One of the most interesting concepts to emerge in media and tech lately is that of “serendipity”—showing people what they want even if they didn’t ask for it.
Despite its seemingly ubiquitous invocation, however, the concept of serendipity remains ill-defined and put forth as some vague panacea for a slew of emerging innovations hoping to attract new users in droves. What is needed is a closer look at what we actually mean when we talk about serendipity.
From Search to Discovery
Eric Schmidt’s recent remarks about Google as a “Serendipity Engine” (and Facebook’s quickreply), emphasize an important shift in our daily interaction with the Web and how we use it. Google-driven search provided us with an expectation of finding what we are looking for with increased precision. But the rise of Facebook’s social relevance algorithms brought about more personalized content discovery based on the human graph—who we know and what they are reading, watching, or passing along.
In fact, I’d argue that we’re seeing the dominant portion of our interaction with Web content shift from search to discovery.
Jeff Jarvis has perhaps most succinctly defined the concept of serendipity, arguing that serendipity is simply “unexpected relevance.” His explanation opens an entirely new can of worms, however, in the recognition that relevance is relative.
In seeking to achieve serendipity, the individual reader becomes both the target of content delivery mechanisms and the genesis of what that content may be. This is why serendipity is so closely associated with personalization—it requires a high-resolution understanding of the user.
Serendipity and personalization are in fact two sides to the same coin. Personalization merely acknowledges intimacy, whereas serendipity pretends to have happened on it as if by accident.
Of course serendipity is not, in fact, at all random. In reality, it’s quite scientific. Good serendipity is a slight of hand—it requires deep and granular knowledge, and the fact of its seeming to happen by accident is an artifact of naivety, if anything.
Serendipity is really just an informed calculation based upon any number of our individually unique interests, habits, location, the time and date, and prior knowledge. This level of relevance is, of course, what the emerging personalized Web hopes to achieve for each user, whether for recommendations (GetGlue; Hunch), marketing and ads (Rapleaf; Facebook advertising), or news and content (my company, TrapIt).