The death of serendipity

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Horace Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford, writer, cousin of Lord Nelson, architectural patron, and creator of the word serendipity

Serendipity is not only a beautiful word it is a very beautiful thing.

One of the great delights of life, serendipity ploughs a furrow between co-incidence on the one hand and fate on the other while being part of neither.

But I’m rather afraid that it is progressively disappearing from our lives, collateral damage in the quest to deliver and receive ever more relevant entertainment and communications.

The word itself was first coined by Horace Walpole in 1754 and is derived from an old Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip. In this fairy tale the three Princes are constantly making discoveries and coming across stuff they never set out to find.

And that’s what serendipity is all about, the effect of accidentally discovering something fortunate especially when looking for something else altogether.

One of the greatest moments of serendipity in human history was of course the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming who had failed to disinfect cultures of bacteria before popping off on his hols. On his return he found that the mould that had subsequently developed had killed off all the bacteria.

Now, few of us will have the pleasure of discovering a life saving solution to bacterial infection but we do enjoy the pleasure of serendipitous discovery all the time. It is when we get to do or experience something that we didn’t know we would enjoy. Maybe its a shop we discover hidden down a backstreet that we take because of roadworks on our usual route, or a fascinating article in a magazine left in a waiting room we thumb through out of sheer boredom, a website we come across while hyperlinking through cyberspace, or a sandwich bar you try because it is recommended by someone you meet in a lift carrying their lunch. You know that kind of thing.

In our world this kind of serendipity has been one of the very few upsides of our historically restricted choice of entertainment.

We discovered music we didn’t know we liked because there was so little choice of radio to listen to. We saw TV programmes that we didn’t know we liked because that was what we had available to watch at the time we were available to watch. Who knows we may even have bought something because of an ad in a programme we were watching by accident and that wasn’t ‘targeted’ at us.

More than that we were prepared to let things grown on us because whether listening to the radio or watching the TV, or enjoying any other form of entertainment it wasn’t like there was much of an alternative. Someone recently described this to me as the 15 minute rule - we used to say when forced to watch something we wouldn’t have normally bothered with “I’ll give it fifteen minutes and if its shit I’ll watch something else instead”. Not only did we get exposed to things that we didn’t know that we liked but we were also ‘forced’ to give new stuff a chance.

And this process of accidental but serendipitous discovery enriched our lives and in a small way allowed us to grow and change in unexpected and unpredictable ways.

But serendipity of this sort is disappearing precisely because of the technologies and targeting that we believe is making our lives easier and more fulfilling. This is particularly marked by the culture of ‘on demand’, whether the immediate gratification of our entertainment desires is served by PVR’s, i-players, listen again services, search engines, recommendation engines to and I guess even specialist TV channels and radio stations.

Heaven forbid that we might actually experience something these days that we didn’t already know that we liked!

I think that the key challenge in entertainment in the near future will not be the delivery of enough of a content long tail to make on demand services work for people (critical for the burgeoning on demand TV services), nor the navigation systems that will help unite people with the stuff they already know that they like. But tools that reintroduce serendipity into our entertainment lives, tools that help us discover the stuff we never knew we were interested in.

Incidentally, I believe it is increasingly the role that the generalist offerings of the BBC in the UK are beginning to play, not least TV channels like BBC4 which might easily be repositioned as the serendipity channel.

And there may be a parallel in targeting or rather the lack of it. Modern marketing believes that the more that you can relevantly target communications the better, for advertiser and audience alike. Now let’s leave aside the crass assumptions that most targeting is based on and that simply serve to increase irritation at the breathtaking arrogance and intrusiveness of so called personalised communication, and simply dwell on what we used to call wastage.

In advertising we have always had a sneaky suspicion that a bit of wastage was a good thing, just incase we had got our targeting wrong. Well might I suggest that we re-define this not as wastage but as the part of the budget left for serendipity. That’s the bit of money that brands should spend taking to people that neither the brand nor they themselves know are in the market for the product or service yet.

So whether your interest is in finding new customers or finding new music. Leave some time and technology to dedicate to the endangered delight of serendipity.


But surely, socialising with other people creates the most serendipity...? And this is what is happening all the time in the global bazaar that is the modern web. Why bother waiting for broadcasters to guide you when you can explore yourself?

