Randomer than you

In the process of making some sort of point about “random story” buttons on news sites this morning, I added one to this blog. It’s up top in the nav for now. Look for the obviously labeled link that says “Random Post.”

Or just click on this thing:

But let’s be honest.

This isn’t a serendipity engine for you.

It’s for me.

So as I watch the traffic on my blog get inflated by friends and followers mashing the “random” button today, I tried it myself, and took a tour through the forgotten, irrelevant, and abandoned ideas archived on my blog. (There’s also some good ones mixed in there if this thing’s working right. Right?)

It’s an amusing five-year time-travel tour.

Here, I’m enthusiastic about Skype. There, I’m done writing about media for a while. Here, I’m hiking in the Santa Cruz mountains, spotting a coyote. There, I’m in Caracas on New Year’s Eve. Here, I’m writing about freemium business models. There, nytimes.com added social network sharing icons to their stories. Here, I’m celebrating Tom Delay’s indictment. There, my daughter is born. Here, I’m at a conference. There, I’m unimpressed with San Francisco.

It goes on like that. Does Flickr have a button that shows me something random from my own photostream? I’d probably like that.

When all I have left is my Fun folder, I win

If you don’t use Google Reader or Bloglines or some other feed reader, you can stop reading now.

OK, still here?

Months ago, after at least a couple years of just throwing all my feeds in Google Reader and sorting by newest, reading from the top down and marking all as read when I felt full of information or short on time, I went back to folders.

Back to the folders with the sort of labels I used when I first started with Bloglines in 2005, which predated my use of Newsgator, which predated the existence of the great and powerful, albeit Buzz-infected as of late, Google Reader.

Labels like “Media.” And “Technology.” Pretty vague stuff.

But they do the job — I check “Media” often to make sure I’m not missing anything, although the 2,000+ people I follow on Twitter rarely let news of that sort slip by them. And “Technology” is my dumping ground for TechCrunch, VentureBeat, and the like, which are more about Technology News than the technology itself. And I do enjoy those subscriptions, because it’s not the item that’s been retweeted 1,600 times that I’m interested in. (If it was, I’d subscribe to Mashable, eh?) But rather, it’s the activity on the edges of startups and green tech and Web applications that interest me most. So I keep the subscriptions, skip the obvious Google/Microsoft/Facebook/Twitter commodity news, and try to focus my attention on the smaller bits of detail emerging about newer companies, business models, and indeed, the hardware and software involved.

Work-related feeds are in another folder, and some stray ego searches and other research projects land in something I opaquely label “Searches,” the ingredients of which might change week-to-week as I move among projects, side projects, and side projects of side projects pretty freely.

But my favorite folder is labeled “Fun.”

Wait, don’t judge me yet.

It’s not for the Daily What or whatever your favorite Tumbly source of single-serving-site-of-the-day might be this season (I have Tumblr for that!), but it’s for the feeds full of ideas that I don’t need, but I want. Grown-ups with Ph.D.s like to use the word “serendipity” in this paragraph.

There’s the obvious, linkblogs that bring me more “Fun” fodder, like Fimoculous and Kottke, and slightly less obvious (or verbose) streams like Coudal’s Fresh Signals.

And there’s the Snarkmarkets of the world and the places they send me to, like HiloBrow, BldgBlog, and there’s This Recording, which I can’t remember how I found the first time.

There are the comics, guilty pleasure Dilbert and all, of course xkcd and indexed. These are probably the most “fun” things in the folder, rarely leading to anything but laughter and a vague desire for more geeky t-shirts.

There’s The Awl, which I’ve really been enjoying lately as a source of original amusement as well as links to Actual News About The World But Mostly New York City. Following NYC news 8.5 years after I moved out has a ring of Schadenfreude, to it, I know, but it feels like a window into some parallel universe I might have lived in had things happened differently in 2001.

So the game I play these days in Google Reader is twofold:

  1. What redundant feed about the news business can I unsubscribe to today?
  2. What feed about the weird possible presents and futures I haven’t fully explored can I subscribe to today?

When all I have left is my Fun folder, I win the game.

Here’s a Google Reader bundle with a selection of feeds from my Fun folder. I’m not going to give them all away in that bundle, but if you follow half the feeds in that bunch, they’ll lead you in the direction of more of whatever shiny niche catches your eye.


A Newsstand for the Tablet that might work

“Newsstand” by triin on Flickr.

Mario Garcia probably believes the lifespan (halflife?) of print newspapers will stretch out ever so slightly longer than I believe, but I’m constantly inspired by his original thought about the problems associated with sustaining any version of the existing structure of journalism, assuming for the moment that it’s a good idea.

