In Search of Serendipity

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I have always loved the idea of serendipity. The happy discovery of something  at the perfect point within the converging lines of your own thoughts and life. It’s something that sits in that space in-between luck, fate and my own definition of questing on the web.  The word, serendipity is derived from an English Earl’s reference to a Persian fairy tale, in which the Princes of Serendip were:

…always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.

Letter from Horace Walpole, 1754

I’ve assumed till now that my searches on the internet were being guided by my hand alone, but that now seems clearly fanciful. I veer from search to search guided I think only by the starting letter of the A to Z, but like the adventurer in any story, my steps are in-fact guided by a hidden powerful narrator. The search engine.

Whichever search engine preference you hold, its algorithms are in control of how the web will appear to you and therefore heavily influences what you will discover on each journey into the web. I’m not suggesting this is a bad thing. The web is a wide and endless sea of possibilities and without the powerful search engines as our compass and  map we would be forever lost in its seas.

But I do wonder then, what happens to serendipity? What of the unplanned discoveries in web land, which come from being blown off your original course and outside your own assumptions.

Here are three possible ways of navigating your way through the web and their relative chances in creating serendipity:

1. Follow the curator, crowd or companion

No search is carried out in isolation. The web does not connect us to merely the authors of content, but the one hundred or billion others, who share the same interest in that content. As we hungrily search out more content and the best the web has to offer, others are doing the same, and search directly harnesses the power of the crowd as curator.

Google is the greatest example of this with its popularity based ranking of search pages, but also community-based sites like Reddit and Digg, which using the vote of a group to bring content to the top of our attention.

However, in this information rich age, we are demanding more from information curators. People we trust for recommendations and to filter down the sea of information to a clear destination. This new wave of internet curation can be found most unsurprisingly within the social media sphere, with the the people we know, like and follow being at the centre of the stream of content we now hear and see. Sites like Facebook, Linked-in and Twitter all take us on a journey mapped-out by the companions we choose.

Serendipity Score: Depends on your choice of companions, but we all naturally hold biases in our views and interests. Unless you choose deliberately to friend and follow people outside your own circle, there is a danger of narrowing the opportunity for serendipitous discovery.

2. Start from ‘here’

To find something new, start with something old. Similarsites.com assume a known set-off point on your route to discovery. By seeking a reference point within the world of websites you already know and love, it aims to throw you into the right direction of new discoveries.

Image: You Are Here Internet Universe/E. Elert
Source: Internet-map.net

Serendipity Score: Likely to be low on totally random tangential discoveries, as your first port of call will always be from sites you already know. However, in theory it should remove the biases from crowd and friendly judgements.

3. Discovery via your interests

These sites distinguish their functionality from traditional keyword searching, by asking you to set out your interests in topics instead.  From cooking to climbing, politics to pole-dancing, they then direct you to sites and content, which you haven’t seen before. Your responses to these finds, then help to refine future selections for you and others. The most well known and popular of these types of engines is StumbleUpon, which since its founding in 2001 has gained some 25 million stumbers.

Source: Adam Sicinski, Mindmapart.com

Serendipity Score: Hidden beneath these sites still lies the same powerful automated algorithms controlled by an unseen navigator. However, there is a good chance at randomness still made possible, potentially by avoiding making any positive or negative responses, which might narrow searches and also occasionally stumbling under all the possible interest topics, so you’re truly veering into uncharted territories.

Quest Objective: Get lost in the web and discover something new

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