« Everything Bad In Paper | Main | »



I'm with ya Steven. People (myself included) usually want to find *more* meaning in their lives, not less. To suggest I need more distractions, more tangental, accidental experiences, and a further lack of focus, meaning, and clarity, is insane.

Serendipity is overrated.

Sameer Vasta

So glad to know I'm not the only who feels this way. McKeen's article almost infuriated me. You've put it in words quite well Steven, thanks.


No, we can't kill it -- I plan to write a book on it. Can you suggest a publisher? :)

I'm with Jason, and I'll give you a case in point. Today, I walked into Barnes & Noble with some gift cards in hand. I found a couple of things that had been lingering in the back of my head. Then I found a couple of things that I never would've found if I'd been browsing in my usual circles. And that was BEFORE I walked over to the magazine racks.

I'm like you in the sense that I stumble into things. But a lot of things into which I stumble are closed communities that don't care much for anything outside them.

There are plenty of people who are managing to confine themselves to a small circle that reinforces their comfortable views. That's how cable pundits survive, and it passes for "community" in a lot of corners of the Web.

BoingBoing's popularity makes me believe people are willing to seek out serendipity, but I'd bet its readers fit a fairly narrow demographic when you get right down to it.


I disagree, Steven. The kind of surfing you describe is still narrow, even if it feels broad. You can't just say "I read lots of sites: Boingboing, Metafilter, Waxy, and Kottke!" The article said it best: you're finding exactly what you're looking for. BoingBoing's interesting-link bounty, diverse as it might be, cannot be called "serendipity". When you pointed your browser there you knew what you were gonna get: links to Wonderful Things. It's a carefully curated randomness, as selected by Cory And The Gang. You don't expect them to start posting things that lie outside their purview, like sports scores, financial analysis, or Oprah articles. And browsing through the iTunes Music Store, the expectation is that you'll discover some new bands, and not that you'll get a sudden flash of brilliance on how to build that portable gas-powered catapult you've always wanted to make.

And besides, chances are you don't click on every link anyway. The author is saying "click every link". Read some things you're not interested in, and read the paper with the intention of reading something new, not reinforcing the opinions you've already got.

Steven Johnson

Nick and BD: of course the web is not pure serendipity, it's just MORE serendipitous than what we used to have. Yes, BoingBoing is curated, but it's a lot less predictable than TIME or the CBS Evening News was. Not everyone has embraced the eclecticism of the web, to be sure, but the number of people who lingered in the stacks looking at bindings back in the day was pretty small, I'd wager. But now a weird and unpredictable site like BoingBoing has a readership in the millions....

Alan Jacobs

There's no simple and universal answer to the questions raised here; people's uses of digital and analog sources of information vary too widely. My particular situation is that of a scholar, and I think Steven is -- what's the technical term? -- nuts to think that I now have more serendipity than I did before.

When I used to rely on print dictionaries or encyclopedias, I would very often forget what I was looking for because, in thumbing the pages, I would stumble across all sorts of interesting words or topics, which would lead me to look up other interesting words or topics, along the way to which I would be distracted by yet other words or topics that I had never seen before. These discoveries could only happen because the search technology of the codex -- which in most cases required you to guess how far into the book the M's were, open the book to that place, and work forward or backward from there -- was sufficiently crude that you could rarely pinpoint what you were looking for. That simply doesn't happen with Wikipedia or online dictionaries. Sure, Wikipedia gives you links, but only to topics or terms that are related to what you're already looking at. It's the unexpected random encounter with the unrelated, or the apparently unrelated, that's missing.

The same story could be told in different ways: Amazon's "search inside the book" feature lets me go straight to passages that I remember from books that I have read, but then I never stumble across other passages that could have been even more interesting but that I hadn't remembered. I never end up re-reading something that I don't want to re-read because re-reading is the only way to find something that I'm desperate to find --and therefore I lose the significant benefits of re-reading. I don't have to scan the indexes of books, and then look through every appearance of a certain term until I find the one I need -- and therefore I lose the significant benefit of stumbling across passages that illuminate my questions in ways that I hadn't expected.

