I just read an interesting BBC piece by Bill Thompson, “Serendipity casts a very wide net“. Bill talks about how some people, like William McKeen, believe that our heavy use of the internet limits our ability to find information serendipitously. According to McKeen, we use highly efficient search engines to find exactly what we are looking for, which makes it unlikely that we will run across new and unexpected nuggets of information.
Bill Thompson disagrees with McKeen’s assessment as do I. The Internet makes it more likely, not less likely, that I will serendipitously run across unexpected information. I have a large number of RSS feeds that I look through every day, and I frequently read an article or a blog with an interesting title containing information I would never have searched for. It is also common for me to take a serendipitous trip down a chain of links to other interesting information starting from one of the blog entries found in my RSS feeds.
Internet communities, including open source communities, have been built on serendipity. With open source software, the mailing lists are used to share ideas and get feedback from other developers hoping that someone will add their input to improve the software in an unexpected way. Online communities, like Digg, have made an art form out of serendipity. Digg allows anyone to submit a technology news story, and people vote on the stories to push the most interesting stories to the home page. Those of us reading Digg will find a wide variety of stories with information that we would never have deliberately looked for.
Interestingly enough, Bill Thompson found McKeen’s article through a serendipitous journey from an RSS feed to a blog post to McKeen’s article in the St. Petersburg Times, a Tampa Bay newspaper that he never would have read without the Internet. Likewise, I do not regularly read Bill’s BBC column despite regularly listening to his contributions on the BBC Digital Planet Podcast; however, while reading Techmeme, I ran across Bill’s article and links to related stories, which I followed to McKeen’s original story. Sounds like serendipity to me.