Does digital really enrich our lives?
Before launching into any further explanation, I’d like to define the concept of serendipity. What does it really mean? The dictionary definition covers a combination of “good news”, “luck” and “a chance encounter”.
Serendipity is the ability to find something you weren’t actually looking for. It’s about unearthing a link, a flow of information or data that may not be useful to you in the immediate future, is not specifically what you were looking for, but is enjoyable, rewarding or may be useful in the future. It’s the ability to “stumble upon something”.
It starts out as something very physical or material. Serendipity comes with random browsing: perusing the shelves in a library, flicking through a CD stand in a record shop, or finding an author or an artist that you didn’t set out to find, but who catches your eye and sparks your interest.
It is also central to the very composition of the internet itself. Although not necessarily purposeful, serendipity is an integral underlying element in the notion of hypertext, the links that provide the backbone of the World Wide Web. The web was originally designed to provide access to additional information – without necessarily having direct links to basic information – and therefore to provide users with the opportunity to deviate from their original subject matter in order to discover new facets of culture. And that’s what Wikipedia is all about. It uses cross-referenced links to different entries that enable readers to move in just four clicks from the description of the latest Hawkwind album to the inner workings of an electric turbine.
Serendipity complements human curiosity; it is the ability to offer the widest possible field of information available.
But these cultural fields are shrinking…
We are now cutting down the breadth of these fields. First by using these digital technologies themselves. A few months ago, I read an article in the New York Times that struck me as fascinating. It was about the loss of general culture in the younger generation, which is caused by the loss of physical cultural objects.
As a child, I used to browse my father’s and sisters’ record collections. The cowboy on the cover of a Johnny Cash compilation aroused my curiosity – even though, at the time, listening to the record proved to be something of a disappointment. This physical medium, this record sleeve, was my first contact with the music: a concrete gateway for my curiosity. The digital approach makes experiencing this curiosity more of a challenge.
First physically: you need to switch on your computer, tablet, mobile phone, then launch the application and start the music. These actions are done consciously, we already know what music we want to play before the iPod has even started.
- In 1999, if you wanted to find information on Yahoo! you had to browse a directory and a content category. And potentially end up on a website that did not correspond perfectly to your search.
- In 2010, Google and its engine (covering more than 90 percent of web searches in Western Europe) have greatly changed the way we search, and the expectations of internet users.
We now expect to be given a precise answer to a specific question, and in as little time as possible. Google’s promise is to avoid wasting time and to ensure that relevant information is provided. And this means that we are no longer getting lost – in the sense of wandering around. We no longer need to wade through third-party information, and this is putting major limits on our exposure to serendipity.
Google wants to be able to answer more and more questions in real-time. Mobile interfaces like OK Google – or Apple’s Siri, future Microsoft Chatbots and Facebook / Messenger – are specifically predicting this future platform for queries and information.
Google and other digital giants want to limit users’ exposure to elements outside their ecosystem by displaying flight schedules, weather and news in real-time (and this includes the developments of Google AMP or Facebook Instant Articles in the media world) on their own pages. From an economic point of view, and especially in terms of efficiency, it is extremely relevant. And perfectly in line with a society that considers available time as its top valuable resource.
Curiosity costs time, and you need even more time to allow yourself to “get lost”, even virtually. But web platforms aim primarily for efficiency.
Are we heading towards a social environment populated with clones?
Here is where social networks come into play. For younger generations, Facebook, Snapchat, WhatsApp and others are the true gateway to the internet (and more of the web).
They are terrific for having conversations – as an IRC user 20 years ago, I firmly believe in the relational and conversational power of the internet – but they are also terrible horizon limiters. Access to Facebook is through a network of friends and pages – or brands – with which users have identified themselves as having an affinity. Potentially, therefore, they are exposing themselves to information coming from a closed community, one that is limited in scope and not randomly assigned, and often constructed in their own image and tastes.
It is a normal human experience: we interact more easily with people whose interests or preferences we share. But shrinking this sharing of interests to a group of 500 or even 1000 contacts on Facebook is bound to guarantee that the same messages are quickly amplified over and over.
The notions of belonging and micro-culture that Chris Anderson pointed out ten years ago in The Long Tail are worth looking at in even greater detail. This structuring work for digital thinking is still relevant. Perhaps even more so now that we have strong digital communities, because it allows us to understand the various different behaviours on the net, and our ability to share, based on a common digital culture.