The increasing precision of our information technologies is a GREAT boon, but it doesn't accomplish everything, and there are losses involved, serendipity among them.


No, there is no perfect answer. I see it as all depending on what you are seeking to do, and even what mindset you're in while you're doing it. Perhaps I do go to the library and I *do* know exactly what I want - and I *do* just want to get it and get out. But, maybe another time though I may know exactly what I want I catch a glimpse of a binding I like and figure, what the heck - take a look.

With the web, I think it's the same way. It's just a digital version of the interface we're given through which to interact with the content we're seeking. If I happen to know I want to do to read what Jason Kottke has posted on his blog, and that's all I wanted, that's one interaction. If I decide to go there but then to click off to "Sites I've enjoyed recently" then I will. And from those sites I may do the same... and so on, and so on.

So no, there is no perfect answer - in either context. Through life there has always been a way to get just what you want (even on the radio 40 years ago you only heard what the station would play). In the end, doesn't it simply matter on so many other things like time, patience, desire, etc.?


I enjoyed reading McKeen's article. But the main problem is that rather than writing a nice essay on serendipity he turns it into a "real world" vs. the web article, implying that one is better than the other when in fact opportunities for serendipity exist everywhere. And while this post makes some good points it suffers to some degree from the same problem in the reverse. We shouldn't say that the web is universally a better engine for serendipity than the physical world -- I couldn't have discovered the robin's nest in my camellia bush yesterday evening had I been online-- and vice versa. Is it better that I came across The Little Willies album when grabbing my morning coffee at Starbucks? Would it have been better if I had seen a link to it when playing Nora Jones on iTunes? I don't care, I'm just happy I found the album. Also, Steven, one theme I'm seeing in your post and some of the comments is one of quantity of serendipitous experiences. Is more always better? Sometimes it is, but other times it is not.

Steven Shaviro

thanks for this. I couldn't agree with you more. And I say this as somebody who in fact owes his awareness one of his favorite books ever written to a friend's chance discovery on (literally) library shelves. (The book is Galatea, by Philip Pullman, better known today for his Dark Materials trilogy). But if I owe one particularly important (to me) such serendipitous discovery to random library browsing, like you I find it difficult to count how many such discoveries have come via the web, and could not have come before/without the web.

Brian Dear


I would suggest that you're underestimating the power of a good library, particularly a university library or a major city library.

Going to libraries is uncool the same way sitting at the front of the class, or sitting close to the screen in a movie theatre, is considered uncool.

There is huge serendipity to be had in a library: from browsing lots of international newspapers for different viewpoints on the same news as well as unusual, interesting stories not reported by the sources you normally read; to surfing through the thousands of magazines and technical/trade journals; to, yes, browsing the stacks, pulling down a random book, and opening to a random page. For instance, going to the archives of Harpers magazine from the 1800s. Pull down one of those volumes, say from the Civil War, and I challenge you not to find something fascinating -- and relevant to today.

I would also suggest that there is a VALUE in the possibly longer gaps in time between the discoveries made in a library, and the discoveries made on BoingBoing. Let the information soak in.

Likewise, I would submit that a reader who reads a few good novels will make all kinds of serendipitous insights that may be more useful than the always-shiny, always new "distraction river" that is the web surfing experience.

So, while I'm just as guilty as the next person of being a web info junkie, I still savor books, long documentaries, trips to the library (with no goal in mind -- just go and hang out for 2 hrs!), and other "slower" forms of info input. It's all good. But if I had to place a value on serendipities I expereince in a library versus those on the web, I'd say I value the library ones more.


Oh the irony -- I loved the library as a child for the serendipity. Now I love the internet more, it has many times the serendipity!

