Serendipity, lost in the digital deluge

Serendipity, lost in the digital deluge

We’ve gained so much in the digital age. We get more entertainment choices, and finding what we’re looking for is certainly fast. Best of all, much of it is free.

But we’ve lost something as well: the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.
When we walk into other people’s houses, we peruse their bookshelves, look at their CD cases and sneak a peek at their video collections (better that than their medicine cabinets).

It gives us a measure of the owner’s quirky tastes and, more often than not, we find a singer, a musician or a documentary we’d never known before.

But CDs have disappeared inside the iPod. And shelves of videos are rarely seen as we get discs in the mail from Netflix or downloaded from Vudu. And, one day soon, book collections may end up inside a Kindle. With an e-book reader, the person on the subway seat across from you will never know what you are reading.

Ah, the techies say, no worries. We have Facebook and Twitter, spewing a stream of suggestions about what to read, hear, see and do. We come to depend on it to lead us to the funny article on or the roving food cart serving goat curry. It’s useful.

But that isn’t serendipity. It’s really group-think. Everything we need to know comes filtered and vetted. We are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes. It won’t deliver that magic moment of discovery that we imagine occurred when Elvis Presley first heard the blues, or when Michael Jackson followed Fred Astaire’s white spats across the dance floor.

And there is just too much information. We can have thousands of people sending us suggestions each day — some useful, some not. We have to read them, sort them and act upon them. As we pay for them with our time, the human need for surprise presents an opportunity for new businesses. Can someone sort the information and provide the relevant thoughts to the specific person who doesn’t yet know he needs it? Facebook is providing some tools to subdivide friend lists, so posts from the cat-video coterie won’t interfere when you’re jousting with political-news fanatics.

An entire ecosystem has been built up around Twitter in an attempt to cash in on its popularity and its unwieldiness. Services like TweetRiver, Tweepular, TweetSum, TwitZap, TwitHive, Tweenky, Tweetree, Splitweet and CoTweet, to name just a few, have proliferated in order to manage the incoming information.

Twitter itself has bought a few of them. This week, it redesigned its site around the search engine of one such company. And the reason for the redesign was mainly to give its users tools that encourage serendipity.

Biz Stone, a Twitter co-founder, wrote to the Twitterati, “Repositioning the product to focus more on discovery is an important first step in presenting Twitter to a wider audience of folks around the world who are eager to start engaging with new people, ideas, opinions, events and sources of information.”

Still, those are solutions for information management, not for encouraging welcome randomness. It probably won’t help the quirky new television show or a new blog find an audience.

Many software developers are trying to recreate serendipity.

StumbleUpon is a Web service that steers users toward content they are likely to find interesting.

Readers tell the service about their professional interests or hobbies, and it serves up sites to match them. It’s a good try, but it is still telling readers what they want to know.

UrbanSpoon, one of the most popular applications for the iPhone, tries for randomness with a slot-machine widget. Shake the phone and three dials — for location, cuisine and price — spin to find a random restaurant.

It gets about a million shakes a day, said Ethan Lowry, one of the co-founders of the company, which is based in Seattle and now owned by IAC/InterActiveCorp.

“It was designed with a real serendipity problem in mind,” he said, recalling that his friends were once heading for the same old place for lunch when he held up his cellphone and said, “Imagine if you shook this like a Magic 8 Ball and it gave you an answer.”

For them, it was one of those magic moments because they identified a need that demanded a new business. “You get bored. It gets itchy and gets worse over time,”
Lowry said. “You want a new experience.”

But a funny thing happens with frequent users of the application. They start relying on its search engine or the “Talk of the Town” feature, an algorithm that generates suggestions that uncannily echo local sentiment. The algorithm is high-tech crowdsourcing, substituting for the serendipity that customers are seeking. We’ll have to keep hoping that someone chances upon the solution.

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