More on serendipity and browsing

If serendipity really is about finding the unexpected, then online browsing might be more likely to facilitate the truly unlikely findings than print browsing, simply because the set of possible discoveries is much less limited in the online world than in the physical. If I am browsing in a library or a bookstore, I am limited to what is in the physical building. If I am browsing through a physical newspaper, I can only discover what is in the issue I happen to have at hand. When I am browsing online, I frequently end up far afield from where I started.

The xkcd folks illustrate this best:

My personal experience is that I am much more likely to make fruitful, serendipitous discoveries through online browsing and social media connections than I am when I browse print materials or collections. I “wander” more when I am online, willingly following links that lead me in unexpected directions. I am a bit less likely to wander around bookstores or libraries, and I often recycle certain sections of the newspaper without even looking at them. I am much less patient and less adventurous in the print/physical world. Perhaps it is because the effort involved in following a link seems to be much lower than in wandering down the next aisle in a bookstore, or even flipping through a usually neglected section of the paper. Abbot argues that efficiency is the enemy of serendipity, but I am not convinced. YMMV, but I stick by my assertion that serendipity can and does occur in online environments.

And another thing-since I am online nearly 24/7, with Tweetdeck open and checking Google Reader and Facebook frequently, I am browsing and discovering new information constantly in the online world. In the physical world, I browse the newspaper once a day, and browse in a library or bookstore once a week or less.

Couching a defense of print collections on a fear of losing serendipity just doesn’t strike me as a very convincing argument. Serendipity happens online. If there is a particular kind or quality of serendipity that happens only in the print world, we need to be specific about it so we can either replicate (or even enhance it) online, or so that we at least know what it is we might be losing.

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9 Responses to “More on serendipity and browsing”

  1. 1 Alfonsina June 24, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Feral Blogger,

    Serendipity –the conceptual act, does not change with one medium or the other. It remains an accidental (perhaps fortunate) discovery while looking for something else, period. Now, by browsing over some of your posts we can see certain favoritism for this electronic medium, thus making us believe that what you favor is not necessarily serendipity when you are online but amusement (which the online medium offers plentifully). True, the War Wide Web is definitely more entertaining than a book. Especially when a book is judged simply by its cover.
    I have run into people who tend to favor magazines and newspapers over books. The reason: illustration gives their brain a joyful break.

    Ciao bell@


    • 2 Chris June 24, 2009 at 3:57 pm

      Thanks for the comment. I agree that conceptually, serendipity is the same regardless of environment/medium. I do think that the serendipitous discoveries we make vary on some dimensions, and that those variations might be related to online vs. print. For example, you seem to be arguing that the serendipitous discoveries one makes online will be more entertaining than the serendipitous discoveries gained from print browsing. I’m not sure I agree, but it is a testable hypothesis.
      I would argue (and hint at this in these posts) that the serendipitous discoveries one makes online are likely to be less closely related to one’s original intent than those one makes while print browsing. Again-this is a testable hypothesis.

      If my writing leads you to believe I have a preference for online content over print, then I need to begin writing more clearly! While I am excited and intrigued by the possibilities presented by digital content and tools, I remain an avid consumer of print content. And I am happy to find both amusement and enlightenment in whatever format it takes …
      Cheers, and thanks for reading.


  2. 3 Michele June 23, 2009 at 9:42 am

    As much as I tend to think (as a librarian) that my online searching/browsing is productive, the act of being online searching/browsing begs the question: How much of your own thinking are you doing if you don’t step away long enough to form most of your own thoughts? Now, I certainly don’t mean that as a criticism, I am honestly asking. The more I spend online, the less coherent my own thoughts and ideas tend to be. Meaning, my mind is full of everyone else’s opinions, facts, stories, etc. The less time I spend online, the more my mind wanders in and of its own right, thereby creating its own story and formulating its own ideas, thoughts and hypotheses. My life as a librarian, in the world as we know it, allows me to get good, pertinent “stuff” from the interwebs whenever I want. However, I personally need to spend a certain amount of time away from the “www” so I can continue being, well, me! Serendipity is not an offline or online thing, it is a human thing. The balance of everyone’s personal lives and how much time is spent online or offline can help determine if and how they experience serendipity. But serendipity, in my opinion, is never guaranteed, no matter how much you want to believe in it.


    • 4 Chris June 23, 2009 at 9:51 am

      Hi Michele-thanks for the great comment. I totally agree that no matter what kind of browsing I am doing, I need the reflective time to actually make the connections among the stuff I find. For me, that is true online or off — in fact, I touched on that idea in my very first post here Google is not making us stupid.
      Love your quote “Serendipity is not an offline or online thing, it is a human thing”!
      I think it might be fruitful to try to understand the differences and similarities between online and offline browsing and serendipity.


  3. 5 Rebecca June 23, 2009 at 8:03 am

    Love that graphic. ;-)
    Good posts! I will share them with my friends and colleagues. I love your blog.


    • 6 Chris June 23, 2009 at 8:29 am

      Thx! I’m mostly just thinking out loud when I blog … amazing how much clearer the thought end up sounder when I know someone is listening and talking back! ;-)


  1. 1 Library as mine « Feral Librarian Trackback on August 7, 2011 at 7:02 pm
  2. 2 Linked Data = Rationalized Serendipity « Feral Librarian Trackback on June 24, 2010 at 10:20 am
  3. 3 Containers without context « Feral Librarian Trackback on August 19, 2009 at 5:13 pm

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