A funny thing happened on the way to the information revolution: While digital media have given us access to endless information from diverse sources, many of us focus our news habits on narrow topics and familiar points of view. We end up discovering fewer new ideas or opinions. In short, we have more information but less understanding.
The challenge for modern information consumers becomes: How do you discover what you don’t know you want to know?
Old-time print journalists bemoan the absence of serendipity— the accidental discovery of stories that readers didn’t know they were interested in reading. In the words of a recent blog post at the Nieman Journalism’s Lab site, “While there is more news on the Web, our perspectives on the news are narrower because we only browse the sites we already agree with, or know we already like, or care about.” With newspapers, by contrast, readers discover “things we didn’t care about, or didn’t agree with, in the physical act of turning the page”.
Newspaper and magazine editors design their publications to help readers stumble onto topics they may not think are of interest. The front page of most newspapers is intended to guide readers to both important and interesting stories. This experience has not been easy to replicate online. Most-read or most-emailed article lists can help, but people tend to go to sites or blogs on specific topics from congenial points of view.
It’s not just nostalgic journalists who wonder about the impact of this shift in how we consume information. A telling exchange last week suggests even the digerati are searching for serendipity. At the offices of The Guardian newspaper in London, an online technologist asked media analyst Clay Shirky whether the serendipity of newspapers could ever be replicated online. Shirky encouraged experimentation, and within a few hours the “Random Guardian” feature was launched on the paper’s website.
This was creative, but random news is not the same thing as inspired editors presenting new topics or writers to their readers. Or as blogger Jeff Jarvis put it last week, “Serendipity is not randomness. It is unexpected relevance.” He says that “when we read a paper and find a good story that we couldn’t have predicted we’d have liked, we think that is serendipity. But there’s some reason we like it, that we find it relevant to us.” Don’t underestimate the unexpected. Accidental discovery is a major factor in many areas of innovation.
When it comes to information, the speed and ease of digital media can lure us into thinking that if the news is important, it will somehow find us. Often it does, through personalized news sites and feeds. Many of us rely on links to news articles by the people we follow on Twitter or Facebook to find out something new or to make sure we haven’t missed something. This experience can resemble the serendipity of older media, but there is also the risk of living in an echo chamber where we read what we want to read and share views with those we know already agree with us.
“The aggregation of news sources has gone from being a server-side to a client-side operation,” Shirky says, “which is to say, the decision about what to bring together into a bundle is made by the consumer and not by the producer.”
The good news is that readers can still find serendipity, if they look for it. There are new magazines dedicated to smart aggregation of news, such as The Week, whose circulation continues to grow.
Perhaps some day there will even be a serendipity machine that takes advantage of digital technology to find a new solution to this old problem. It could have a smart algorithm that will deliver news personalized for each of us, alerting us to news we would not find on our own and that we’d be glad to discover. Meanwhile, we’re on our own, searching for our own best way to serendipity.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Edited excerpts. L. Gordon Crovitz is a WSJ columnist. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org