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Serendipity expanded our horizons in unpredictable ways and rewarded our newspaper reading with random delights. When the papers got in trouble I identified serendipity as the essence of the experience they offered, and I mourned the willingness of the oblivious online crowd to put it behind them. Online, these readers would click and link and go straight to whatever matter concerned them. They would find nothing they didn't set out to find. They would deny the restless, curious nature of their own minds.
I was seriously wrong. Borchuluun Yadamsuren is a postdoc researcher in the journalism school of the University of Missouri, and her focus is on serendipity and the emotional lives of online news consumers. Having read her last two papers, I think it’s safe to say that most people have a pretty good idea where their pleasures come from and don't carelessly give them up. Serendipity is in no danger.
In 2009 Yadamsuren and her Mizzou colleague Sanda Erdelez sat down with 20 people who spend significant time online and debriefed them. The authors reported in 2010, in the unpublished paper “Incidental exposure to online news” (PDF), that three out of four of them indicated incidental exposure was “their typical way of getting information about current events.” Yes, some were on news sites when they came across news they weren’t looking for—just like with newspapers back in the day. But others were online for some entirely different reason. Several trafficked in sites like the Drudge Report and Gawker where you never know what you’re going to find but you figure it should be good.
The researchers inquired about “frequency.” At least three or four times a day, said Respondent 18. Every day, said Respondents 16 and 17. Probably once a week, said Respondent 2.
And what was it like, this chance encounter with online news? “Wonderful,” “fun,” “happy,” “spiritual,” “it can be overwhelming, definitely,” replied Yadamsuren and Erdelez’s subjects. “I guess it’s kind of the thrill of the chase,” said Respondent 2. Respondent 11 admitted, “I’m embarrassed now but I spend way too much time online.”
Respondent 14 had had some bad experiences with news and stopped looking for it. “Um, I don’t really go to news sites very often. . .” she said. “’Cause it’s always so depressing.”” But she lived recklessly. She liked “clicking on something” just to see what would happen next.
Even for a minute, was the Internet ever a cold, quick information-retrieval system—except in my head? It’s a chaotic hot house of doors upon doors swinging open onto fresh astonishments. There’s no telling where you’ll wind up, and people like it that way. The Internet leaves the serendipity of a mere newspaper back at the post.
Borchuluun Yadamsuren’s second paper, published last September in Information Research, upped the ante. She and coauthor Jannica Heinstrom of Finland called it “Emotional reactions to incidental exposure to online news.” They began by noting that media researchers had long focused on “active news-reading behavior, neglecting serendipitous news discovery.” In other words—the paper’s authors didn’t put it this way, but I will—these researchers looked only at the dignified, formal transaction in which the publisher proffers the day's goods and the reader makes a selection. They ignored the reality of the newspaper game, in which the study of urban corruption gets a glance from the cashier thumbing through the edition for the horoscope.
But these days news purveyors can’t afford not to understand what they’re doing, and serendipity is getting the attention it deserves. Citing other studies, including one from the Pew Internet Project in which eight of ten online news users reported serendipitous news encounters more than once a week, Yadamsuren and Heinstrom said researchers must examine the role emotion plays in these rendezvous. Recalling Yadamsuren’s previous paper, they allowed that these emotions generally seem to be pretty sweet.
Teasing more data out of the 2009 respondents, Yadamsuren and Heinstrom came to some unsurprising observations. “The respondents felt excited when they found [serendipitously] a news item that corresponded to their interests, satisfied when the news item confirmed their values, or reassured when it comforted their worries.” Needless to say, they “reacted negatively to news stories that upset them.” And there was that one woman so depressed by the news she stopped following it. Yet “incidental exposure to online news, however, made her happy as she still appreciated keeping up to date.”
A key question awaits future research. Here's how Yadamsuren poses it: “How may the constant access to news online influence emotional reactions to news, and what may these emotional reactions result in?”
Unsought information segues from a pleasurable diversion in the morning paper to the raging sea in which we surf the net. At what point might it become for some of us no longer almost as good as sex?