The Slow Hunch (Part 2): Discovering Serendip

After reading Stephen Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (which you should buy and read, now), I was inspired to take his advice and “write everything down.” Here’s my first try.

I wrote a few months ago about the evolution of the web, with its “long steady march towards the holy grail of discovery – consumption without intent: content that you don’t even know that you want.” I end the post with a dramatic flourish that probably requires a bit more thought:

…the social web…has replaced intent with context, and so while wading through the stream, we are left with a feeling of serendipitous discovery, as we stumble blindly into content that we don’t even know that we want.

Serendipity is an interesting term. It’s universally perceived as good, but beyond that, I’m not sure that it is so well understood. Since writing this post, I came across a few explanations that I found incredibly useful:

First, the origin of the word. Johnson explains:

First coined in a letter written by the English novelist Horace Walpole in 1754, the word derives from a Persian fairy tale titled “The Three Princes of Serendip,” the protagonists of which were “always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” The contemporary novelist John Barth describes it in nautical terms: “You don’t reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously”

…your discovery may well be interesting and informative, but it will not be truly serendipitous unless it helps you fill in a piece of a puzzle you’ve been poring over.

Yochai Benkler, in his brilliant book “The Wealth of Networks,” never actually writes the word “serendipity,” but speaks to the concept eloquently in his rebuke of the Babel objection (i.e. information overload) – bolding is mine:

We, as individuals, also go through an iterative process of assigning a likely relevance to the judgments of others…. By a combination of random searching and purposeful deployment of social mapping-who is likely to be interested in what is relevant to me now-we can solve the Babel objection while subjecting ourselves neither to the legal and market power of proprietors of communications infrastructure or media products nor to the simple judgments of the undifferentiated herd…We do not degenerate into mindless meandering through a cacophonous din. We find things we want quite well. We stumble across things others suggest to us. When we do go on an unplanned walk, within a very short number of steps we either find something interesting or go back to looking in ways that are more self-conscious and ordered.

Yochai Benkler. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (pp. 173-174). Kindle Edition.

Finally, in no more than 8 words, Jeff Jarvis neatly summarizes the concept: “Serendipity is not randomness. It is unexpected relevance.”

Serendipity, in other words, is a form of passive discovery. It describes relevant information that is pushed to the user, in contrast to search results, which are pulled via the act of explicitly surfacing one’s intent. It replaces the exchange “I want this: ok, here you go” with “I thought you might like this: thanks, you’re right.”

Serendipitous discovery has found its most meaningful delivery mechanism today in Twitter. On Twitter we benefit from, in a very literal interpretation of Benkler’s words, “an iterative proces of assigning a likely relevance to the judgement of others.” The asymmetric follow system allows users to iterate through the set of curators that push them content. Further, lists and search allow us to provide a light layer of content categorization or social context on top of our streams. We become meta curators: actively curating a set of curators based on social proximity and perceptions of relevance to our constantly evolving interests. We optimize our streams to deliver content that we will find valuable – in other words, we position ourselves for serendipitous discovery.

All else equal,* serendipitous discovery is a fundamentally more valuable form of discovery than search.

What do I mean by value? Think about it at a basic level – for what service would you pay more? The tool that helps you get your questions answered whenever you need it, or the service of having your answers delivered before you even ask? A service that anticipates intent is more valuable – to the user (and yes, to the advertiser), than the tool that merely responds to intent.

I strongly believe that Twitter, and the ecosystem around it, are on the verge of building an industry that at least rivals what Google has built in search.

See also:

- The Slow Hunch (Part 1)

- Curating the Curators

- You Don’t Know It Yet, But You Want It

*Today, all else is not equal – for example, when I have a question, I want it answered now, not whenever someone happens to deliver it through my stream. I need to think through this some more.

  • Ari Levine


    At StumbleUpon we are providing users with content based on anticipating their intent and are actually quite successful at harnessing this for advertisers via our Paid Discovery platform.
    Clearly you’ve got love for twitter and see the potential use for it as a tool for discovery but I’ve noticed 2 companies missing from your postings; Hunch and StumbleUpon (where I work). Given your repeated referencing of the terms “hunch” and “stumble” I’d be curious to know if we (and hunch) were on your mind while crafting your posts and what your thoughts on both services are.

    Ari Levine

    • jakelevine

      Hey Ari,

      Thanks for your comment – I’d love to know how you came across the blog.

      I had not used the words intentionally :) but they are certainly top of mind. I’m not so familiar with StumbleUpon but it sounds like I should get to know it better.