Serendipity is defined as the ability to make fortunate discoveries accidentally. There's so much of modern life that makes it preferable to the vaunted good old days - better hygiene products and power steering leap to mind - but in these disposable days of now and the future, the concept of serendipity is endangered. Think about the library. Do people browse anymore? We have become such a directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find - with an irritating hit or miss here and there - exactly what you're looking for. It's efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding... Looking for something and being surprised by what you find - even if it's not what you set out looking for - is one of life's great pleasures, and so far no software exists that can duplicate that experience.
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. With music blogs and iTunes, I've discovered more interesting new bands and albums in the past year than I did in all of my college years. I know radio has gotten a lot worse, but really -- does anyone actually believe that radio was ever more diverse and surprising in its recommendations than surfing through the iTunes catalog or the music sites? It's no accident that BoingBoing is the most popular blog online -- it's popular because it's an incredible randomizer, sending you off on all these crazy and unpredictable paths.
I mean, look at what's on the front door of Kottke this morning: soccer jersey fonts, debate over travel time to JFK, best American fiction poll, funny t-shirt joke, new Google software, Richard Feynman video, Tufte design riff, etc. What's the organizing principle? There is none -- other than Jason's quirky taste -- and that's precisely why so many of us visit his site every day. It takes me thirty seconds to make all those connections by reading Jason's blog. I defy McKeen to walk into a library and find so many weird and diverse and interesting things in an hour of staring at bindings.
Updated a few hours later: Alan Jacobs writes in to the comments section:
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.
This is a perfect example of what I was talking about in my original post. There are two primary elements to this situation: first, the random stumbling across of something unexpected thanks to the alphabetical organization of the reference book (and the lack of digital search tools), and then this process of being led to other interesting words or topics thanks to that original swerve. It's true enough that Web's structure has eliminated the first kind of "discovery" -- you don't see alphabetical or Dewey Decimal "neighbors" the way you do walking through the stacks or reading book index. But the Web is far better at the second part of Alan's scenario: following a trail of associations from some original starting point. Pick a given entry in the print Britannica and a given entry in Wikipedia, and try to find ten interesting loosely associated articles published in other venues around the world. It's a thousand times easier to do this on the Web, obviously.
So the question is: is there anything in the online experience that compares to the random discoveries of alphabetical or Dewey Decimal exploration. I would say -- nuts or not -- definitively yes. I read regularly about 20 different blogs or other filters, and each day through them I'm exposed to literally hundreds of articles and clips and conversations and songs and parodies that I had no idea about when I woke up that morning. Many of them I just skim over, but invariably a handful of them will send me off on some crazy expedition from site to site, ushered along with the help of other bloggers, Google, del.icio.us, wikipedia, etc. I'm constantly stumbling across random things online that make me think: what is the deal with that anyway? And then an hour later, I'm thinking: how did I get here? I can't tell you how many ideas that eventually made it into published books and articles of mine began with that kind of unexpected online encounter.
Yes, those initial starting points are filters defined by my initial tastes. But my taste is for surprise and novelty -- and that's what they deliver. Serendipity is not randomness, not noise. It's stumbling across something accidentally that is nonetheless of interest to you. The web is much better at capturing that mix of surprise and relevance than book stacks or print encyclopedias. Does everyone use the web this way? Of course not. But it's much more of a mainstream pursuit than randomly exploring encyclopedias or library stacks ever was. That's the irony of the debate: the thing that is being mourned has actually gone from a fringe experience to a much more commonplace one in the culture. Boingboing has a million readers, for crissakes! Right now, on their front door, we have a study of monkey drinking habits, a roadsite alert sign hacking project, a "news of the weird" story about a German would-be suicide, a re-writing of Robinson Crusoe, a collection of vintage cartoons, a digital mapmaking tool, and so on and so on. And this eclecticism is what you get every day there -- which is precisely why it is the most linked-to blog in the world. Now factor in reading a dozen other blogs of comparable range. This is now the daily information intake for millions and millions of people around the world. Why isn't that an increase in serendipity?