The Loss of Serendipity

(click thumbnail)Internet users are now spending more time concentrating on fewer Web sites. This means, as the novelty wears off and habits set in, the serendipity of random Web surfing is in decline.

The recurrent pattern of logging on directly to familiar pages is especially true of news. Though the Internet offers the most diverse palette of news, information and opinion of all electronic media, research by Jupiter Media Metrix shows that during the month of July, 72 percent of Web news junkies concentrated their attention on only three news sites: MSNBC, CNN and The New York Times.

The average Internet user in the United States, the research finds, spent nearly 21 hours online during July, an increase of two hours from last year. But, rather than use hyperlinks or search engines to seek out new sites, the masses stayed with the tried-and-true brand names they know from traditional media.

This is good news to deep-pocketed corporate media sites with powerful brands. It's not so good for lesser-known sites that might offer a genuine news and information alternative to the mainstream media, but can't match their branding firepower.

Sadly, this trend subverts the very core idea that Tim Berners-Lee conceived in 1989 when he invented the World Wide Web, the radical Internet-based hypermedia initiative for global information sharing. The genius of WWW’s hyperlinks was the ability for ordinary computer users to easily discover new places and ideas with a simple click of a computer mouse.


"What I worry about when it comes to the Web is that people are encouraged to drill down into their areas of concern to such a degree that they get closeted in their own reflections of themselves," said Joseph Turow, a professor at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in an interview with the New York Times. "That can militate against an open society. And surfing was a way out of that."

The very randomness of discovery through hit-and-miss surfing is one of the endearing strengths of the Web. Like the best of travel – the kind where there's no preset agenda – open-minded people make personal discoveries through accident and sagacity. It's a modern version of serendipity, the faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident.

The issue of serendipity on the Internet unexpectedly evolved into a major topic of discussion at a mid-1990s symposium at the Media Laboratory on the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Peter Sellars, a noted director of theater, opera and film, offered insight on the subject.

"Hundreds of years ago," Sellars said, "people in search of knowledge went on personal pilgrimages for information." The process, he said, could take years. By not having the information at their fingertips, there was experience attached to the search that made the finding of the information far more meaningful. "The actual act of finding something had value," he said. "It was a beautiful thing because when you found something it meant something."

Now, said Sellars, "we are getting all this information with no experience attached to it. Where there is no pilgrimage the information itself is debased, devalued and dehumanized. In a sense the ratio of experience to information content is radically altered. What's irritating about the age of information is that it creates this yuppie denial of experience. We have everything at our fingertips, but we don't value anything."


The "untamed quality" of the basic Internet structure appeals to Sellars because it allows the user to wander and discover information through personal experience. "To just meander is one of the pleasures of life," he noted.

To have the audience making wrong turns through the information "is exactly the point," Sellars continued. "That's where the juice is."

Today's electronic media reflects only a single point of view. "A very narrow group of people are creating this insane gridlock on information about human experience," Sellars said. "We are aware there are many, many voices that we don't hear today at all. The CBS Evening News represents only one voice."

Artists, Sellars said, "must break out of the official information structure" to find new ways to express important subjects that mainstream media refuses to address.

"You get the feeling that huge parts of human experience are going undocumented and unrecognized," he continued. "Aristotle wrote about the attempts to touch the totality of an experience. As human beings, we are complex, divided and multilayered. Therefore, what satisfies us is complex, multilayered and has all these built-in conflicts just as we do. How do we set up (new media) structures that show how we really feel?"


The World Wide Web, as conceived by Tim Berners-Lee, offers the promise of a new media structure for a greater diversity of voices and ideas. Why, then, are users drifting back to traditional media?

Is it because most new Web sites are simply not "complex, divided and multilayered" enough to sustain a demanding audience? Or, is it that without costly mass market branding, even the most creative new works remain invisible – hidden under a cluttered sea of commercial noise?

Or, perhaps, is it that modern audiences are not as adventurous as they'd like to believe they are – quietly preferring the comfort of simplified, shorthand information delivery over a more demanding, thoughtful exchange of ideas?

These fundamental Internet questions are now on the table. So far, however, the mass of online users has not provided clear answers.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.