HALIFAX NOVA SCOTIA, CANADA — While there are dozens of Search Engines out there to help you find specific information on the Web, many of the surfer's best 'finds' are either the result of pure chance, or a discovery passed on from a friend. Of course, if you had a few thousand friends ready to share their discoveries, your ability to find Web treasures greatly improves. Welcome to MetaFilter.com - specialists in Assisted Serendipity.
MetaFilter is one of the sometimes confusing class of sites known as 'weblogs.' In the original sense of the word, a weblog is a regularly updated collection of found links, commentaries, and personal reflections, maintained by a single person. For thousands of others, a weblog is simply an online diary - and while some have merit, many more (if not most) feature the "I hate my job," "my cat did the cutest thing," "here's my philosophy" essays which demonstrate that the locks on traditional diaries are there more to protect the public than the author's privacy. Fortunately, MetaFilter falls into the first category, with the distinction that contributions are not made by a single person - this blog has more than 12,000 contributors, and when it comes to scouring the Web, numbers matter.
Now, unlike most reviews posted in this space, I won't be able to tell you exactly what you'll find when you visit MetaFilter - the nature of the beast dictates that between writing and posting this piece, the front page content will have changed dozens of times. However, in an attempt to provide at least a glimpse of the wide range of subjects covered, (which can run quite literally from the sublime to the ridiculous) here are a few late-January samples:
Washington State introduces two bills, (Senate and House) that propose "All textbooks and curriculum that teach the theory of evolution shall be removed from the public schools forthwith and replaced with textbooks and curriculum that teach the self-evident truth of creation."
The perils of flushing a commercial airliner's toilet before standing up.
The "Pardon Effect." The Death Penalty reduced to a simple question of Market Economics.
A Canadian reality show (Quest for the Bay) in which contestants actually cooperate, rather than try to eliminate each other. (It is, after all, a Canadian reality show.)
There are also entries about the Web itself, from what's happening in the world of other weblogs, (The Rise and Fall of Plastic.com) to calls for an Internet-free day, to the new sport of Googlewhacking - the attempt to create (ideally, two-word) search queries that will only generate a single Google result.
Each entry is accompanied with a few lines of introduction, (which can also serve to warn visitors of anything that might make them want to avoid the featured link) and members' Comments. MetaFilter claims that its topic "tend to run intelligent and civil," and that's largely the case with both the topics and the Comments pages - however there are lapses, and from time to time, language enters the realm of PG-13, and Comments contributors abandon the discussion for personal attacks.
Still, content and conduct are much better than many of the discussion threads I've seen - which is all the more impressive as MetaFilter members 'police' themselves. (The contributors also display some refreshing wit, as during a sometimes heated debate following the announcement of Rudy Guliani as Time's Person of the Year.
In terms of design, MetaFilter's layout was a significant factor in my staying long enough to appreciate its content. The site is very easy to read. (One would think this a self-evident requirement for a weblog, but some seem determined to overwhelm with options, while others are simply endless seas of text.) From the clear separation between entries, to the easy-on-the-eyes choice of white text on a blue background, MetaFilter keeps everything clear and digestible. In addition to the main content, archives and a site keyword search rest at the top of every page, and to the right of the main entries is a column, or "sideblog" of MetaFilter-specific site news and discussions - which can be tucked out of the way if desired.
"If you only frequent one weblog..." you'll probably want to try a few others before making your decision - there are blogs on every topic from technology (Slashdot.org) to celebrities (WilWheaton.net). But for its combination of eclectic subject matter and user-friendly design, you'll be hard pressed to beat this one.
MetaFilter can be found at http://www.metafilter.com/.
(If this is your first experience with a weblog, and you'd like to sample more, the homepage of the Second Annual Weblog Awards features a collection of the 'best of the blogs' in a variety of categories.)