Where’s the serendipity?

Where’s the serendipity?

A new Internet browser called RockMelt, released by former employees of Netscape, is tuned acutely to the frequencies of the social media era. Icons on the side of the window allow surfers to share links through Twitter or Facebook, and to see what content their friends have similarly shared. RockMelt is the latest iteration of browsers such as Flock and Fizzik, which present the Internet as your friends see it.

These applications seem to be a logical extension of a shift in browsing patterns over the last couple of years. We now depend far more upon social media to determine what we consume online. (Last year, Nielsen estimated that 18% of Internet users see social media as “core" to finding new information, as opposed to 37% who looked to search engines; that 18% figure is expected to have climbed significantly by now.) Our friends, being our friends, share our sensibilities, so they’re unlikely to pass on contrarian opinions, or content from unexpected sources, or information about unfamiliar topics. A confirmation bias begins to set in. By allowing pre-selected friends to filter content for us, we’re losing one of the true joys of the Internet: the joy of serendipity, of accidental discovery.

Sceptics will argue that the Internet, unending morass of information that it is, always needed to be sieved in order to be usable. This is true—but we’ve never been as well acquainted with the people doing the sieving as we are in the social media environment. News organizations institutionally decided what to present on their websites. Filter bloggers grew familiar in their voice and preferences only over time. In relying on social media, though, we’ve refined and narrowed the stream of content that we pull and consume.

This dependence on pulling the content we know we want is, in fact, present elsewhere in our lives. We ignore the radio and load on to our iPods music that we already know we like. Rather than browse in bookshops, we order a specific book off a website—recommended, in all probability, by a Facebook friend. The ability to digitally record TV shows has made channel-surfing obsolete. In fact, the last bastion of serendipity may well be the medium you hold in your hand right now: the good, old-fashioned newspaper.

Social media: liberating or restrictive? Tell us at views@livemint.com