NYT had a piece by Damon Darlin yesterday in which Darlin argued “the digital age is stamping out serendipity.”  He continues:

Ah, the techies say, no worries. We have Facebook and Twitter, spewing a stream of suggestions about what to read, hear, see and do. We come to depend on it to lead us to the funny article on TheOnion.com or the roving food cart serving goat curry. It’s useful.

But that isn’t serendipity. It’s really group-think. Everything we need to know comes filtered and vetted. We are discovering what everyone else is learning, and usually from people we have selected because they share our tastes. It won’t deliver that magic moment of discovery that we imagine occurred when Elvis Presley first heard the blues, or when Michael Jackson followed Fred Astaire’s white spats across the dance floor.

This might seem reasonable on its face: group-think is the binary opposite of serendipity.  However, this relies on a particularly attenuated notion of how we should label “filtered and vetted” information, and it also pushes a particularly narrow understanding of serendipity.  Regarding the former, I’m not comfortable referring to all the information that has been vetted for me as “group-think.”  When I ask a colleague whom to read to get caught up on a subject, I expect a professional response, personal friendship be damned.  I imagine she will color her reading of those authors with her own prejudices, but what makes Darlin think all recommendations come in the form “you must” or “don’t ever”?  Instead, most of us couch our understanding of a particular text or idea with a wide variety of contextual information, from which those of us receiving recommendations can then make evaluative judgments.  Of course many people make snap judgments, but we do this less about things that really matter to us.  Should you doubt me on this, look at any online forum’s hot button issues, whether that’s health care reform on a political blog or the timeline for the alternate Presidency on The West Wing fansites.  If it matters to us, we can and do easily overcome whatever group inertia (and I think this might be a more neutral term to describe what Darlin is talking about) guides us in a particular direction.

Then there’s this formulation of the concept of “serendipity.”  I remember first encountering this term from a children’s book series when I was living in Germany while my father was stationed there.  I have no idea what the book was about, but I saw it in the library and asked my teacher what it was all about and she told me the word meant an instance of lucky discovery.  Princeton’s Wordnet provides something similar:

good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries

And Wikipedia also:

the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely unrelated.

This idea of “fortune” is what I would like to dwell on for a moment.  Darlin indicates that thumbing through a friend’s book collection is entirely different from clicking on a link to something on a friend’s Twitter feed, because the latter has already been filtered and vetted.  But how is the friend’s book collection any different?  In fact, isn’t it exactly the same?  Maybe Darlin had a different experience from mine, but whenever I would find a book on a friend’s shelf that looked interesting, the very next thing I would do would be to ask my friend to tell me more about it.  We don’t just walk away with the book tucked under our arm, or even drive to the bookstore and buy it without comment.  The friend’s commentary and context, her “filtering” and “vetting,” are precisely the missing information we most often want and need in order to close the loop on the open question of whether the book is for us.  And this is not to mention the fact that we found the book on our friend’s bookshelf in the first place.

Perhaps the more pressing issue here is that many people we follow on Twitter or friend on Facebook often aren’t people we’re that close with.  But that actually makes a stronger case for calling this kind of linking “serendipity,” especially when someone I went to college with turns out to have entirely opposite political views from mine and now I’m reading an article I would never have found entirely of my own volition that’s making me think, and I got there by clicking through from that college friend’s Facebook page.

Ultimately, for me it comes down to how Darlin is assuming the core of the term, serendipity, that “fortune” bit.  Take Darlin’s Urbanspoon example:

“It was designed with a real serendipity problem in mind,” he said, recalling that his friends were once heading for the same old place for lunch when he held up his cellphone and said, “Imagine if you shook this like a Magic 8 Ball and it gave you an answer.”

For them, it was one of those magic moments because they identified a need that demanded a new business. “You get bored. It gets itchy and gets worse over time,” Mr. Lowry said. “You want a new experience.”

But a funny thing happens with frequent users of the app. They start relying on its search engine or the “Talk of the Town” feature, an algorithm that generates suggestions that uncannily echo local sentiment.

The problem here is in the assumption that serendipity happens often.  But isn’t most of the random selection that happens through Urbanspoon not all that fortunate?  The selections that are serendipitous end up getting recommended up the chain and land in the Talk of the Town, and all the stuff that was only so-so or even terrible doesn’t.  But they stay in the app for some other unlucky schmo to have to stumble upon.  If the goal is “fortunate discovery,” wouldn’t you prefer to draw from a pool of things other human beings have already found somewhat “fortunate”?  There is a big difference between a discovery and a discovery that’s actually good for you.

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