Underestimated for a long time, serendipity is an increasingly recognized design principle of the infosphere. Being influenced by environmental and human factors, the experience of serendipity encompasses fundamental phases of production, distribution and consumption of information. On the one hand, design information architectures for serendipity increases the diversity of information encountered as well as users’ control over information processes. On the other hand, serendipity is a capability. It helps individuals to internalize and adopt strategies that increase the chances of experiencing it. As such, the pursuit for serendipity can help to burst filter bubbles and weaken echo chambers in social media. The article reviews the literature on emerging issues surrounding serendipity in human–computer interactions. By doing so, it firstly presents the study of serendipity and the debate about its role in digital environments. Then, it introduces the main features of a preliminary architecture for serendipity. Finally, it analyzes from an interdisciplinary perspective the values that embraces and sustains. The conclusion is that serendipity can be conceived as an emerging design and ethical principle able to strengthen media pluralism and other emerging human rights in the context of online personalization. Main limitations and potential unintended consequences are also discussed.
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It had been indeed perceived as an “esoteric word” given that it did not appear in any of the abridged dictionaries until 1951 (Merton and Barber 2006).
Consider one of the most famous example of serendipity: the discovery of penicillin by Fleming. It has been argued that at least 28 scientists before Fleming reported the same colonies of bacteria that led him to the discovery of penicillin (de Melo 2018). Yet, all chose to view that anomaly as an unfortunate error rather than an opportunity for discovery.
There are many other taxonomies of course (for a recent one see Yaqub 2018). Yet, one of the most popular and intuitive taxonomy of serendipitous discoveries is the one by Friedel (see de Melo 2018), which identifies three main forms from science’s historical examples: Columbian, which occurs when one is looking for one thing of value, but finds another one (from Columbus’s unsought discovery of America); Archimedean, which occurs when one discovers sought-for results, although by routes not logically deduced but luckily observed (from Archimedes’s “Eureka” moment); and Galilean, which occurs when one discovers something valuable without intentionally seeking it (from Galileo’s unexpected discoveries through his telescope).
Actually, there is no consensus on the definition of serendipity, and it also varies on the field of study (McCay-Peet and Toms 2017). Moreover, some of the adjectives used are difficult to operationalize it are often used interchangeably (for instance, unexpectedness and surprise, or usefulness, interestingness and meaningfulness).
Interestingly, it is possible to trace back the influence of serendipity in the foundations of cybernetics by Norbert Wiener. Olma (2016) argues that the Rad Lab—the famous Radiation Laboratory located at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—was an example of an ‘institutionalised serendipity’ environment which created the necessary conditions that encouraged “a transversal exchange of knowledge that, in turn, enabled Wiener to create the discipline of cybernetics, which itself allowed for the development of ARPANET, one of the technical foundations of the internet” (de Melo 2018).
If we want to generalize the concept of surprise we may have that an event which occurs with high probability should have a low surprise, whereas an event which occurs with low probability should have a high surprise. This sheds light on the paradoxical challenge to program serendipity.
Folksonomy, also known as collaborative tagging, social classification, social indexing, and social tagging, is a collaborative user-generated system of classifying and organizing online content into different categories by the use of metadata such as electronic tags. Famous social networks based on it are del.icio.us and StumbleUpon.
Even the metaphor ‘surfing the Internet’ was chosen to refer to a fun feeling and “something that would evoke a sense of randomness, chaos, and even danger” (Polly 1992). Without search engines, the journey on the web was indeed initially intended as discovering what was out there—accidentally—not on finding specific content (Hendler and Hugill 2013).
See for example the Algotransparency.org project which shows how certain video on Youtube—mostly about conspiracy theories—are much more recommended than others. One of its founder—a former Google employee—argues the possibility that certain videos that discredit traditional media are more recommended with the goal of further engage users within its platform. See https://medium.com/@guillaumechaslot/how-algorithms-can-learn-to-discredit-the-media-d1360157c4fa.
Algorithms which predict individual’s preferences tend to nudge users’ comfort zones. For instance, Facebook is deeply committed to maintain friends’ relationships. Its newsfeed is therefore moderated by homophily (DeVito 2017) which is, however, the primary driver of content diffusion, especially misinformation and conspiracy theories, with a frequent result of homogeneous, polarized clusters (Del Vicario et al. 2016). Moreover, information intermediaries may increase engagement also by developing unconscious addictive rituals based on gamification and dark patterns with the help of affective computing and “captology” (Fogg et al. 2002). Algorithms indeed explore manipulative strategies that may be detrimental to users (Albanie et al 2017).
To give a general portray of the magnitude of the phenomenon, consider that the average time currently spent on Facebook by a user (in total circa 2 billion) is about 1 h a day, and the posts encountered are circa 350, prioritized on about 1.500 (thus, roughly 75% are hidden) (Backstrom 2013). In U.S., two-thirds (67%) report that they get at least some of their news on social media (Shearer and Gottfried 2017). Yet, just 14% of Facebook users believe ordinary users have a lot of control over the newsfeed and only about 36% intentionally tried to influence that (Smith 2018).
Negroponte referred to two main concepts: “daily me” and “daily us”. With the first he referred to personalized online news summaries (tending to a convergent system), while with the latter to non-personalized online news summaries (tending to a divergent system). Of course, these are not two black and white different states but one tends to move between them.
Notably, the most significant affordance that Facebook currently provides is to select the option “Most recent” stories in the Newsfeed. However, anytime you re-launch the site the setting spontaneously reset itself by default to “Top Stories”—the classic curated newsfeed. See https://www.facebook.com/help/community/question/?id=10152476808951132 and also https://www.facebook.com/help/371675846332829.