I constantly forget what I was looking for and ended up spending hours in some dark corner of the internet. I read foreign newspapers almost every day. I dive into obscure trade journals, end up lost within an extremely technical thread on a message board. I regularly lose weekends immersed in the depths of a subculture I never knew existed. I find myself watching an entire season of a tv program which only aired in South Africa. At all times, I have gigs and gigs of random content on my ipod. Chinese lessons, german death metal, a gluons lecture, a story from Poe -- my commutes are utterly unpredictable thanks to the net! Delightful!

Hint: easy way to get random audio -- subsribe to http://del.icio.us/rss/tag/system:filetype:mp3 and make sure you have it set to download all songs. Make sure you've got lots of free space on your drive.


The difference lies between the usefulness of filtered information and the joy of personal discovery.

With the advent of Bittorrent, iTunes, and onDemand I miss coming across an obscure movie on late night cable -- something of which I've never heard with stars I don't know -- and finding it not only good but compelling. (Hey! There's a young Cary Grant in a supporting role. What *is* this?)

With Dictionary.com, I miss the looking up a word only to find myself flipping pages in the dictionary for half an hour.

With Netflix, I miss browsing the shelves at the video store and wandering into the genre sections unfamiliar to me and finding something great. With Amazon, I'll never find a book that's been misshelved or left on a table in the wrong section by another customer. I'll never peek at Bulgakov because he's next to Bukowski on the shelf.

With the web, I either trust others (Cory, Jason) to point me to the good stuff or I use services (Amazon, Netflix) which try and anticipate my needs based on what I've already rented, bought, or looked at. Useful, to be sure, but far less magical.


Wow. I am genuinely amazed. When you linked to the article I was skeptical it was really a "meme," because, well, who could believe that? But the comments are filled with people who agree. I hardly know what to say.

Since I started reading around on the web the number and variety of things I stumble across has increased by many thousandfold. There's just no comparison.

The internet is like the world's biggest library, but unlike a library, it is filled with helpful, interesting, talkative people who are saying, "psst, hey, come check this out!" I found in a real library my "stumble on's" were far less random ... if I'm in a library, I just go to the section that contains my interests.

But on the web I've gotten a glimpse into the unfathomable variety and, yes, delightfulness of the world we live in. I honestly think it's changed me, and I'm sure I'm not the only one.



There's so much random things I've found with that and random blogs.

I stumbled upon "Mind Wide Open" at Barnes and Nobles =)

Alan Jacobs

Thanks for the response, Steven. When you write "But the Web is far better at the second part of Alan's scenario: following a trail of associations from some original starting point," I think you misunderstood the scenario I was trying to indicate. An example of what I meant to say: not long ago I picked up my old copy of the OED in order to look up a word that I now cannot recall except that it began with S. In looking for it I noticed the word "solleret," which I had never seen before, but when I read the definition I discovered that those weird broad metal shoes that armored knights wore in the Middle Ages actually had a name. Who knew? A minor discovery, to be sure, but one that was enabled by the basic and quite limited organizational structure of alphabetizing. More recent organizational tools -- hyperlinking and tagging, for instance -- are much more powerful because they are more precise, but because they are more precise they offer fewer surprises -- or rather, fewer surprises per unit of information. If I am using Wikipedia or just Google to look up Solidarity, neither of them is going to give me any opportunity to see "solleret" first and get led down that rabbit trail. But because the net provides information at a firehose rate rather than the dripping-faucet rate of a guy thumbing through books in the stacks, you're right that by clicking lots of links you can get through a great deal of widely varied information in a short time. The *architecture* of the net doesn't encourage serendipity, but its *volume of information* compensates. How much it compensates will, as I said in my first post, probably vary according to the individual person and his or her interests.



I would just remark on your example of discovering "solleret". I stumble across unusual tidbits like that all the time, in fact, I find those discoveries to be much more likely. Perhaps we use the internet in different ways, or in different modes. I find the examples you give, for example tag clouds, to lead to precisely the sort of untargetted tangents you describe in the dictionary.