Posted by: James Cherkoff at December 7, 2007 11:31 AM

Pierre Manent talked about history as being what is found not what is looked for. so I would say there's fate, history, serendipity and co-incidence. even though I'm not sure fate and co-incidence are opposed, co-incidence being my fate and your fate being interesting in a same thing independently. I would replace co-incidence by contingency. but I'm not even sure on my english:)

Posted by: Simina at December 7, 2007 01:33 PM

"i know half of my advertising works, the other half is serendipity"

Doesn't quite have the same ring... but I think you have a valid point.

It does seem though as if some of the serendipity we lose from one source (E.g.: TV) we gain through others (E.g.: We watch a video on you tube of a show we might not normally watch, we download a dodgy mp3 to see if we like a band we wouldnt want to pay to risk disliking etc).

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at December 7, 2007 05:40 PM

I agree so much.

Posted by: Maurizio Goetz at December 7, 2007 08:05 PM

Yes, yes, yes. I've been saying this for years, mainly in my own head when no one else was around. But I can see it in myself. Rather than see what something's like on BBC2, I flip to Paramount Comedy because I know I can catch Frasier or Everybody Loves Raymond or something. Then I feel disgusted with myself for my lack of imagination.

Radio 4 is the beacon of serendipity. People think it's boring until they tune into what's actually happening. Sure, some of it's not for you, but just leave it on. You stumble over more good stuff in the course of a day than you would in weeks of personally targeted content. My worry is that even R4 is losing the serendipity, as podcasts and 'Listen Again' allow people just to stick to what they know. (The flip side, of course, is that I love Listen Again, because I miss so much of the broadcast stuff.)

There should be a single, randomly selected R4 podcast that 'forces' you to listen to one or two programmes a week, rather than selecting your favourites.

Thanks for writing this, and for making me cross that I never got around to it.

Posted by: Mike Reed at December 7, 2007 11:48 PM

I walked into Publicis London (down Baker Street) and looked for a door way out of the reception. I saw someone walk past a security guard and into a corridor and so followed the man after a short pause. The security guard didn't seem to friendly but didn't stop me walking past him and I found myself in a strange corridor with many cubicles like toilets and showers on the left. I walked further in and straight down into 'the crypt'. I thought about where to go and Steve Threlfal told me to look in that room. It was a big empty room or so I thought about killing someone but the only person in my vicinity was an old liberal fart at a table writing something who pretended he didn't undercept my argument so I walked out and looked away and saw a big room full of cleaning potions and then a tall blonde guy with long hair and a creepy art folder walked past and dithered and walked past again and dithered and I walked around a little before thinking I'm bored of this place and walked up stairs to ground floor and wandered around in a U bend and found a big balding guy at a table using a small little mouse and walked on and found myself back in reception on the other side standing next to a rough old dear using her mobile and she seemed rough and worried and her eyes were black and blue and a friendly young black receptionist smiled at me and I smiled back and quickly forgot about that retarded reaction and walked straight out of the building and wondered how long before they burst into laughter again look at them on the publicis website you sordid middle class scum.

Posted by: Steve Poo Bore 73 at December 9, 2007 01:53 AM

I hope you destroy your hideous nation of advert after advert after advert after your deadly grin is breaking my little heart over and out you are dead.

Posted by: Stephen Gates at December 9, 2007 01:56 AM

Weird or what??

Posted by: jemster at December 10, 2007 03:27 PM

Richard, you will find that a lot of people call what you describe as at the serendipitous section of advertising (not targeted, just for the pleasure of it) "ghosts" and submit them for awards at great advertising festivals :-)

Posted by: Bogdana at December 10, 2007 06:12 PM

I just came across this post and it's brilliant, well done.
But I don't agree that serendipity IS dying - in fact, it's like Captain Scarlet, indestructable!
I agree it is not being recognised enough. the temptation in comms is to try to plan or strategise our way to success, with the latest brand model (pyramid, DNA, essence etc etc) which is anathema to serendipity.
Surely we need practises which encourage or allow for the unplanned, the spontaneous, the quirky (aka 'ideas').
Just to back up what James says in first comment, serendipity often arises out of conversations, interactions with people, because you never know what someone is going to say or do next.
It worked for Crick and Watson, who discovered DNA that way.

Posted by: kevin at December 11, 2007 12:00 PM

Brilliant post Richard, one of the best thoughts I have read lately. I totally agree with you, we have become a highly programmed culture, only consuming what we already know we will like. I see this everyday around me, I still watch Friends over and over again, I only hear to one radio station that plays maybe the same 30 songs each day, and I read the same websites as part of my daily routine... but I think that´s changing pretty fast thanks to web 2.0. There´s not a single day that I don´t have a serendipity moment thanks to one of the blogs I read, there´s always a huge amount of interesting links to follow as I am becoming part of the collective wisdom that is internet.... Now the question for me should be: Is that enough? I mean, even if I discover many things everyday there are zillions of other things that I won´t. Maybe we´re killing the serendipity of web 2.0 by subscribing and consuming to the same places that everyone else do...

