Aug 6 2009

Is serendipity lost in the digital age?

Damon Darlin argues in an article earlier this week in the Times that serendipity has become "lost in the digital deluge". His premise is essentially that through services like Twitter, Facebook and others we’ve essentially crow-sourced content discovery and lost is the beauty of discovering "something we never knew we wanted to find" (he uses the example of browsing a friend’s CD or video collection as something that the digital age has killed).  Even services like StumbleUpon or UrbanSpoon, which are designed to surface information that users typically wouldn’t find themselves – Darlin argues – really just gravitate to the mean.


The Internet that gives us almost unlimited access to almost unlimited information, which allows us to browse for hours on any subject imaginable, that enables us to follow links from site to site on random topics that pique our interest, that shows us what our friends are up to at any given moment, enables us to see what music the people we know are listening to, to discover new and as yet unheard of content that is related to the things you already like (music, movies, books, blogs, etc) – this same Internet is somehow killing serendipitous content discovery?!? Is he talking about the Internet that the rest of us are on?

Even the specific examples Darlin gives don’t stand up. Finding content through Twitter group think is quite serendipitous. Discovering a new band through a The Hype Machine or a news article through StumbleUpon is not only the Internet acting to surface new content, but it increases the frequency of serendipitous events. The more time we spend online the more we’re likely to find things that we wouldn’t otherwise have discovered ("ser-en-dip-i-tous – to come upon or found by accident" according to In fact for me, one of the greatest things about the social web (as opposed to the information web of the late 90’s and early 00’s) is it’s ability to bring new ideas and content directly to me. I’m constantly amazed at the variety of new and interesting content that I run across all brought to me from different sources and friends across the web. It’s all quite . . . serendipitous . . .