Serendipity is unexpected relevance

Serendipity is not randomness. It is unexpected relevance.

I constantly hear the fear that serendipity is among the many things we’re supposedly set to lose as news moves out of newsrooms and off print to online. Serendipity, says The New York Times, is lost in the digital age. Serendipity, it is said, is something we get from that story we happen upon as we flip pages, the story we never would have searched for but find only or best in print. Serendipity, it is also said, is the province and value of editors, who pick the fluky and fortuitous for us. Without serendipity, as I hear it, we’ll be less-well informed (all work, no play, makes Jack a dull boy; all relevance, not serendipity, makes Jill a predictable girl).

A few days ago, a Guardian guy, inspired by Clay Shirky hacked together a serendipity generator: just a random story served up on a click. It wasn’t a serious solution, just fun. But it focused the serendipity question for me.

What is serendipity? It’s not a story from left field. It’s not, I think, “the opposite of what you normally consumed.” There’s a reason we find value in the supposedly serendipitous. When I started Entertainment Weekly, I said that our features had to satisfy a curiosity you didn’t know you had — but you end up having it. When we read a paper and find a good story that we couldn’t have predicted we’d have liked, we think that is serendipity. But there’s some reason we like it, that we find it relevant to us. Maybe that relevance is the unknown but now fed curiosity, maybe it’s enjoyment of good writing or a certain kind of tale, maybe the gift of some interesting fact we want to share and gain social equity for, maybe it’s a challenge to our ideas, maybe an answer to a question that has bugged us. In the end, it has value to us; it’s relevant.

Can that relevance be analyzed and served? Can we still get serendipity online? Of course, we can and do — mostly on Twitter and Facebook. Serendipity comes from friends who find that story and — like an editor — pass it on. If we share their judgment, we may like what they share and call that serendipity. But there’s plenty that passes me by on Twitter that I don’t like; it’s serendipitous by the usual definitions but it doesn’t work for me because it has no value; it’s not relevant.

Can an algorithm serve us serendipity? Maybe, if it has enough signals of what we and people we trust like, what interests us, what we need, our context. It can calculate and predict and try to serve our relevance and serendipity. I think serendipity comes not from one-size-fits-all editing but from better targeting across a larger pool of possibilities. If Google can intuit intent, I think it can also serve surprise and serendipity.

MORE: See also Chris Anderson and Matthew Ingram on serendipity.

  • http://brianfrank.ca/ Brian Frank

    Good point. In all the talk about it, the distinction between serendipity and randomness hadn’t occurred to me before.

    One thought I had is Google or Facebook could figure out how a user’s likes and interests are most divergent from their friends and give more weight to those likes and interests that aren’t being well served by their social graph. I take it this is what Nathan Kurtz meant in this comment. I also wondered if Google could offer the most semantically relevant results but pull from the bottom of the popularity list — but that might just turn up a lot of that SEO-exploitative stuff and spam.

    I think it the best serendipity engine would have to use a fairly hybrid approach though (e.g. mix these ‘parallel social graph’ results with results based on pure popularity, pure randomness, and results from the social graph), because a lot of the ‘serendipity effect’ on user experience would be lost if results are too recognizably & consistently influenced by specific factors.

  • Paul Bradshaw

    I summarised some of the research on this topic in December – see the section on serendipity here: http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2009/12/08/whats-your-problem-with-the-internet-a-crib-sheet-for-news-exec-speeches/

    In short, the serendipity argument comes from an editor-centric view of content that overlooks not just search and social media but also how much of an echo chamber traditional publishing was.

  • http://www.antonymayfield.com Antony Mayfield

    Finishing my book on online reputation and web literacy serendipity was the word ringing in my head. Being connected, being in networks, increases serendipity, happy coincidences, the right person talking to you with the right idea at the right time.

    What articulated this best for me was this video interview with John Hagel: http://goo.gl/JrKP – where he talks about Twitter and Twitter-like tools as being far more effective for knowledge sharing in organisations because they tap into tacit knowledge, and increase the likelihood of serendipitous conversations between individuals.

    I also liked Shane Richmond of the Telegraph’s take on it: http://goo.gl/2zJD

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  • http://www.steussy.com/blog Peripatetic Entrepreneur

    I’d suggest that the “new serendipity” is part of the current political divide. Follow me here.

    We use Twitter to follow people we like and agree with, our Facebook friends usually hold similar opinions to ours. We have our choice of news sources with their subtle (or not so subtle) political leaning (CNN/NYT/broadcast news vs. Fox/Drudge Report/Limbaugh). People become separated into political ghettos, only hearing from their own side. Separation breeds intolerance of different views, etc.

    I think the effect is much stronger on the right than the left. I’ve known a good half-dozen intellectual ex-Republicans who can’t stand the current state of the party.

  • Andy Freeman

    > CNN/NYT/broadcast news vs. Fox/Drudge Report/Limbaugh). People become separated into political ghettos, only hearing from their own side. Separation breeds intolerance of different views, etc.

