chance: Facebook exists to facilitate awkward e-mail reunions with dimly remembered grade-school compatriots, and no one wanders into an online forum by happenstance. Yet, we’ve found six destinations that invite serendipity into your office, kitchen, or wherever you chance upon some WiFi.
Trip to Bountiful: StumbleUpon.com
For the closest we've come to a true online chance encounter—right down to its name—try StumbleUpon, which is like having the entire Internet on carefully curated shuffle-play. Click on as many categories as you like ("Astronomy," "Beauty," "Gardening," "Photography"...) and download the site's toolbar (which is admittedly a little irksome—to make it work, I had to switch from my elderly laptop to my husband's snazzy Mac), and StumbleUpon will begin drip-feeding you an addictive stream of sites. Less than an hour after I'd set up my account, I'd already StumbledUpon the following:
- An online tool that lets me use my mouse to create Jackson Pollock–style paintings
- A collection of Albert Einstein quotations ("The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.")
- A photograph of an enormous tiger hugging a man
- A series of astonishing trompe l'oeil frescoes by an artist known as Sidewalk Chalk Guy
- A prototype for an underwater home (a "submerged dwelling environment," actually)
- A database of free text-only books available for download
- A list of "Things That Are Not in the U.S. Constitution" (executive orders, judicial review, paper money...)
- A compendium of "Unusual Hotels of the World"
- The Economist's wide-ranging "Country Briefings" page, and
- A video of baby pandas frolicking at a playground in Korea that I watched approximately 187 times before sending it to everyone I've ever met.
Seek and Ye Shall Find: FFFFOUND.com
Images from around the Web appear on FFFFOUND!, thanks to a community of artists and art lovers who post their favorite findings to the site. After just a few minutes on the site, I encountered origami ingeniously fashioned from dollar bills, a vintage Volvo ad, and some good-enough-to-eat interior design off ApartmentTherapy.com. Like StumbleUpon, FFFFOUND! keeps subtle track of your preferences—the more you click on images and links you like, the better your chances of turning up something as delightful, weird, and inspiring as Pablo Reinoso’s "Spaghetti Bench," a park bench with a noodle-y twist. (Google it!)
They're Reading Your Mind: Goodreads.com and LibraryThing.com
Good Reads and LibraryThing help to facilitate chance encounters with great books and authors. Create an account to share and rate what you're reading, and get recommendations from pals, acquaintances, colleagues, even perfect strangers—as on Facebook, your circle of fellow readers can be as exclusive or more-the-merrier as you like. On Goodreads right now, I'm seeing that one good friend has given five stars to Hannah Berry's Britten and Brulightly and another has bestowed the five-star honor on Frederick Seidel's poetry collection, Ooga-Booga. I'm not familiar with either title (I'm not even sure I can pronounce them), and I doubt they would have come up in conversation—yet now they're both on my must-read list.
Virtual Street Corners: Demos.org and AmericaSpeaks.org
In his book Republic.com 2.0, legal scholar Cass Sunstein writes that "chance encounters, involving shared experiences with diverse others..." are fundamental to a healthy democracy. What a thriving republic needs, Sunstein writes, are more venues for news and analysis that function as "street corners," where people can come across subjects and views that don't necessarily match up exactly with their interests or political affiliations. For inclusive, democratic approaches to civic issues, check out Demos and AmericaSpeaks where you can read about topics ranging from gender equality to tax credits for college students to the latest innovations in nonprofit outreach and community organizing.