Serendipity at Risk?

A colleague forwarded me a link to an essay (“The Endangered Joy of Serendipity“) published in the St. Petersburg Times on March 26. In this essay, William McKeen, a journalism professor at the University of Florida, discusses what he describes as the loss of context that has come with Google, RSS aggregators, and much of the Internet. McKeen requires his freshman journalism class to subscribe to the paper version of the New York Times because readers of the online version will only find what they’re looking for.

So what’s the problem with finding what you’re looking for? McKeen writes,

Nuance gives life its richness and value and context. If I tell the students to read the business news and they try to plug into it online, they wouldn’t enjoy the discovery of turning the page and being surprised. They didn’t know they would be interested in the corporate culture of Southwest Airlines, for example. They just happened across that article. As a result, they learned something – through serendipity.

I agree with McKeen that serendipity is a wonderful thing. Heck, if you look at my career path to date (from Soviet Studies to archivist to techy librarian in just 12 years), you’ll understand what I mean. But as our search tools get better — and our RSS feeds get more specific — what are we missing in life? McKeen writes,

Technology undercuts serendipity. It makes it possible to direct our energies all in the name of saving time. Ironically, though, it seems that we are losing time – the meaningful time we once used to indulge ourselves in the related pleasures of search and discovery. We’re efficient, but empty.

This brings to the surface something I’ve noticed only subconsciously — I rarely stumble on really cool web sites anymore. Back in the day (the first years of the web, 1993-1997), I would often find myself doing a web search on AltaVista and getting all sorts of hits that were something much better than utterly wrong: they were interesting. Now that I use Google (or today’s AltaVista, for that matter), I don’t find myself stumbling down the “wrong” path nearly so often. And when I do, it’s not nearly wrong enough to be good.

The same is true with the feeds I’ve chosen to put in to my aggregator. While there’s still some opportunity for serendipity in the not-so-random choices of my favorite bloggers, it’s limited serendipty. By subscribing to feeds, I’m picking my headlines in advance, and somehow feel I’m missing good stuff. Even my keyword search feeds in Technorati and Bloglines are narrow (I haven’t struck the balance between specific enough to be manageable and broad enough to be interesting). Again, I’m not necessarily looking for good stuff that’s germane, but good stuff that makes me stop and think.

Which brings me, circuitously, to the role of libraries and librarians. As we build information systems to enable “Library 2.0,” we must remain cognizant of overtuning the system. I certainly don’t want to find just exactly what I’m looking for all the time. There are occasions — frequently — when I’m browsing and want to learn something orthogonal to my actual question. I just don’t realize it until I’ve found the catty-corner path and gone down it. I suppose this is not that much different from the shift from card catalog to OPAC, but it’s still a shift.

If we do not help people find what they didn’t know they were looking for, we will, to quote McKeen again,

The modern world is conspiring against serendipity. But we cannot blame technology. I’ve met this enemy, and it is us. We forget: We invented this stuff. We must lead technology, not allow technology to lead us. The world is a better and more cost-effective place because of technology, but we’ve lost the imperfections inherent in humanity – the things that make life a messy and majestic catastrophe. We must allow ourselves to be surprised. We must relearn how to be human, to start again as we did as children – learning through awkward and bungling discovery.

5 thoughts on “Serendipity at Risk?”

  1. I still stumble upon cool sites and neat new things almost daily – just like this post. It was serendipitously about serendipity. Someone last week sent me an article by Elaine Toms and her research serendipity and information retrieval which discusses the importance of planning for serendipity in digital library environments:
    Elaine Toms. Serendipitous Information Retrieval
    Is there less serendipity on the web now than the early days? Not for me.
    Technology is not the biggest change but the fact that jobs seem to have expanded and that almost everyone I work with says that they are constantly behind. I really don’t recall that 10 to 15 years ago. We were busy for sure. Behind at times but most of us feeling behind most of the time – not that I recall.
    Today it’s probably not a wrong turn on a search engine that leads to the unexpected but a large extended network of colleagues, social software watering holes, and RSS search engines and just pearling – following the hyperlink trail across blogs, sites and tagging. Your “Paris” isn’t my “Paris” and voila something new appears.
    I feel the quality of what I generally stumble upon has a higher quotient of “interestingness”.

  2. Séren-dépité !

    William Mac Keen a commis un article fort intéressant à lire sur le site du St Petersburg Times, à propos de la sérendipité, intitulé The endangered joy of Serendipity, ou, (je traduis du mieux que je le peux 🙂 “le monde moderne rend plus diffic…

  3. Darlene (Blog on the Side) and Jack Ammerman (Theolib) both have posted thoughtful responses.
    Both note that serendipity hasn’t changed all that much in the web — Jack makes the particularly cogent point that “the reader is not reading it [whatever it is] in the absence of context. It may not be its original context but it exists in a context.” Darlene notes that “We need to think about ways to improve findabiltiy and discoverability and plan for serendipitous discovery of library catalogues (digital or otherwise).”
    I agree with both. The question I was hoping to raise is, are we as users of RSS taking too active a role in “narrowcasting” ourselves. Yes, there are millions of channels to choose from, and who has time? On the other hand, are fewer, broader, channels more likely to surprise us in interesting ways…
    I note with a touch of irony that I didn’t learn of the article that got me thinking through RSS — it was sent in an email message by someone I work with…

  4. Ah, what Cass Sunstein predicted may be coming true, but as one who often gets sidetracked following links I wonder just how much we really ARE filtering out. Even if we are, here’s a little something to make life interesting: Instead of just googling, you can add some random words to your search. Here’s text from their site:
    BananaSlug was designed to promote serendipitous surfing: finding the unexpected in the 8,058,044,651 web pages indexed by Google. Directed Google searches return pages most relevant to your search term, based on the pages’ popularity on the Web. You may never see some of the pages way down the list that are relevant or interesting, but off the beaten path.
    I’ve had a ball with this search tool and I’ve found some interesting sites that stimulate creativity!
    BTW, I inherited an advance reading copy of “A Perfect Mess: The hidden Benefits of Disorder” by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman (
    The authors make a compelling argument for the value of “mess” as a way of creating opportunities for serendipitous experiences.

  5. More on Serendipity

    I wrote about serendipity and its seeming decline back in the spring. I recently came across a clever catalog tool from the Allen County Public Library (Fort Wayne, Indiana) that enables a moment of pleasant surprise. Ian, on the…

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