How I Find Serendipity In The Digital Age

Over the weekend, the New York Times published a piece by technology editor Damon Darlin under the headline, “Serendipity, Lost in the Digital Deluge.”

As the headline suggests, Darlin laments that the digital age is robbing us of those wonderful moments of serendipity. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. In fact, I’ve found myself discovering more through serendipity than ever, in large part thanks to the rise of social media.

Let’s start by understanding serendipity. Wikipedia says serendipity is “the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely unrelated.” Merriam-Webster defines serendipity as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”

With that in mind, let’s examine Darlin’s thesis. He suggests that because many physical manifestations of media (i.e., books, CDs) are no longer sitting out on a shelf, we are having fewer random moments of discovery:

“But CDs have disappeared inside the iPod. And shelves of videos are rarely seen as we get discs in the mail from Netflix or downloaded from Vudu. And, one day soon, book collections may end up inside a Kindle. With an e-book reader, the person on the subway seat across from you will never know what you are reading.”

He then brushes off the notion that social media can ever provide a replacement, or similar satisfaction:

“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 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.”

Here’s where I think he gets it wrong. In fact, serendipity is the word I’ve used repeatedly over the past two years to describe to others what I find appealing about social media. It reminds me of one of my favorite things about reading the printed version of the newspaper. You experience serendipity all the time as you begin one story of great interest, but then another headline unexpectedly catches your eye.

As the Internet has evolved over the past decade, we have fallen into essentially two large methods of finding information. The first is “search discovery.” In this case, we have a fairly specific question and we want an answer. So we go to a search engine, usually Google, and type in keywords or a question. That gives us a list of sites that hopefully contain the information we’re seeking. If this were the only way to discover information online, then Darlin would be rights. People who are looking for news this way go directly to the article they want, and then leave. So in that framework, serendipity is not present.

But with the rise of services like Facebook and Twitter, we now practice “social discovery” of information. And the things I tend to find whenever I’m checking Facebook and Twitter remind my almost exactly of the sensation I get in the analog world that Darlin describes at the start of his piece:

“But we’ve lost something as well: the fortunate discovery of something we never knew we wanted to find. In other words, the digital age is stamping out serendipity.

When we walk into other people’s houses, we peruse their bookshelves, look at their CD cases and sneak a peek at their video collections (better that than their medicine cabinets).”

That’s exactly what it feels like when I dip my toe into Twitter. I don’t log in and then try to read the 10,000 or so tweets that I missed. Instead, I look forward to the randomness of who else might be tweeting at that moment, and what they might be sharing: a thought, a link, whatever.

Over the past two years, I’ve discovered all sorts of wonderful things through my social media streams. News, of course. Small bits of wisdom, humor or trivia. Another big one is events. The most interesting conferences and networking events I’ve attended I head about because someone I like or admire posted something about attending. When it comes to entertainment, I’ve discovered huge amounts of music through my social networks, and as a result, I’m buying and consuming more music than I ever have in my life. (Hear that, music industry?)

In any case, serendipity is alive and well, thank you very much. And thanks to social media, it’s got a pretty bright future.


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