It is hard to imagine a more subjective kind of list to make. One person’s “cool” is another’s “lame,” but there is enough variety in the following list for most everyone to find a few new, interesting places to visit. The sites cover the whole Internet menu, from info mining, sharing and filtering to buying, learning and just plain looking around. Even among the cool sites, you can pick some long-term winners by noting which site names are turning into verbs — “I’ll Skype you after I do some Flickr-ing” — but even then, there is room for at least one math nerd and some homemade arts and crafts. Some you may recognize, and have only become more vital in 2009, and others you may have never heard of before.
Internet Archive: If you want to see what looked like on its first day, or find out what the gossip sites were jabbering about in 1998, there is a Web “time machine” that can help you. The Internet Archive is embarked on an historic mission (as it occasionally reminds you) to back up everything that has ever been, or ever will be, on the Internet. Right now Internet Archive has some 80+ billion Web pages cataloged.
Flickr: This photo-sharing site is a good example of what is called “spontaneous order.” Without any central authority managing the process, users add tags to photos they view so that, over time, a reasonable set of descriptions emerge to help people search through the 3 billion images. It has worked so well that the U.S. Library of Congress polls the Flickr “hive mind” as it organizes and tags its own collection of photographs.
Metafilter: With the proliferation of “voting and comment” sites such as Reddit, Digg and StumbleUpon, it is interesting to note that the consensus “best of the bunch” isn’t free like the rest. The site called “MeFi” by its paying customers has managed to keep out many of the trolling troublemakers of cyberspace by requiring a $5 fee. The spirit of camaraderie is something like a rural college or startup firm, and the information available through the AskMeFi is high quality.
Popurls: This may be (finally!) the perfect home page, at least for info junkies. Instead of piling up bookmarks or watching RSS feeds stack up, unread until you trash them 20 and 30 at a time, Popurls pulls always-current headlines from the major news sites, op-ed pages, blogs and vlogs into a single, sprawling Web page. There are no boxes to check, nothing to install — and readers can graze, scan or dig deep according to their druthers.
Skype: Some cell phone fans still don’t understand, what with all the cheap calling plans, why someone would use the computer-based Skype for phone calls. It’s the video, Joe! The VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) has teamed with the ever-more-common webcams built into laptops (and iMacs, and a few desktop PCs) to create a simple, free videophone service. As long as your friends join Skype, too, you’ve got free facetime whenever you want it.
Get High Now: It may sound like a medical marijuana site, but it’s really a science site in the guise of an illusion collection. Over 40 audio and visual conundrums, illusions and oddities are there to be “experienced” as well as understood — after each example there is an explanation of the brain science behind it. From Shepard tones that seem to get higher or lower but don’t change key, to theta-wave synchronizers that can make you feel ? strange ? Get High Now visits can truly be mind-bending.
Wolfram|Alpha: It is still a work in progress, because it is supposed to be. That is, this search engine designed by math whiz Stephen Wolfram will continue to learn its job, better and better, over time. The objective is for the site’s technology to better “understand” your questions so as to give you the best possible answers. It takes a little practice to communicate with Wolfram|Alpha, but its fans say the time is well worth it. Less patient folks may want to keep Google bookmarked.
Craiglook: Craigslist is a bona fide superstar of the Internet, and it’s a retro-looking, unadorned, command-line-driven, text-based throwback. That may be part of its charm, which is why the Craiglook “upgrade” that adds all the Web 2.0 gewgaws doesn’t replace Craigslist — it’s a mashup and an adjunct, not a strict alternative destination. Adding some control to searches, plus image previews and search refinements, makes it another indispensable site from Craig.
Etsy: This site is the Earth Mother alternative to eBay, you could say, as it focuses on crafts, handmade fashions, homemade furniture, customized housewares and other artisan items. There is a range of features reminiscent of the big auction sites, but seller ratings, photos, bidding and buying are implemented in a cozy kind of way. There is a palpable intimacy to this site because Etsy truly is about “labors of love,” even though it celebrates a populist sort of consumerism. It isn’t meant to be the only place to shop in cyberspace, just the only place like it.