In my search to better understand the effects of serendipitous discovery, I came across an old blog post by information and media professor Ethan Zuckerman called The architecture of serendipity. It’s an interesting piece that discusses a dialog between two law professors that talk about “old school” (remember that, offline paper?) newspapers as serendipitous sources. An excerpt:
The daily newspaper, when it’s working well, builds in the architecture of serendipity. It’s designed to draw the idea to a headline or story that you might not otherwise encounter, hoping to capture your focus and draw you into a story you didn’t know you were interested in, but which gives you information that changes your worldview.
Unfortunately, the modern news industry is more interested in clicks and your data than in providing genuinely interesting information. This is where your RSS filter comes in!
Wikipedia has a “Random article” link. Obsidian has a “Open random note” button. I can’t believe there isn’t any JetBrains IDE plugin to open a random source file. Imagine starting with that at the beginning of your coding session! DEVONThink suggests related but unlinked documents in the “See Also” pane. Discuvver, an alternative to the once popular StumbleUpon, sends random useful sites in your inbox weekly. The IndieWeb Discovery page mentions “serendipitous methods” for finding content, websites, communities, or people. Remember webrings from the nineties, before Yahoo acquired GeoCities, when search and social media algorithms didn’t rule the world?
Zuckerman continues talking about heterogeneity as a facilitator for serendipity. Replacing traditional news sites with user-generated news aggregators like Reddit might lead to interesting stories, but they’re hardly surprising serendipitous discoveries. Statista.com reveals that the Reddit userbase is still overwhelmingly male, employed in tech, and from the US. This means that certain stories are more likely to be upvoted than others.
We won’t delve into the details of homophily here, but the message is clear: don’t put all your serendipitous eggs in similar baskets.
And yet, by joining Mastodon, I think I did.
Who lurks on obscure and decentralized networks that, when you’re really serious, has you installing your own “instance-of-one” on some server? Indeed: tech nerds promoting open source software and privacy advocates. This is right up my alley and most of the times a good thing: it makes you feel wanted and at home. But at the same time, it also prevents you from looking beyond your usual interests.
As I wrote in a triumph for blogging, I owe it to the Fediverse that I’m now a member of a Canadian fountain pen club. That does sound like a good healthy doze of serendipity right there. But is it really—serendipity is supposed to surprise. I was already into fountain pens. When I sometimes skim through lifestyle magazines my wife loves to read, and encounter an article that triggers another link to a problem I’m working on, that is serendipity. I love walking into book stores and going home with a new purchase that I didn’t foresee on a subject that I at first wasn’t interested in.
Checking my Mastodon feed lately causes me to yawn. I’m bored by the Fuck Google And Twitter statements—please stop distributing useless messages on platforms where people already fucked Google and Twitter. Yes, Go is awesome and Linux For The Win, yadda yadda. Yes, everyone should get their COVID jab. Dear God, make it stop. Should I start a de-follow frenzy? Compared to Twitter, Mastodon is already so very tiny. I’m sure I’m still missing out on interesting non-tech savvy people to follow, but it’s hard to deny the homogeneity of the population there.
When I was writing this, Ton beat me to it with his can you help me find additional non-English blogs to follow question. Deliberately mixing up your news feed with a diversity on topics, including the ones you are completely unfamiliar with, is the best way to engineer serendipity, I think. Of course it’s okay to read up on others' nerdiness simply because you’re also one (I’m using this in a positive sense here!). But at the mean time, blogs and social media are great ways to broaden your horizon.
Which social media platform is the most effective in this, a tech-heavy obscure one or a non-tech giant with millions and millions of active—and more importantly, diverse—feeds? It’s even a big hassle to find people in the first place. I can’t believe I’m writing a case for going back to those giants. I’m very glad write.as, wordpress.com, blogger.com, etc lowered the bar to start a blog nowadays. Not everyone needs his own custom static site generator. In fact, most of those blogs can’t stop blogging about blogging instead of having something genuinely exciting to tell.
Ton shares his blogroll by exporting an OPML file organized by his social circles. I’m duly surprised every time Brain Baking appears in a blogroll I’m rifling through, but perhaps that means we already share too much common interests and I should start looking elsewhere?
In any case, I should really work on adding a blogroll.