Nick S

I'm in Brian Dear's camp, and here's why: it's the subconscious presumption while browsing that if something's not on the web, it might as well not exist, and if it ought to exist, you'll keep clicking on links and find it by some serendipitous route.

Some of the most important discoveries while doing reseach for my doctoral thesis came from ordering pamphlets up from the library stack and finding them bound in large volumes with dozens of other pamphlets that I hadn't known about.

Now, you can certainly argue that there's something web-like in that assemblage of information -- or, rather, that the web's filtering is a collation liberated from the requirements of print. But there is an illusion of comprehensivity about the web now that wasn't present in those early days when after a few hours you couldn't find a bright blue link in Mosaic. (I wish I could pin down just when that illusion really took over, though I'm guessing just after Google's arrival. Pages of spam results were always a good cue to unplug and go to the library.)

Like a bug on a balloon, you can travel forever and not necessarily get anywhere.

chris larry


Wow is there anything more neausiating than reactionary nostalgia mongers who whoa is me constantly about the good ole days. What are they afraid of? The world now has BOTH ways to search, your options are GROWING...if you like librarys use them...if you like book stores...use them...if you like video stores...use them...if you like blogs use them and so on....just stop lamenting these passing eras, your like southern elites who miss the gentility of antebellum southern culture.

SBJ keep bringing it you couldn't be more right!!!!

Chris Larry


Steven, your point is well taken, and I agree in large part, but you're being as sweeping in your generalizations as McKeen. In my experience there are cases where serendipity occurs much more easily in the print world than online. Here is one:

The granularity of document retrieval is different in the physical world than it is on the Web. On the web, I can do a search for an article, or for a set of articles colocated on some criteria, and then I am linked directly to those documents, or even to an arbitrary section of those documents. In the library, I can find an article (say, in a collection of journals), but retrieval is at the book level -- I still have to go get it and flip through it to find my page. In flipping through the book, it is often the case that I find many useful articles which were not in my list of search results, and which I never would have seen if the inefficiency of the print world hadn't forced me to glance at them.

No doubt I could have found these articles on the web, but because the retrieval mechanism is so much more precise, it would not have been through serendipity, it would have been through a series of additional queries or query expansions.

Steven Johnson

Alan, I see what you're saying, and you're absolutely right that this specific form of alphabetical stumbling-up-something else is not compatible with the architecture of the web. but I don't agree that it's just the volume of information that makes serendipity possible online; it's also the hypertextual architecture as well. Because the web is built around links, it's a million times easier for someone to assemble a page of miscellaneous weird stuff that they've discovered in their explorations, which is precisely what the bloggers do. And if you happen to stumble across a striking word or concept in something you're reading (not via the alphabetical approach, but nonetheless something you didn't know you were interested in before) you can instantly connect to thousands of documents related to that word or phrase via Google. That's architecture as much as it is volume.

but either way, I hope you can see how frustrating that original essay is: we seem to be agreeing that there are lots of ways to discover unexpected things online, just perhaps disagreeing about whether that's due to the architecture or the volume of information. but the original article was saying that serendipity was being destroyed by the web, that there was no software tool that could provide an experience equivalent to browsing the stacks. that seems to me to be a gross distortion of what's actually happened...

Michael Anes

I read this blog (and frankly, some others, such as Gladwell's) and I ask myself time after time -- are you a social commentator or a science writer? If you are a social commentator, then by all means, opine away. But the irony of so many of your musings, Steven, if I may say so, is that you challenge us to think that new technologies make our thinking more complex, yet you show the opposite in your own behavior. Clearly, Alan Jacobs is right - there is a complex interplay of quality and quantity and no easy answer...but guess what? Joy of all joys, these are tractable issues scientifically. One can operationalize and study serendipity, one can find out how broad and narrow various content sources are. One does not have to rely on anecdotes, on personal pastiches of experience to stand in for "what really is" whatever that is.
So Steven, want to meet up for a beer during APS in NYC May 24th-27th? I'll be at the yeast fest at Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn every night during that period if I can - Are you a lambic fan? Or have you not serenditously run across lambic in your web travels? Funny there was just a writeup in the NY Times last week...

