Thursday, February 26, 2009

The death of serendipity?

A version of this was published in marketing magazine in Feb 2009; this piece looks at how the internet threatens to paint us into an intellectual corner.  Eli Pariser of MoveOn also speaks about this at TED in 2011 (no link published yet).
In a 1754 letter, the writer Horace Walpole coined the term ‘serendipity’ – a word he derived from an old Persian tale, ‘The Three Princes of Serendip’.  In the story, the protagonists always benefited from unplanned discoveries, and these seemingly random occurrences ultimately enabled them to fulfil their mission.

Early in the development of the web, the capacity of the internet to surprise and divert us was recognised with the phrase ‘web-surfing’ - following links through the internet that led to places the reader had never anticipated when starting their mouse-journey.

And although web-surfing rarely created the sort of benefits the three princes sought (wealth, kingdoms, marriage to beautiful princesses etc.), the web was seen as a force that opened up our horizons – exposed us to new thinking, concepts and ideologies.  But now, there’s an increasing concern that far from expanding our horizons, digital media in general are making our worlds smaller.

In the analogue age, the shortage of bandwidth meant few TV channels – so ideas competed for exposure, and we had little choice but to see them.  Now, we can watch the God Channel, the Wine Channel, the Gay Network on Sky, and never be exposed to atheists, real ale fans or Jeremy Clarkson.

On the internet, collaborative filtering means we passively influence others when we do things online.  We can shop at Amazon, and be shown other books purchased by people who bought the book we’re interested in, and listen to Last.FM where similar listening profiles will suggest tracks we might like.  In this way, our choice of music and books is swayed by people whose consumption patterns indicate they’re like us.

Social networking has added another dimension to this, enabling us to hang out with people who share our views, rather than merely people who share our geographic location.  Now, we can hang out with others who believe in reincarnation, UFOs, homeopathy or banking, and never trouble ourselves with views that run contrary to our own.

Increasingly it seems, digital media perform a reductive role in our lives – patting us on the back and telling us we’re right, and keeping anything unsettlingly different away from us.

Just as it’s said that the Queen believes the world smells of fresh paint and the national anthem’s playing everywhere, we’re constantly presented with a worldview that induces complacency. 

The world looks comfortable, unchallenging and familiar, and it appeals to what sociologists call homophily – the ‘birds of a feather’ tendency of people to cluster around things that are common to them.

Isn’t this good though?  Isn’t it great that if we like Aretha Franklin we could discover Etta James?

Undoubtedly.  But we’re never going to hear Bach’s double violin concerto, or the Dead Kennedys. 

Which makes a new development on interesting – this website for people to catalogue and share their libraries recently launched the ‘unsuggester’ – a tool they describe as ‘the worst recommendation tool ever’.  It uses statistical analysis of users’ libraries to determine the books least likely to exist in the same collection – type in Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, and it suggests ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’; enter ‘Henry Kissenger’ and you get ‘Terry Pratchett’.

Unsuggester is fun, but it tries to address a serious issue.

When we launch new products, we challenge behaviour patterns.  When we try to attract new customers, we’re asking them to do something different.  If the effect of homophily is to fuel people’s insularity and build resistance against change, then in the future it will be harder to talk to people unbidden, more difficult to create new relationships.

As marketers, homophily can reinforce our brand relationships.  But it can also stand in the way of new ones, and addressing this might just benefit from some serendipity.