    > I think the effect is much stronger on the right than the left.

    Based on what? (The fact that ex-republicans don’t like the party now doesn’t tell you anything about insularity.)

    I ask because Limbaugh etc regularly cite NYT etc so that their listeners can see what the other side is saying. Yes, they encourage their listeners to see what the “MSM” is doing.

    NYT and friends claim tell you what Limbaugh etc is saying but seem to consistently miss details that don’t fit the narrative.

    You wouldn’t notice this unless you actually look at both sides instead of listening to what they say about each other.

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  • http://newstogram.com Neil Budde

    Jeff,

    I agree serendipity isn’t about discovering things far afield from your interests but in finding the relevant based on some level of interest, and that algorithms can support relevant serendipity based on topics you’ve shown interest in in the past. I had a similar question asked and I answered on our blog at http://newstogram.com/?p=243

  • http://wyman.us Bob Wyman

    That traditional newspapers offer many opportunities for serendipity is, in fact, serendipitous. That serendipity wasn’t intentional — rather it is simple consequence of the anecdotal properties of the technology. Maximizing the number of stories presented on a fixed amount of paper implies that multiple stories will be printed side-by-side, etc.

    But, those who bemoan the “loss” of serendipity seem blind to the reality of the web today. My own experience is that in any single day, I’m exposed to vastly more “serendipity” online than I can even imagine being found in a newspaper.

  • http://fiddleandburn.com/me Jason Pomerantz

    I subscribe to hundreds of feeds, which I follow in Google Reader. My threshold for subscribing is very low. But I divide them into categories, one of which is ‘Favorites’, for which the threshold is high. I read ‘Favorites’ religiously. Everything I tend to just browse once in a while.

    But on a regular basis I like to simply click the top level, which serves up the latest from all feeds, all mixed together. I never know what I’m going to find and I am invariably introduced to interesting stories and ideas I had never heard of.

    It’s the perfect serendipity generator. Much more diverse and surprising than any newspaper or magazine could ever be.

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  • http://www.wiredvanity.com/ Igor Schwarzmann

    The new and constantly evolving human-machine-relationship is creating an ever growing complexity to “the system”. Serendipity had always the same effect, but it was always an expression of the contemporary complexity of the system.

    I’ve recently found – serendipitously – the book “Three Princes of Serendip”. It’s actually a story that led to the creation of the word serendipity and the definition of the effect itself. In this story the three princes deduce with the help of serendipity the state of a camel. This is – of course – a story from a long, long time ago. Today we wouldn’t need serendipity to deduce the state of a camel. The information that is available to us changed environment and thus changed serendipity. The effect itself evolves parallel to the environment it exists in.

    And since we are living in a system that relies on technology and algorithms, it is only natural that we will reach a state of algorithmically created serendipity. As always, it is not the death of something, but only the next version of it. And as always people who are not evolving with the pace of “the system” are telling the story of the “death of a certain something”. Yes, the old version of serendipity is dead, but long live the new version.

    Until it is also dead.

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  • Jill Faulkner-Bogdan

    Whatever it is that makes readers read that rarely read column or that unusually visited page- whether it’s the headline, a caption, or photo-will still exist in online news. Therefore, serendipity will not die with print newspapers. In fact, the possibility of serendipity is greater in the internet age because there are so many more stories, ideas, and issues to be discovered and serendipitously enjoyed.

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  • http://www.andfinally.com/ Bill Thompson

    Bit late to the serendipity debate – sorry, Jeff – but you might find a piece I wrote for the BBC back in 2006 of interest:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/5018998.stm

    the main argument is that ‘today’s richly interlinked web is as much a promoter of serendipity as the library’, an argument that I still think holds.

  • http://translate.google.fr/translate?hl=fr&sl=fr&tl=en&u=http%3A%2F%2Fenikao.wordpress.com%2F2009%2F02%2F22%2Fles-wila-justlas%2F [Enikao]

    @Jeff : the question of “what is the opposite of serendipity” is of interest, I think. I tried, but :
    – finding what we’ve sought seems much like a “gotcha”
    – not finding what we’ve sought resembles “bad luck”.

    So I tried to define a new sort of “things”, that I called wila-justla (transl. : yeshere-justhere), that are only findable only when you actively not seek for them because they evade your sight if you try to focus on them. Keys, empty parking place, switched-off mobile, important e-mails, free taxis, your-size on-sale shoes…

    (translated blog post in link)

    Would you define anti-serendipity ? Does it even exist ?

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  • http://metaversalmining.com Ian Falconer

    No, no, no, no, no, Jeff, please, no.
    You are seeing serendipity as a commodity to be exploited as just another search tool enhancement rather than a wonderful aesthetic experience. By automating and mediating and mathematically defining it you are stripping it of why it is a joyful experience.

    The whole point of serendipity is that you don’t ask for it. It is both constrained by your own experience and constraining of future possible experiences. By mathematically defining it you take one half of the equation away and just leave another search tool.