Consider that Youtube’s recommendations already drive more than 70% of the time spent in the video sharing platform. See https://www.cnet.com/news/youtube-ces-2018-neal-mohan/.
As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (544–484 B.C.) famously argued: “if you do not expect it, you will not find the unexpected, for it is hard to find and difficult.”
While serendipity is usually acknowledged as a pleasant experience, in this paper it is also valued the role of unpleasant encounters, usually called zemblanity. This means that designing for serendipity unavoidably implies also unpleasant encounters—albeit potentially serendipitous.
Only 24% were aware that Facebook prioritizes certain posts and hides others from users’ feeds while 37% believed every post is included in the newsfeed (Powers 2017).
As an ENISA study (Danezis et al. 2015) summarizes: “Intervenability ensures intervention is possible concerning all ongoing or planned privacy-relevant data processing, in particular by those persons whose data are processed. The objective of intervenability is the application of corrective measures and counter-balances where necessary.”
This seems to be true also for consumers’ advertisement satisfaction. In fact, there is no consensus yet on the effectiveness of targeted advertisement (Zuiderveen Borgesius et al. 2014). On the contrary, contextual advertisement may actually increase serendipitous encounters more than the personalized one. Given the oligopoly of the advertisement industry, there might indeed be incentives not to meet demand and supply as efficiently as possible.
For instance, Sunstein (2017) proposed that social media like Facebook could create a “serendipity button” for news and opinions, allowing people to opt in, especially during elections. Similarly, related stories at the bottom of a “post” seem to help in counteracting misinformation or simply enriching a user perspective in a serendipitous way (Bode and Vraga 2015).
Notably, plug-ins like Balancer and Scoopinion can show a histogram of the user’s liberal and conservative pages or what journals a user use to read and for how long, with the aim to increase awareness so that they would make their reading behaviour more balanced. Other tools like Social Fixer and Gobo (a social media aggregator built by MIT) provide more interactive control over design choices and information filtering processes.
For example, MIT Lab created for Twitter a plug-in called Flipfeed which basically provides to the users the possibility to scroll the feed of a random individual which resides in a far ideological spectrum from our own.
For example, you can glance at the beginning, the middle and the end of a book, or a newspaper, so you can find a page by chance, or a particular paragraph or line. Online one may miss that strange feeling of mystery and accident when we come across one particular line by chance. It may feel somehow irrationally significant because we are, indeed, also irrational creatures. This feeling of awe and surprise is so deeply entrenched in human nature that many cultures reflected it in a practice called “bibliomancy”, the art of predicting the future with books (Forsyth 2014). When an ancient Greek wanted to know the future, he would take a copy of the Iliad and let it fall open at a random page, point at a line, read it out, and that would be his fate. This was the Sortes Homericae. The Romans did the same thing with Virgil—the Sortes Virgilianae. Even medieval chaps did that with the Bible and called it the Sortes Sanctorum. Interestingly, according to Walpole—who coined the term serendipity—his particular brand of discovery was referred to by a certain “Mr. Chute” as a Sortes Walpolianae (de Melo 2018).
It is important to stress that a serendipity-driven information filtering would actually increase diversity as long as it remains highly probabilistic—and even purely random—as is it by definition, so that serendipitous encounters remain highly unpredictable and rare. A truly perfect personalized serendipity engine might even decrease the diversity of information and, as a consequence, most of its beneficial effects. This issue, however, concerns only Type A serendipity and particularly what is defined as Kairos (see note 33).
Ambient Intelligence refers to the eventual future vision in which automatic smart online and offline environments interact with each other and take an unprecedented number of decisions for us and about us in order to cater to our inferred preferences. It may actually represent a new paradigm in the construction of knowledge (Hildebrandt and Koops 2010).
Building on the work of Hirshman, Harambam et al. (2018), intend the concept of voice as the possibility to exert control over the data-driven processes that shape news provision.
The word ‘semaniticise’ did not really exist and it is defined by Floridi (2011) as the way in which “we make sense of our environment, of ourselves in it, and of our interactions with and within it.” (p. 564).
In this case, the un/expectedness is referred to the probability assigned by the engineers that a certain information may be liked. The challenge is indeed how to balance the probability distribution of the information prioritized.
For example, Google implicitly afford users to experience such passive serendipity with the search button “I am Feeling Lucky”. However, it is rarely used. Instead, a more constructive design choice Google implemented was a toggle feature directly into the central search bar that allowed to generalize the query results (See Carson 2015). This option, however, has been recently relegated into the advanced options, no more evident in the Google results page.
Kairos is a Greek divinity, personification of the “opportune moment”. It might be conceived as the “evil brother” of serendipity. It is in fact a surprising event yet not necessarily serendipitous. It is the epitome of convergent systems. Also, the individual is persuaded and has no autonomy whatsoever. Yet these hyper-personalized and persuasive techniques will be increasingly employed. Once tasted, however, such algorithmic recommendations may be impossible to live without. To resist it, then, it may be beneficial to employ convergent systems also for serendipitous recommendations. Afterwards, the boundary between Kairos and Serendipity is only how ‘good’ the intentions (and skills) of designers and engineers are.
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This research is funded by the ERASMUS MUNDUS program in Law, Science and Technology (LAST-JD) coordinated by University of Bologna.
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The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.
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Reviglio, U. Serendipity as an emerging design principle of the infosphere: challenges and opportunities. Ethics Inf Technol 21, 151–166 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-018-9496-y
- Design ethics
- Filter bubbles
- Echo chambers