And of course, he’s thinking about the Tablet. (I’m going to try to avoid focusing on any single product here, instead using the word “Tablet” as code for: multitouch slab of glass with applications and payment systems built in. Maybe there will be more than one entry in that genre.)

Here’s Mario on something he calls a street sales app:

“Based on this, I can imagine that the iPad could lure the undecided (or reluctant) newspaper reader by offering a menu of headlines from various sections of a newspaper—-or from various newspapers, of course, and make it so interesting, that I may click to read that story, and pay for that one-time user experience.”

Let’s take that a big step beyond a list of headlines.

We’re talking about a physical, visual device that allows the user to move things around with their hands. OK, their fingers. Fine. But that allows us to present the user with — instead of a list of headlines — a stack of newspapers.

Yes, yes, I know, I know, you don’t want to read a giant PDF on a Tablet, you want the Web. You want the full browsing experience, or if you’re thinking is slightly more advanced, you want a completely new sort of interface that’s more Minority Report than Washington Post.

I’m right there with you.

But there’s something that a “Washington Post” app for the Tablet removes from the equation, even if you’re smart enough to build it with in-app purchases of feature/exclusive/enterprise stories, puzzles, and databases.

It removes choice from the equation.

A choice that we do have when we open up an RSS reader and look at a list of 100 headlines in the morning.

A choice that we do have when we walk by a newsstand on the way to the subway station.

Now, truth be told, when I walked by the newsstand on the way to the subway station, I was already in a silo, with steadfast plans to purchase a New York Times and do the crossword on the way to the office. But at least I’d see the other papers, the other headlines.

So maybe a real live Tablet Newsstand is a good idea. If I’m not going to purchase a subscription to the New York Times, maybe I’ll glance at the headlines and buy a copy on my way to the office now and then. Maybe I’ll want to do the crossword. Or maybe I’ll see a great headline in the San Francisco Chronicle and buy that instead.

After all, the interfaces for a bookstore and library that Steve Jobs showed off the other day didn’t offer one chapter at a time, or one story at a time, they offered a book, sitting on a shelf.

Engadget’s photo of Steve’s slide.

(Yes, I’ve heard of Delicious Library.)

Of course, things brings up all sorts of interesting questions about which newspaper and magazine publishers would be willing to go in together on this sort of thing. They’d have to build the app themselves, decide how to split up the revenue, who to feature on which pages — this is all the sort of thing they might have preferred Apple take care of, eh?

So I’m interested. I’m interested in a newsstand that provides some opportunity for serendipity and revenue, not based on subscription models or paywalls, but based on the idea that I might pay something like 99 cents for a Tablet version of the New York Times when I’m in the mood to interact with it and, most likely, fiddle with the crossword on the way to work.

Muxtape as a model for an anti-recommendation engine

Muxtape has my attention.

It’s not terribly social. It’s not much of a network.

In fact, it’s so devoid of features, there’s little to distract you from listening to music, which is what you showed up to do.

The front page of the site is dead simple: A colorful list of mixtapes to listen to, with relatively opaque usernames that offer only hints of what might be behind the link.

The front page of muxtape.com.

So, at the start, if no one sent you a link to a particular mix, you’re just free to browse the tapes, listen to anything you want, find one with a familiar band’s name in it somewhere, and you’re off.

Talk about serendipity.

So, because I’m obsessed with thinking about how to present “news” online in unconventional ways that might hold a reader’s interest a little bit longer and keep them around your site long enough to find that enterprise/investigative/database piece you worked so hard at, it occurs to me that this could work for a news site.

Yeah, a news site.  What did you think I was going to say?

So, instead of the recommendation-engine driven approach of a Digg or an Amazon or Netflix, or even network-based link firehoses like Delicious, Facebook, or Twitter, this would take a purely serendipitous approach:

A user shows up, adds 10 links to a mix, gives it a clever name, and moves on.  No bulky profiles, no following, no activity feeds; just 10 good stories, as if they were a mixtape.

Sounds like a serious timesink to me…

Help a reporter out

Peter Shankman launched something really, really interesting to me today at HelpAReporter.com.

The premise: He works in PR and has a list of reliable and credible sources a mile long; his reporter friends are constantly asking him who they should call about [your story topic here].

Check it out, sign up, and maybe you can help a reporter out. Or maybe you’re looking for a certain sort of source. Let Peter know what you’re looking for, and maybe he knows someone who can help.

I’m totally engrossed by this for reasons obvious to anyone who has been following my work (more talk than anything else so far – I promise April and May will involve actual code, announcements, etc.) on ReportingOn.

Any way to use social networking (it’s made of people, eh?) to connect reporters with better sources is something worth tracking.

(Of course, I heard about this on Twitter. Follow me, follow ReportingOn, and follow Peter.)

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?

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 nytimes.com 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?