Serendipity

Serendipity is virtually absent in online discovery. We have an unprecedented level of access to information, but because of the sheer volume of it, discovery relies on search algorithms, or directed browsing — which is really just algorithms with a false-front. With Facebook and Twitter, your peer groups serve as a filter and serve up information that is (sometimes) suited to your interests…but only if you’ve picked the right friends.

One interesting experience back in the dark ages of the 80s and 90s used to be going to a local video store, which usually had an idiosyncratic stock of videos since they were mostly privately owned, not chain stores. Before the Blockbuster model of super-stocking the latest releases while having a very limited back catalog took hold, you could have the experience of browsing the aisles and finding something odd slotted there among more mainstream movies. And you just might take a chance and rent it, and be delighted, or disgusted, or have your mind blown.

For all the talk that Amazon suggestions are bizarre, those suggestions are the result of some correlation between the things that you searched for and things that other people have bought in the past. (It’s probably also cross-referenced with things Amazon would really like to get rid of.) If you’re buying straight-razors and Amazon is giving you suggestions for monster-sized dildos, you might think that it’s pure randomness, but it’s not. Frighteningly enough, there’s some past real-life correlation that the system is using to serve up that recommendation.

What I’d really like online is more randomness. While I do want a search to return a precise focused list of results, while browsing I’d often like to have a more organically semi-organized experience.

For instance, in used book stores, I would often find interesting books by authors I’d never heard of — by authors that sometimes no one I knew had ever heard of — simply because I’d pick up a random book with an interesting cover or intriguing title while walking through the stacks. Serendipity is finding something you immediately love that you never knew existed before then.

Recommendations from people I know rarely convince me to buy a book because my tastes are very different from most other people’s, even if we have read a handful of similar books. But I’ve bought probably hundreds of random finds at a book store.

I most often choose based on both a quick flip-and-read-through of a couple pages at the beginning, and at some spot in the middle of the book, in order to get the flavor of the writing. Because of that, I still find it hard to buy anything by an unknown author online because Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature usually has only the first couple of pages. Beginnings are easier to get right. Sustaining interesting writing even in the middle of a random passage buried in the middle of the book is much harder. I find that I fall into a rut much more easily now, where I buy more things by the same small set of “safe” authors that I know I’ll like because I don’t have a broader more varied mix of things to browse through and choose from.

Randomness doesn’t just help you find books or movies or other entertainment, it helps you solve problems. I’ve taken trips to hardware or hobby stores to find specific materials for some project, only to change my plans because I found a part that would work better than my original conception. That kind of happenstance is much harder to experience online. Most of the time, you either find exactly what you want, or you don’t find anything at all.