Is ‘Search’ Killing Serendipity?

by Dan Blank on May 7, 2007

So what are we losing in an age of personal media and search? In an age where aggregation and social networks threaten to replace the human editor? An experience last weekend made me ask myself this question: 

As search – a targeted way to find exactly what we are looking for – becomes more integrated in our lives, are we killing serendipity?

You remember serendipity, don’t you? From Wikipedia:

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

I remembered it last weekend when taking an hour and a half drive alone in the car. I did something I rarely do: I turned on the radio.

I found myself listening to – and enjoying – music that I never would have chosen at that moment. Music from my past, music that is cheesy, music that is inspiring, music that you would be embarrassed to listen to in the company of friends. It was an hour and a half of pure serendipity.

And there is something about shared experience. Knowing that thousands of others are hearing that song, at that moment. That you are a part of a larger story – that this DJ, this station – helps write our common experiences.

One of my favorite moments each week is reading the Sunday New York Times. Sitting in a sunbeam on the floor of my living room – music in the background, coffee in hand – it it is a true escape. But it all centers on one word: serendipity.

I find myself reading things that have nothing to do with my hobbies, my job, or my interests. I find myself growing.  In fact, during the week I often read the NY Times via RSS feed in the morning, and then the print version in the evening. I am always amazed at how many stories I skip over in RSS feed, but that I notice, read, and enjoy in the print version.

For one it points to the importance of the headline, but it also speaks to my reading style in my RSS reader. I am looking for targeted information about the intersection of business, technology and media. I am doing a quick search with very specific parameters. At night, the print version gives me so many more visual cues about a story, that I find myself easily engrossed in stories whose headlines I dismissed earlier in the day.

The New Yorker is another favorite read of mine, and they are legendary for their editing prowess. Every week it arrives as a mystery. And every week I find myself delving deep into a topic that I never would have expected.

As search becomes more prominent in our daily routine – looking for and finding specific information – how does this destroy any sense of serendipity that a human editor often provides for us?

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