Serendipity and the Unexpected

It’s a common presumption that media will become increasingly personalized, but a recent article on ReadWriteWeb reminded me about the dangers, or at least dullness, of such a future.

The article was commenting on Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, who said “People don’t want something targeted to the whole world — they want something that reflects what they want to see and know.” She went on to say that, in a couple years, websites that aren’t tailored to readers interests will be irrelevant. It’s a pretty strong stance, and ReadWriteWeb summarized it nicely:

“That’s fantastic: a new level of subject-level sophistication, detail and efficiency will be available to a wider variety of people than ever before. Reading the news no longer means opening the local newspaper and seeing the lowest-common denominator news that the largest number of people will likely find palatable.

The other side of the coin is perhaps more familiar: the argument that personalization is an information silo. It leads to self re-enforcing political perspectives, unchecked extremism, a shortage of empathy, stunted learning about the world and a weak democracy.”

The episode is a reminder of the value, importance, and joy, of unexpected learning and discovery. And that to presume that a system can intelligently anticipate what you will and won’t find interesting is to devalue our own intelligence and creativity.

Russel Davies recently blogged about the brilliance of James Burke and his Connections TV show. It’s a great example, if linear and scripted, of how one thing can lead to another in totally unexpected ways. And how, as a viewer, you suddenly find interesting the in-between steps, things that you might not have considered relevant before.

I’ve always been fascinated by interfaces that encourage browsing and serendipity — ways of removing the expected and linear. And recently there have been are a couple examples which, while not quite awesome, are pretty interesting.

The Accidental News Explorer lets you start with a regular search, but then helps you to wander off into the realm of “related topics.” What’s nice is that the longer you explore, the further afield your results become.

Doodlebuzz is a much more graphic and gestural way of exploring. Like The Accidental News Explorer (they were both created by Brendan Dawes), Doodlebuzz starts with a search. But then you draw lines (or “doodles”) from topics of interest to reveal more content or to expand your search. It may lack the ability to read a whole article, but its right-brained non-verbal approach makes it a great experience.

A little more physically involving is the iPhone app Serendipitor. It’s a simple idea – you enter a destination and Serendipitor will take you on a route with various detours and distractions. It’ll even offer suggestions of activities to get you to think more about your journey. It’s a sort-of mix between a broken Google Maps and Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies. The app itself is a bit buggy, but it’s a great concept and worth a try.

Stay tuned. This post may have been a bit of a ramble, but this is a topic I love, and hope to post more soon…

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