Posted by: Daniel at December 11, 2007 11:11 PM

Very interesting thought indeed. Actually I kind of like getting what I want when I want it and how I want it. But I also know how it feels that there's nothing left to explore even though there's plenty of stuff out there. You just don't know how discover anymore.
Anyway It's also intersting if you think about your desk. Is it organized and empty or is it chaotic? Yes people tend to think that an organized desk is better, because you'll find things faster. But then again have you ever found an idea on a neat & clean desk? Your post somehow reminded me that there's a reason why many people, especially creatives, often happen to have chaotic desks. They are not sloppy, but it's a manifestation of their thoughts. And somewhere in there is the idea they are looking for. Just a thought :-)

Posted by: Tim Keil at December 12, 2007 10:35 AM

Yes I buy that totally.

For strategists I think a disorganised mind is important. Then when you are think about a problem loads of stuff gets in the way just because it is lying around waiting to be serendipitously found and applied.

Posted by: richard huntington at December 12, 2007 10:43 AM

A thought:

What if serendipity was endangered because of how much of it there is.

We have 400 tv channels, infinite websites, infinite music choices.

What if people are actually finding new things and unconsciously thinking "well, I can find something else new and interesting tomorrow, I don't need to come back to this".

Posted by: Rob Mortimer at December 12, 2007 02:23 PM

Excellent point Rob. I kind of feel like this sometimes. It's the Paradox of choice if you will (Excellent book btw). Too much choice makes you chose nothing at all, because you are either afraid of missing out on something or – as you said – you are convinced that there's always new stuff you can look at tomorrow.

Posted by: Tim Keil at December 13, 2007 08:55 AM

So much to agree with here, what a great way for brands to influence culture, but I don't agree with first comment about socializing with other people. First of all, having electonic friends is not the same of real people. And secondly, it sort of proves Richard's point, people are only going to surround themselves with people like they are - cutting out the wonderful way you meet interesting people in real life, mostly by chance and coincidence.

Posted by: Northern Planner at December 13, 2007 04:07 PM

Nice blog

You should read Cass Sunstein's "Republic2.0" which argues that the web's ability to filter information, destroys serendipity, stops you from hearing from people who disagree with you and ultimately weakens democracy.

Good concise, precise, punchy read.

Link to Amazon below

Posted by: david at December 14, 2007 12:09 PM

I'm sure you are all familiar with Stumble Upon! Isn't this an example of serendipity as software?

Posted by: Phil Teer at December 14, 2007 03:18 PM

I actually disagree with this. In fact I wholeheartedly disagree with this.

Surely the lifestage you're at will determine whether or not you can be arsed to freely wander in the hope of stumbling on something new and exciting. I guess you're to busy blogging to allow yourself the freedom of discovery...

Targeted technologies allow us to explore/discover quicker than before. So to suggest they are preventative is a little confusing.

"That’s the bit of money that brands should spend talking to people that neither the brand nor they themselves know are in the market for the product or service yet"

..seriously, have you been watching Minority Report? Honestly now, and I know it's Christmas and the Eggnog is flowing, but where exactly is the logic in that?

Do you suggest a Greek orthodox visit a mosque for spiritual discovery? Perhaps an Apple user pay attention to a Dell ad?

Of course I'm just talking about brands, but when you talk about entertainment and the diversity of music, movies and other content there is a richness of choice that people do engage with. I’m sure everyone here could name at least 5 new artists (music) they’ve never heard of before 2007

What's more, what are you calling entertainment? Perhaps it's just people aren't being entertained in the way you think, when actually they're enjoying a richness of content somewhere else e.g. video games?

Posted by: mm at December 14, 2007 06:11 PM

I somewhat wholeheartedly disagree.

To me, what's going down on the web and in other media is much more complex and exciting than the "death of serendipity". Take sites such as Pandora, Stumbleupon, and Flickr. What we are seeing with these next-gen websites is an actual attempt to foster, develop, and control serendipity by mapping out and understanding what makes something (whether it be a band, a photo, or whatever) serendipitous. True, we are losing that sense of discovering something through sheer luck or chance, but is that really a loss? Or is it a much more exhilarating and enriching experience to pull back the curtain and connect with those that share our passions and our aesthetic sense? Personally, I feel this connection of individuals through their common interests is really "serendipity 2.0" - where we no longer appreciate the nameless, faceless work of a DJ or programming director, but rather have grown to appreciate the random tastes and experiences of our virtual neighbors.

