It'd be great to have an app that remembered how you found cool stuff online

Clive Thompson has a great rumination on a missing piece of the Internet toolsuite: a mapper that watches your browsing and tells you how you found interesting stuff. This is a great example of a technology that would make a wonderful local add-on to your browser, but would be creepy and invasive if offered as a centralized server. That is, it'd be great to know this stuff yourself, and great to have the option to share it with others, but it would be pretty icky to think that some remote, behavioral-ad-analytics-driven entity was using it to build a dossier on your Internet use.
But later on, it’s damn hard to recall precisely how A led to E. You could look at your web history, but it’s an imprecise tool. If you happened to have a lot of tabs open and were multitasking — checking a bit of web mail, poking around intermittently on Wikipedia — then the chronological structure of a web “history” doesn’t work. That’s because there’ll be lots of noise: You’ll also have visited sites G, M, R, L, and Y while doing your A to E march, and those will get inserted inside the chronology. (Your history will look like A-G-B-M-R-C-D-L-Y-E.) Worse, often it’s not until days or weeks after I’ve found a site that I’ll wonder precisely how I found it … at which point the forensic trail in a web history is awfully old, if not deleted.

But hey: Why does this matter? Apart from pecuniary interest, why would anyone care about the process by which you found a cool site?

Because there’s a ton of interesting cognitive value in knowing the pathway.

If you’re reading this blog, you are probably least part nerd, which means you’ve likely read (or have heard of) Vanevar Bush’s 1945 essay for the Atlantic Monthly, “As We May Think”. Bush’s essay has become famous amongst digital folks because of how eerily he predicted the emergence of a hyperlinked Internet. “As We May Think” is, at heart, a complaint about information overload (in 1945!) and a suggestion of how to solve it: By building better tools for sorting, saving, and navigating stuff. Bush envisioned a “memex”, a desk-like tool at which you’d sit, reading over zillions of documents stored via microfilm. You could also write your own notes and reflections (which would saved in microfilm format too, photographed automatically via a forehead-mounted webcam “a little larger than a walnut”.

“How did you find my site?” and Vanevar Bush’s memex


  1. There’s more than enough browsing habit tracking going on in the world…we don’t need another. The last thing we need is another way to make our privacy vulnerable. I also don’t want to make it easier for Joe Policeman, should he ever want to find out what I’ve been looking at. In theory, the idea is cool…not a new one…but you can’t ignore the possibility of this being exploited.

  2. Would solve that problem of when I tell someone an interesting piece of random information, and they ask me, “where’d you find that?” and all I can say is… “uh… the internet?”

  3. Pathway was a little program that allowed you to do something like this, but only the wikipedia domain. As you jumped from link to link within wikipedia, it would created a kind of map of where you’d been. For Mac, and it’s several years old now. Plus the download link is dead.

    Update: still available at, and appears to launch and run on Snow Leopard. Cool idea, and would be nice to see something like this for the web at large.

  4. I remember something about bloggers blogging from balloons and wearing goggles, but no idea who said what, or why, or about whom.  Is that the kind of thing we mean?  

    Seriously though, I need an app to bookmark all the cool things I see (not just on BB) to show folks.

    Browsers don’t really cut it for bookmarks do they?

    and Yes, I know there’s an obligatory xkcd for this, as there is for most things in life.

  5. I want a “Now where did I read that?” button for my keyboard. Even if I didn’t remember how I got there, at least I’d know where there was.

  6. I think that if I knew that my path to a piece of information was being recorded externally, then I would feel free to not even try to remember it internally. And I think that’s good. I could focus on whatever cool thing I’m looking at, without being distracted by thoughts of how I’m going to find it again later, or recall who led me to it and thank them, etc.

  7. Just have each URL you visit recorded (locally and encrypted, thank you), and a
    utility app with a timeline slider that will play back a slideshow of your pages
    from x to y. You could add filters (show only pages from, etc.).
    Easy peasy.

    1. That’s not bad.  Except I would add the ability to limited recorded sites to sites visited for more than X seconds and expand the filter to common search terms.