    I agree with Bill T that the interlinked nature allows for increased opportunities for serendipity, but any automatic ‘enhancement’ of what should be a wander through the park sniffing whichever flower takes our fancy, being told by any external agent what a flower might smell like. No. That’s no longer serendipity, that’s an enhanced search tool or an augmented results parser or whatever you might like to call it. To call it serendipity implies that you believe that some portion of your mind’s complexity, your memories and all the intuitive associations that go to make up you can be split off and embodied in a piece of maths.

    Take a good hard look at what cutting edge neuroscience is actually telling us about our minds and how well we understand them. You’ll see that we are nowhere near being able to claim to be able to simulate serendipity, even if it were desirable to do so.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      I”m saying that definition is already there. You may just not want to see it because — why? — it takes the magic out of it? It takes the editor out of it?

      • http://metaversalmining.com Ian Falconer

        I understand that, and I understand that you and Clay et al feel that you can offload mind function to mathematical algorithms. However what neuroscience (and the mathematics of complexity and our understanding of the quantum world) is currently telling us is that if we have decided that we have defined functions of our minds like serendipity, we are wrong about our definitions. Maybe we can fake a crude statistical approximation for a standard deviation from the norm of the population, but those people out on the limbs, they will not feel that that hack is an experience that is close to serendipity and to use that word devalues the real experience.

        My argument is, yes it takes the magic out of it, but I’m a physical scientist and that the magic is something that we are only just starting to understand in terms of crude physicality i.e. brain function rather than wonderful complexity i.e. mind function.

        I don’t like the claim to serendipity because it does not reflect the reality of our current knowledge of how we work.

        I won’t deny that I also have an emotional response to it the claim that simulating serendipity is desirable because to me it doesn’t hold that appeal and every time I saw a claim to it I would be peaking behind the curtain to see the wizard rather than accepting it for what it is. What I argue that it is is not much more than a search tool enhancement.

        So I do have two objections; first that the characterisation of serendipity as an experience that is available to be modeled and replicated is simply wrong, second that I personally wouldn’t enjoy the simulation of serendipity in the same way that I don’t like processed cheese.

      • http://metaversalmining.com Ian Falconer

        Sorry I don’t know whether this is going to come out first or second, but its the second part of my reply.

        My underlying concern is this; when we start to talk about offloading mind functions to mathematical abstractions we are talking about whether we value opinion and experience and each person’s unique perspective.

        Whether we are talking about providing ‘trust’, or ‘authority’ or ‘serendipity’ we are discussing the same point. Do we believe that we can replicate the complexity of the human mind and is it desirable to do so. Not the mechanical processes and infrastructure of the brain, but the mind itself. Google does an excellent job of automating the mechanical process of finding things that might interest us based upon what interested us before, but it relies on our opinion of what constitutes ‘interesting’.

        In previous arguments that I’ve had regarding serendipity and its role in news discovery it has become very apparent that what is serendipitous to one person on one day may not be to another person. This is totally understandable because serendipity is an internal experience. The only part of that process that has any eternal manifestation is the stimulus. You cannot know when or if it will happen until your mind throws it up into the conscious. So because we don’t know the conditions under which serendipitous discovery happens any Google-like function aping serendipity can only be a crude approximation that will only work for some people some of the time.

        I will go one step further, if you believe that you can simulate that sub-conscious process, a process based on a lifetime of memories and environmental conditions and the trillions of neuronal connections that it inhabits, then you should also believe that you can simulate my opinion on a specific topic. In fact that should be an easier thing to map than what constitutes a serendipitous discovery because our opinions are manifest every days in the choices we make.

        Why then do we need to express an opinion ? What purpose does it have if our opinions can be read from our external interactions ? If all you need is access to those interactions to predict a future opinion why bother with democracy ? Why bother with journalism for that matter ?

        These are questions that I find fascinating, so much so that I’m doing my PhD looking directly at them and trying to see whether I can find the distribution of opinion by examination of un-elicited discourse, but I’m not making believe that a distribution curve of opinion can in any way predict the opinion of an individual. And that is precisely what these discussions of off-loading mind functions are assuming is possible.

        So I don’t think its really a question of whether I want to see it or not. You guys are promoting it, I’m trying to do it from a different angle, plenty of others are playing in the same pool. I happen to think that my angle is both more practical and more humane, but hey, who am I ?

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  • http://thecreativeway.com.au Colin Perini

    Across a large readership surely most articles would be serendipitous to at least one reader.

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  • http://www.edgeperspectives.typepad.com John Hagel

    Great perspective – but the discussion around content serendipity misses an even more powerful form of serendipity – unexpected encounters with people that prove to be enormously relevant and interesting relative to one’s own pursuits. This form of serendipity is the gift that keeps on giving – it is not just one interesting encounter but sets into motion a whole series of stimulating and interesting interactions. This is the real power and potential of the online environment – to amplify the potential for serendipitous encounters among people. In my book, The Power of Pull, I devote an entire chapter to the various ways that we can shape this kind of serendipity for ourselves.

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