What brought you here?
No, really. I doubt you came here by accident, or through a series of clicks on other sites; it was probably me that brought you here through a tweet or a cross-post. Whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t serendipity. Serendipity is often described as a ‘happy accident’ or a ‘pleasant surprise’, but can also just be the result of pure luck. And we’re not talking about the kind of luck that gambling wants you to believe, that’s closer to deception. Real serendipity, I think, is when you put yourself into a different situation, space, or environment, and another element of your life collides with it.
I have been doing a fair bit of thinking about serendipity recently, since delving a little more into the research and ideas of Aleks Krotoski. Aleks is a social psychologist, journalist, and all-round web geek who’s also done a fair bit more thinking and writing about serendipity than I have. Heck, she even tried to build a machine that models serendipity. I am really looking forward to her upcoming Melbourne events. It’s an incredibly thought-provoking concept. One that we are often duped into believing the web delivers for us on a daily basis. I think that serendipity is rare within the web. Serendipity is much more at home in a bookstore, or a video rental shop, or at a festival, or walking through the park. All it needs is the right time and place.
I have no doubt that my networks, contacts, perspectives, and passions have grown and shifted because of the web. I have run at least four successful public events that started from seeing an opportunistic tweet. But is that what counts as serendipity? In building online networks, creating RSS feeds, subscribing to news, and joining communities I am simply shaping already latent interests – and finding common people that keep popping up. Actually, I am trying my best to use Google+ more and to curate it with different people that I don’t follow anywhere else, just so I can make the space more surprising, more engaging, and possibly a little more serendipitous.
The web is really just ‘curated serendipity’; things posted and linked together in a way that others can find them. Since none of us randomly surfs the web hoping to find enlightenment or for something to happen; unless you’re a troll, in which case you’re inciting something to happen. There’s nothing wrong with curated serendipity, it’s just it isn’t authentic enough for my tastes. In fact a library is also a form of curated serendipity – the books and items are all neatly cataloged and organized, so even if you find your book on the shelf, the books either side of it were deliberately placed there too. It’s the places which have a certain randomness that are the best for serendipity. Which puts serendipity back on the playing field for libraries, because the most random elements you can add to a place are people and nature. And libraries are magnets for people.
If an organization or museum, or library, or shopping mall manages to crack the code for fostering more or better serendipitous moments, then they will have incredible engagement with people. Effective organizations and institutions are using surprising and often playful elements to to break visitors’ assumptions and build their anticipation; which is so amazingly powerful. I think the web is teaching us to be more accepting of different people, places, and spaces, thereby maximizing serendipity in the real world. And that can only mean good things, but only if you act on them; a little like Shaun Tan’s story of ‘The Lost Thing‘. Bumping into an old friend randomly on the street is not serendipitous unless you act on the moment. They are among some of my biggest regrets – and when I’ve trusted my inner-self and acted on them, something unique always happens. It’s a little like this video that was doing the rounds a while ago. It’s pretty good at showing people make the most of serendipity –
Sure, maybe it’s not as authentic as Soul Pancake may want us to believe, but it makes for an energizing experience if you trust it. Which is maybe why the web doesn’t always cut it for serendipity, because we approach it with a certain level of skepticism and opinion. But if you’re quick to seize moments, or curious enough to follow that trail of links, then it will pay up for you. You see, serendipity requires you to take risks, and most places mitigate risks to the point of ‘disinfection’, thereby killing off the very lifeblood that adds spice and intrigue. I guess that’s why I like to put myself into interesting scenarios, for example meetups like The CPX or Social Melbourne, there are always opportunities for things to go slightly off the rails, if you let them. But you know, maybe these are just more examples of curated serendipity. Finding something unique in what was otherwise mundane or expected is no easy feat. Especially when you’re not even looking for it.