      In the options I would set time to… say… 10 seconds.  If I’ve looked at a page for more than ten seconds it becomes part of the URL record.  Then I could use the search term “paper lantern”.  It would load a slideshow of pages featuring that term.  Knowing how I am that would lead to the pages of paper lantern crafts that I liked the best, because those that I didn’t like wouldn’t have gotten 10 seconds of my attention.  Then I could browse through the images and select the page that reminds me of what I want.

      Now, give me the ability to highlight individual or large blocks of images and delete them with ease and you’ve got an app I would download.

      1. I like your “time viewed” filter.

        If the option to store the data remotely was added (and I’ll admit to being uneasy about that), we could have the ability to follow the path of how other people got to a given page. Or even statistically averaged paths (most popular, 2nd most popular, etc.).

        Oh, and I’d like an optional tree view with thumbnails of pages and direction lines. Both just for reviewing my own history and to see how others travelled.

        Lots of potentially interesting sites to be found if this was available. And lots of money to be made by someone if enough people can stomach the online storage version. I’d like to see other’s paths, though I doubt I’d contribute my own.

        This would be a boon to many long-tail sites that count on views for revenue.

  8. This is exactly what I use Evernote for.  I read or see something cool online, I web clip it, and the associated evernote record records the URL automatically.  I don’t leave home without it!  :)

  9. All that is needed is to grab some quantity of your history when you bookmark something. Store the data with your bookmark. Have a button on the bookmark to the effect of “Show how I got here” to display the history. An extension for moz you could do while standing on your head and whistling Dixie.

  10. Some points:
    Brent: Nice.
    Zan: You can install multiple versions of Firefox to continue using addons you liked. Not so practical in this case, though.

    Personally, I believe the best way is to remember a few keywords of whatever it is that you liked. Chances are that if you found it once you will again. Favicons also make the job of trawling history much easier, so webdesigners: be sure to include them in the sites you build!

  11. Firefox addon “Voyage” is close to what you want.  It creates a visual map of sites browsed, and the links you took between them.  All the information that is needed is already stored in the browser history, so there are no new privacy issues.  With Firefox “Sync” browser history can be shared across multiple computers.  (This might be a security issue for you.)  The addon didn’t work for a long time so I stopped using it.

  12. There used to be a Firefox plug-in called “How did I get here?” which would at least track the history of the tab you’re in, and/or what page you linked to the current page from (if in a new tab or whatever), which was great for blog acknowledgements, but of course it didn’t track the greater wandering history that you might be looking for.  (and, sadly, it didn’t make the upgrade from Firefox 2.something.)

  13. At this point in my relationship with the interwebs (designing interactive products since 1990), I rarely download and install new widget-y apps b/c I’m just, well, tired. So I have been using a combination of “Add to iPhoto library,” and self-generated notes when necessary, to track my history. 

    I use my browsing history as a sort of journal: It is certainly very important to me and it provides fodder for both my writing/art and for the purpose of self-analysis.

    But I’m a bit embarrassed about how hack my solution is. Maybe I’ll do some research and adopt a better solution. Although, now that I’m thinking about it, I have about 10 years of history using this system that’s archived on HDs and it hasn’t failed me yet. I have about 14 years of Amazon wish list info that provides a record of my research over time. If it ain’t broke?


  14. Facebook has this information already, as long as you are logged in. I imagine that later iterations of Facebook services will include an opportunity to visualize your behavior. However, this can be done in your browser already, it would just take an analysis of your cookies. Meaning, if you found it necessary, you could visualize your Internet traffic patterns with existing 3rd party tech on your computer.

    Check this out:

  15. Not to sidetrack the discussion, but what strikes me about this question is not so much the mechanics of recording these paths, but the paths themselves.  I would expect that for a lot of folks, it’s the same path nearly every time (e.g. Google->”Here”, or BoingBoing->”Here”), but for others (including a good many commenters, it seems) the paths would more resemble the example from the article.  What personality attributes contribute to longer vs. shorter paths to “Here”? Or, similarly, how do your paths change over time? Or do you even retrace a path at all (maybe initially you go A->B->C->D->E the first time, but then G->E after that)?

  16. Google History. It’s not exactly what we are talking about, but I have on many occassion time traveled back to a previous city/job/mindset via Google History to find something “cool” I barely remembered. In the same way, if I search for solar flare, chances are I will find the site where I learned about solar flares that one time. It’s not a solution to this problem and not exact but if this kind of thing is appealing, use google history.

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