To a certain extent, the meme trend is related to that. It contributes to the creation of cultural micro-communities to which we submit, and which restrict our field of research. The emergence of an Instagram, Snapchat or WhatsApp post on this point is even more striking. They are often closed networks, where the structuring hypertext logic for the web no longer exists. Take the example of Snapchat, where random contact is no longer possible; you have to know someone’s ID or phone number to interact with them. The chances of exposure to content that has not been validated or moulded by the micro-community are even slimmer. The influence of micro-cultures and the risks of cloning are in turn much stronger.
Especially since these networks – Facebook, but also Instagram and Twitter to a certain extent – set out to foster commitment. That’s a broad term and is almost impossible to define, but generally speaking, covers a person’s interest in content. It’s the person’s available brain time – to use a term that has been controversial in France – the time that the person is willing to devote to processing that information. This boils down to the reading of an article, a like, a share, etc. A measurable unit of interest that does not really have a price tag, but becomes a stand-alone objective in the digital world of commitment.
Brand content and data, a depressing mix?
This sparing use of attention has caused two major changes in the management of digital activities: programming and brand content.
Programming is the complete algorithm. Computers work on dissecting your media consumption habits to know which ones grab your attention best. They then determine the content that is most likely to extend this commitment.
Do you subscribe to SkySports or The Mirror, and enjoy regular updates on news from Bayern Munich? It’s a safe bet that the algorithm will push you primarily towards content related to Bundesliga or the Champions League.
In fact, algorithms already govern a vast amount of online media exposure: the Facebook timeline is not linear, nor is Instagram’s, and the majority of advertisements displayed on the web are presented using programmed platforms. In terms of social networks and advertising, 80 percent of the content we see is displayed right in front of us without our making the conscious decision to look at it, by a robot who thinks it is very likely – statistically speaking – that we will like and view this content.
Brand content, on-trend content marketing, is directly associated with this idea of commitment. The downfall of traditional advertising – mainly caused by ad blockers and changes in digital media, i.e. this platform and the use of social networks as a gateway to the net – forces brands to communicate with users in different ways.
Content – text, image and video – lends itself wonderfully to current digital consumption habits. But it must always seek out this ability to take advantage of the attention available, to generate commitment. Brand communication itself then becomes programmed and predictable. To reach a user on social networks, certain communication codes are used, as well as the user’s cultural foundation. The idea is to avoid “surprising” users; not to expose them to unique content, but rather trying to pin the universe of the brand you are promoting to the cultural universe to which the internet user feels close. The newsjacking trend currently raging on Twitter, which is defined as a misappropriation of news by Sixt, KitKat, Mini, etc. is exactly that: bringing the brand into the culturally reassuring universe of the internet user. That’s all it is.
And the emergence of specialised media for a young target group – Melty in France and Buzzfeed on the international scene – are the perfect illustration of this. The new generation of YouTubers, who also speak for them, is simply the economic expression of this strategy. Buzzfeed makes no promises in terms of creativity, it simply commits to bringing a brand into the identified and closed cultural universe of the young target group. It promises to bring the story of a brand – which is often long and complex – into a limited communication mould. And dilute users’ imaginations in the process. And there are others, each with their own agenda: Vice believes that all news must be presented from a pseudo pornographic or shocking angle. For Slate, everything is controversial and urban. This is not about widening readers’ points of view, it is about restricting the theme to make it fit into a defined cultural framework.
So where does chance come in?
It doesn’t look great: faced with digitalisation, research, communities, algorithms and brand content, what is the actual likelihood that an internet user will be exposed – or will have the opportunity to be exposed – to something truly original?
It’s becoming less and less likely, as usage changes and as consumers’ available time is nibbled away by suggestions and the chance that “you may also like” further specific content.
But there are some solutions. Various interfaces such as Wikipedia or Tinder, platforms for human curation and connection like Twitter, are some ways in which surprise could return to the daily lives of internet users. Teen Vogue surprised us by dealing with broader issues regarding the US Constitution following the election of President Donald Trump, while other magazines traditionally aimed at older women were still focusing on fashion.
But being curious takes effort, and availability. Serendipity uses up free time… And the goal of digital today is to make use of that free time and maximise its value, by reducing the space that remains for people to wander and roam around as they please. So let’s fight for our right to be curious!
Illustrations: Alessandro Gottardo (Shout); Frank Höhne