Steven Johnson

Michael, now we're going meta on me. For the record, I think of myself as a cultural critic who draws on the work of scientists as much as possible, and who would LOVE to see more scientific research into the things I muse about publicly. Secondly, Alan started it! He said in his original post that I was "nuts" to say that there was comparable possibility for serendipity online. Everyone in this conversation is speaking anecdotally here, not just me.

As for Adam, don't get me wrong: there is serendipity in the offline library world. It's just that there's more of it, and more mainstream use of it, now than there was before the web. In your specific search example -- yes, if you're searching for a specific article you can usually get directly to it without any new discoveries online. But of course we're often not searching for a specific article; we're searching for a set of keywords, and those searches are far more unpredictable in terms of what they send back, and there's an immense amount of surprise and discovery involved in that process...

chris larry

Maybe I come off looking like a boob, but this has got to be the biggest non issue on the web. Steven initially pointed out a reactionary, ill informed and sappy op ed piece and now the blowback is only adding to his point that to much energy is wasted waxing poetic about the old ways instead of being proactive, creative and open minded about empowering ourselves to use the gifts of technology for expanding possiabilities.

SBJ is so on the correct side of this debate that continuing to argue it is counter productive. Serendipity happens to minds open to recieve it, regardless of the platform of delivery.

Basically what you stack-addicts are argueing for is your personal taste, not that something is being lost/destroyed/corrupted.... So great renew your library card already and let the rest of us enjoy the expanded toolbox that technology provides whether it be for directed research or the casual walk of intellectual discovery.

And on the personal tip, I have wasted countless hours following muses on the web and discovering worlds for investigation that began as a simple seating to check my email. And I still love books....It CAN be accomplished! Lucky me I can walk and chew gum at the same time!

Alan Jacobs

Thanks again, Steven -- and to be sure, I hold no brief for the original article (plus, I was just having fun when I said you’re nuts, though I think you know that). I just think there *are* real trade-offs here, and it’s worth thinking about what they are and how they work. Hyperlinking and tagging produce connections based on *some* principle of similitude. Tags can’t tell the difference between the gemstones we call diamonds, baseball diamonds, and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” (I’m stealing that illustration from someone, but I’m not sure whom), and that lack of intelligence can produce serendipitous results; but nevertheless, the word “diamond” has to be there before a search can produce results. Not so when I’m looking for a word in the latter third of the dictionary and come across “solleret.” Tagging, hyperlinking, and Google-style search algorithms simply don’t give us *that* level of randomness -- nor do we want them to: we want them to be *good* at what they do. And this is why I often *do* use “Search Inside the Book” to find passages rather than taking the book off my shelf and thumbing through it or consulting its index. But the “solleret” kind of discovery doesn’t happen to me as often anymore. It’s a trade-off I am totally willing to accept -- for my last book I had a deadline that I couldn’t possibly have met if I hadn’t had technology like Amazon’s available to me -- but I just think it’s worth noting.

Two more brief points, on related issues: first -- and I’m not sure what the significance of this is, I’m just noting it -- my “solleret” discovery was unique to me: other people know the word, of course, but very, very few discovered it the way I did. But when I come across something random on the net -- for example, a blogger I read to learn more about the Mac happens to link to a YouTube video of a phenomenal ukulele player -- thousands upon thousands of people make that discovery nearly simultaneously with me. There is a unique pleasure in discovering something all by yourself.

