Search drives serendipity, a continuing conversation

[Ed. note: This is the text of an e-mail I sent in reply to a comment a J-School professor from the University of Florida left on a post from a couple months ago regarding Serendipity on the Web. Part of his reply is posted at the end of this post.]

Hi Prof. McKeen –

Thanks for your comment.

Sorry if my post re: serendipity on the web came out as a let’s-all-slam-the-mossbacks routine directed at you. I’ve dealt with quite a few J-School profs (and heard from some newspaper editors) who endlessly wring their hands and shake their fingers when the topic of the dying print edition comes about.

“What about serendipity?” they say. “How will readers ever get to see anything other than what they were searching for?” they ask.

The idea they have always seems to be that the readership sits in silos, reading only news about underwater basketweaving, rather than reading all the top news stories, plus feeds on their specific interests, like underwater basketweaving.

But we were talking about serendipity, not the ongoing earthquakes in the relationship between the news organization and the “audience.”

When I do cross paths with a classroom full of undergrads, I certainly get your point about getting off their asses. It can be a bit depressing to sit in the back of a room while a guest speaker toils, talking to the back of 20 laptops. Some are surfing MySpace, and some are shopping, and some are chatting, and a few are taking notes. It’s not pretty, but when the speaker mentions something they’re interested in – bing – up pops a Wikipedia page or a blog on the topic – bing – up pops a Google search leading to more resources. Ubiquitous net access makes the world a serendipity engine. You’re on a bus, see a sign for a movie – bing – your cell phone is playing the trailer. You’re in New York at the MOMA – bing – your PDA is pulling down analysis of Starry Night and a detailed explanation of Van Gogh’s technique.

As opposed to, say, searching in the library shelves for these things later….. And I don’t blame the Dewey Decimal system, although it’s fun to do so. (200-289 for Christianity and 290-300 for everything else is always good for a laugh.) No, I blame the *later* part of the equation.

The Web, and user-directed search, offers instant information, and perhaps it’s this spontaneity and speed that encourages the user to click click click around at whatever interests them. Still not convinced? Try YouTube. Still not convinced? Try Digg. Still not convinced? Try PopURLS, which aggregates a dozen or so little serendipity engines — in the case of the ones powered by social networks, like Digg or Newsvine or Delicious, I have the benefit of everyone else’s surfing and clicking and distractions to provide me with places to start my own.

Don’t get me wrong — I love books, and print newspapers, and my collection of LPs, but it sure is hard to find what I’m looking for…. hmm… was that your point?

On rereading your essay, I still find your takes on online news and music puzzling. Like I wrote in my response, online news front pages are simply out of control as far as the number of stories goes. There’s scores of links, and headlines are everywhere. The sectionalization of the print edition is moot when all the articles are in one place. I never read the business section of a newspaper until I started reading news online, and even now, when I pick up a print edition, I often feel like I’ve read the actual news already, online the night before, or sometimes, in blogs weeks earlier before the story filtered up to the mainstream.

So what do I look at when I pick up a print edition? A good narrative story to read, to entertain me, to study the writing of it. And on a good day, I can find one.

On the music front, you lose me when you talk about radio…. Commercial radio is way, way dead. It is the most homogenized medium there is in our society at this point, with megacorporations buying up scads of stations and running the same short playlist over and over again, simultaneously, across a broad swath of the country. And you address this, but you should know that downloading music (legally or not) is just the geeky stepchild of that great serendipity engine of yore, the mixtape.

How great was it to discover a new band when a friend from three states away mailed you a cassette tape (usually about 3 stamps, depending on how much paper one wrapped it in) burned with their own idea of what you might like.

Nowadays I read about new music on a blog, download an mp3, and maybe I think about buying an album or downloading the whole album (legally or not), but the exposure is there, and when I want more information or another song, there’s no waiting to find it.
So, let’s call Search the catalyst of the Web.

Without Search, nothing pushes me past the point of Interest to Action.

With it, I can find reviews, information, samples, clips, pages — anything that will let me know an object, product, idea, person, or place a little better. Interest becomes Action.

[What follows is Prof. McKeen’s reply:]

I agree commercial radio is dead, but it was a vital force in changing the country’s racial attitudes, for one thing. Too soon to tell if satellite radio can fill the void. It does seemed to have most past its elitist stage.
When I said I was talking about technology-plus, it’s my way of trying to say that if we rely only on technology, we will lose a lot of opportunities to learn. And I do see a lot of students relying exclusively on the Internet. It does seem like many net-culture writers speak in absolutes. As Rodney King used to say, “Can’t we all just get along?”

What do you think? Does Search with a capital “S” make it hard to stumble upon things you weren’t looking for online?