A few thoughts on serendipity

Posted By on Aug 5, 2009

Sunday’s New York Times included a column under their Ping business technology section that made a pretty convincing argument that the web and mobile technology are stamping out serendipity.  Instead, they argued, the opportunity to discover new things are being replaced with the opportunity to engage in groupthink – to discover only the new things that a carefully selected group of people (Facebook friends, Twitter followees, or an algorithm tuned to your tastes) find interesting. 

Fred Wilson responded (via Twitter) with a link to a 2006 blog post from Stephen Berlin Johnson claiming exactly the opposite.  According to Johnson, the web is the world’s greatest serendipity engine, and he discovered WAY more cool, surprising things from aggregators on the web and from going off on tangential searches than he ever discovered as a graduate student.  After learning about German operas because of an avatar someone had that looked like Julio Lugo, I see Johnson’s point. 

I think what the web’s effect on serendipity has a lot in common with Tyler Cowen’s thinking about globalization’s effect on food.  In short, Tyler thinks the local diversity of food options is increasing, but the global diversity of food options is decreasing.  I can now get Thai food, Malaysian food, Indian food, Southern American food, French food, or Ethiopian food all within a few blocks of our office in Cambridge.  So as globalization increases, my access to different types of cuisine is increasing.  On the other hand, the world’s busiest Pizza Hut is in Hong Kong.  And Thai food, Malaysian food, Indian food, Southern American food, French food, and Ethiopian food are all available in Hong Kong as well.  So the total diversity of food available in Hong Kong starts to look a lot like the total diversity of food available in Boston.  The quality of food in any one place is higher than it has ever been before, but at the same time, something is being lost. 

The web is doing something similar to the diversity of content that I see on the web.  While nobody will argue that the total amount of diversity of information on the web is going anywhere but up, the diversity of content I actually get exposed to is not.  What’s being lost is the stuff that doesn’t fit into my own interests and doesn’t go viral enough for everyone to see it. 

One of the major implications of viral content is that the web has made the huge winner even bigger.  See Susan Boyle, United Breaks Guitars, Autotune the News, and other viral videos.  These are the real winners in Serendipity 2.0, because before the Internet existed, only British folks would have ever seen Susan Boyle, and nobody anywhere would have ever seen United Breaks Guitars.  Short, digestable, and non-offensive pieces of content are what the new serendipity delivers. 

The other type of content that I see is stuff that I already know I will be interested in.  I read Dare Obasanjo’s Tweets because I am interested in his previous stuff.  I subscribe to Paul Krugman’s blog in Google Reader because I liked what he wrote before.  If Paul Krugman or a friend who shares interesting stuff links to something, it’s probably something I know I will be interested in. 

The total knowledge I’m exposed to in some degree of depth is a lot more diverse than it would have been prior to the web.  I don’t think I’d know nearly as much about economics or cooking Thai food without the Internet.  I’d almost certainly not be starting a company.  On the other hand, though, the frequency with which I spent the time to really read something I wasn’t initially interested in is a lot lower than it used to be when I only had whatever magazine I had in front of me. 

I think, in general, having easy access to knowledgeable experts in areas that interest us is hard to see as a bad thing.  Being able to discover content that has a higher-than-average chance of interesting us is a plus too. 

My worry is that we’ll lose the exposure we need to find out if we really like something that is a bit of an acquired taste.  Have you ever heard a song that you really didn’t care for the first time it got played, but then after a few more listens, came to love?  For me, that happened with the Marshall Tucker Band, now some of my favorite music.  Or have you ever read a book that started slowly, but then ended up phenomenal?

What is getting lost in Serendipity 2.0 is the time we need to acquire that taste.  If it’s not designed to be enjoyed in the first fifteen seconds, we’ll just go off and find something else more aligned with our interests, or that provides a better first fifteen seconds. 

Does a world without acquired tastes make us better or worse off?

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