Second, it’s worth noting that the word “serendipity” was coined by Sir Horace Walpole in a 1754 letter, and he defined it as “accidental sagacity.” Each word in that definition is important: accidental discoveries happen to everyone, but not everyone has the “sagacity” to benefit from them. I wonder how many major scientific discoveries have been based on phenomena that countless people noted but only one person had the shrewdness to see the significance of.

Steven Johnson

Right back at you, Alan, and since Michael wants me to be more complex in my thinking, let me offer a bit of a concession. I think it's entirely possible that someone who aggressively embraces the library stacks model of accidental sagacity could very well find more serendipity that route than through the web browsing mode. (It sounds like you've done precisely that in some of your work.) I just feel that the more casual version of accidental discovery has become much more mainstream in its adoption thanks to the web, for all the reasons we've discussed here. Instead of 10,000 library stack explorers, we have a million boingboing readers, etc. The two aren't exactly equivalent, of course, and there are most certainly trade-offs. But if you're trying to evaluate whether serendipity is on the rise or on the decline in the culture, that great expansion in the number of people who sit down at the computers every morning and browse through an oddball assortment of links has to be a huge part of the story. And of course, it wasn't even mentioned in the original article...

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo
I'm a father of three boys, husband of one wife, and author of nine books, host of one television series, and co-founder of three web sites. We split our time between Brooklyn, NY and Marin County, CA. Personal correspondence should go to sbeej68 at gmail dot com. If you're interested in having me speak at an event, drop a line to Wesley Neff at the Leigh Bureau (WesN at Leighbureau dot com.)

My Books

  • Steven Johnson: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

    Steven Johnson: How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
    A history of innovation accompanied by a 6-part TV series on PBS and the BBC, this was the first of my books to crack the top 5 on the NY Times bestseller list. Appropriately for a book that celebrates diverse networks, this was the most collaborative of any of my books. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • Steven Johnson: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age

    Steven Johnson: Future Perfect: The Case For Progress In A Networked Age
    My first book-length attempt to organize my writings about emergence and networks into something resembling a political philosophy, which I called Peer Progressivism. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

    Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation
    An exploration of environments that lead to breakthrough innovation, in science, technology, business, and the arts. I conceived it as the closing book in a trilogy on innovative thinking, after Ghost Map and Invention. But in a way, it completes an investigation that runs through all the books, and laid the groundwork for How We Got To Now. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : The Invention of Air

    The Invention of Air
    The story of the British radical chemist Joseph Priestley, who ended up having a Zelig-like role in the American Revolution. My version of a founding fathers book, and a reminder that most of the Enlightenment was driven by open source ideals. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : The Ghost Map

    The Ghost Map
    The story of a terrifying outbreak of cholera in 1854 London 1854 that ended up changing the world. An idea book wrapped around a page-turner. I like to think of it as a sequel to Emergence if Emergence had been a disease thriller. You can see a trailer for the book here. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter

    Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter
    The title says it all. This one sparked a slightly insane international conversation about the state of pop culture -- and particularly games. There were more than a few dissenters, but the response was more positive than I had expected. And it got me on The Daily Show, which made it all worthwhile. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Mind Wide Open : Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life

    Mind Wide Open : Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life
    My first best-seller, and the only book I've written in which I appear as a recurring character, subjecting myself to a battery of humiliating brain scans. The last chapter on Freud and the neuroscientific model of the mind is one of my personal favorites. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software

    Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software
    The story of bottom-up intelligence, from slime mold to Slashdot. Most of my books sold more copies than this one, but Emergence has influenced the most eclectic mix of fields: political campaigns, web business models, urban planning, the war on terror. (Available from IndieBound here.)

  • : Interface Culture : How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate

    Interface Culture : How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate
    My first. The book I wrote instead of finishing my dissertation, predicting the growing cultural significance of interface and information design. Still relevant, I think. But I haven't read it in a while, so who knows what's in there! (Available from IndieBound here.)

Blog powered by Typepad