Posted by: Brandon at December 14, 2007 10:41 PM my comment and I do mean a richness of choice that people can find by chance or luck.

I know what fellow posters are like, so wanted to make that clear.

Serendipity is alive,

Posted by: mm at December 15, 2007 11:53 AM

Good post.
If serendipity is on it's death bed, it's been sped on the way by focus-groups and micro-management by execs responsible for commissioning work. Did the Nathanson brothers tell Toulouse-Lautrec which colours to use? Did the proprietors of the Moulin Rouge engage a group of theatre-goers to critique his advertising designs?
It's people like that bloomin' Richard Huntington who (in October) said 'what's the harm in another opinion? Creatives get awfully possessive of their work ...' who are nailing Serendipity's coffin shut!

Posted by: Another mere creative at December 16, 2007 05:38 PM

brilliant. Your posts are very thought-provoking and well put together. Thanks for providing something worth reading.

Posted by: lukeMV at December 19, 2007 01:59 PM

I just came across this post and it's brilliant, well done. 电炉
But I don't agree that serendipity IS dying - in fact, it's like Captain Scarlet, indestructable!
I agree it is not being recognised enough. the temptation in comms is to try to plan or strategise our way to success, with the latest brand model (pyramid, DNA, essence etc etc) which is anathema to serendipity

Posted by: dd at January 3, 2008 04:30 AM

I think that there are two sides to seredipity. One of which is stumbling across things, which might happen less in some people's lives (I know it does in mine) but which certain things on the web make more possible (StumbleUpon, blogs, Flickr). The other side is not knowing what you like until you are forced to spend a bit of time with it. It is that 15mins that we used to give TV programmes. Sometimes it takes a while for something to develop into something interesting. And if you instantly decide that it is nothing for you, then you won't ever find out that it actually could be.

This is a great post and a discussion that I think really needs to be had.

Posted by: max at January 7, 2008 10:59 AM

Relevance is the antithesis of randomness

Which brings the value of relevance in communication into doubt. The function of advertising used to be inform - new things were being invented and people didn't know about them.

But if we only ever see things we've already shown interest in, how do we learn about new stuff?

Ah - unless we can develop sophisticated predictive models of what we will like...

Or we watch Jobs on the news and that.

Posted by: Faris at January 8, 2008 04:48 PM

Very well put. Your very essay is a neat example of a serendipitous thought.

What fascinates me is how engaged internet users (predominantly the younger generation but increasingly not so much) have inbuilt means of introducing serendipity alongside get-what-i-want-now type services/website destinations.

Take for instance music users comfort at jumping between the go-get-it sites like iTunes/Limewire/Hype Machine and the show-me-something-new sites like Pandora and last Fm

Posted by: T at January 8, 2008 05:44 PM

I was enjoying reading this article, and was trying to formulate a coherent reaction until reading Steve Poo Bore 73's rant. Especially as I'm bloody well in it.

Posted by: Big balding guy at a table using a small little mouse at January 9, 2008 09:45 AM

I guess on-demand culture is partly borne out of coping and adapting to the vast amount of media available. However, I would argue that humans have always quickly developed habits and this is the same for media, but have also always had the thirst for discovering something new and interesting. So I would say that serendipity will live on as we have a need for discovery and to be amazed. In this context the great, the good and the original we still win through and find an audience.

Posted by: jesse basset at January 14, 2008 11:28 AM

Funny coincidence. I was just about to write a blog post explaning that the entire value of Facebook and other social networks lay in serendipity. I needn't bother now.

But I can refer all you chaps to some interesting research that appears in the book Quirkology by Richard Wiseman. There seems to be extensive evidence that your openness to and ability to opportunistically exploit serendipitous connections and contacts has a massive effect on your feelings of happiness and success.

At one stage Wiseman attempts to recreate the 6-degrees of separation experiment in the UK. A number of people are unable to participate, since they simply don't know anyone who could help them forward the letter to its destination. From an early questionnaire it is discovered that almost all these people consider themselves unlucky and unfortunate in life.

Right, that's enough time consorting with a bunch of atheistic pinkos, at the risk of discovering opinions I don't want to hear. I'm off to spend the rest of the evening on the Mike Huckabee site.

Dawkins must die.

Posted by: Rory Sutherland at January 21, 2008 01:08 AM