Serendipity on the Web

Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, makes an effort to do away with the vicious rumor that the Internet, Web, RSS, blogs, etc. have killed serendipity.

For the uninitiated, or those who merely like words such as “ephemeral” or “paradigm” but try not to get bogged down in definitions, serendipity is the stumbling-upon-of-things that we do in everyday life on a regular basis. It is the positive distraction, the unexpected information that fell from the sky while we were looking for something else. It is the fantastic taqueria on the corner of 294th Street and 23rd Avenue that you happened to walk by when you got off the subway at the wrong stop that one day you ever were in that part of town.

Johnson runs down some of the arguments in this op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times, and responds in turn:

“I find these arguments completely infuriating. Do these people actually use the web? I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student. Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the “binding.”) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books.’

Now just as I sat down to put down my thoughts on how this relates to the way newspaper editors and old school J-School profs always tell us they worry about losing the serendipity readers get from flipping through a dead-trees-edition newspaper, I happened to notice that the op-ed was written by … wait for it … William McKeen, the chair of the journalism department at the University of Florida.

Guys, get with it. Open up a browser, and start clicking on what interests you. If you can’t stumble upon something unexpected and interesting at or wikipedia or tailrank or any one of a million (er, closer to 30 million, actually) blogs that link to other blogs that link to other blogs, you’re probably doing it wrong. Make sure your mouse is plugged in, or something.

The strong feeling I get is that the there-is-no-serendipity crowd uses the Internet for e-mail and little else, and certainly doesn’t read news online. The other hunch I have is that they don’t understand that some people who write online, unlike many online newspapers, actually link to sites outside their corporate walls. That’s the only way I figure these folks can come to the conclusion that readers of hundreds of RSS feeds aren’t getting enough serendipity.

[Ed. note: I reserve the right to get a little punchy about this after finishing a 20 page literature review about 24 hours ago focusing on the influences on the adoption of interactive technology at online newspapers. Twenty is not a small number of pages.]

More notes on Prof. McKeen’s op-ed piece:

  • He notes: “An online ‘front page’ offers maybe a half-dozen stories and teasers for a few more – all in all, a poor substitute for the splendor of a good daily newspaper,” in reference to making freshman j-school students subscribe to the print edition of the NY Times. I count 97 headlines on the front page of the online NYT right now, not counting other points of entry to video and audio presentations, and not counting doing any clicking on other boxes or arrows to see more stories, and not counting all the listed sections in the left rail.
  • McKeen writes: “Technology undercuts serendipity. It makes it possible to direct our energies all in the name of saving time.” Saving time? David Weinberger takes care of this one:

    Even if you only go to carefully curated sites that you carefully choose, you are always one link away from the serendipitous. In fact, it takes super-human will power to get from A to B on the Web without first getting sidetracked to C,M,R, C again and then a site with photos of obscene carved pencils.”

Check out Steven Johnson’s post, and be sure to read the comments, where there’s a relatively sane debate on the subject. What do you think? Do you stumble upon more serendipitous content in print or online?

3 thoughts on “Serendipity on the Web”

  1. I am so totally with you on this one, of course. It is soooo much easier to get sidetracked at a computer than anywhere else.


  2. I enjoyed your essay, but you make a lot of assumptions — including assumptions about me. You know nothing about me, yet you assume I am a technological mossback.

    My essay on serendipity was misinterpreted as an attack on technology. On the contrary, it was about technology-plus. As a teacher, I see people using the Web … and nothing else. I’d like them to reach beyond the Web — in short, I’d like them to get off of their asses.

    My essay was really more about learning and learning styles. Read it again and perhaps you will get that point. (If not, I suppose I need to work on my writing a bit more.) I still believe you are more likely to find things that you are not looking for in the traditional media because you do not control the search process — editors do, book publishers do, etc.

    Anyway, I enjoy your comment and will look forward to reading more of your work.


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