Partially Attended

an irregularly updated blog by Ian Mulvany

Serendipity, a chance encounter (obviously)

Mon Aug 8, 2011

974 Words

Tonight there was a lovely sameas event on the topic of serendipity. I’d stared a blog post about this back in May as a response to to a post that Frank Norman wrote about enablining serendipidous discovery in the digital library. Well, that post kind of lingered, malingered in my drafts directory, so I thought I’d best get on get something out there, spurred on by the event tonight.

I studied in Edinburgh for a few years, it’s a beautiful city, and in the heart of the old town Victoria Street sweeps in a steep curve down to the cowgate.

On the corner there used to be a curiosity shop and I remember so well it’s opening times, painted in a cursive script on the side of the building “Open by Serendipidy”. It logdged strongly in my imagination, I can remember the first time I passed by when the shop was open. Inside I discovered an emporium filled with victorian glass eyes, 1940 photographic equipment salviged from fighter aircraft, a thousand pieces of bric a brac, each with it’s own personal history, a little hidden from us now.

I never had the chance to find that gem in that shop that triggered some hidden or half forgotten connection, but the place was filled with that magic of possability. You couldn’t help but feel all of those stories waiting to be rediscovered.

Serendipitous discovery has at it’s heart has a little of that magic. It tickles some part of our brain, it feels like a little revelation, a personal discovery, a moment where previously unaligned things in the world sit now in a new relationship to each other.

I’m not a researcher, but I was very fortunate to spend some days with some very smart people thinking about this topic. We looked at how one could use social media to introduce serendipidous connections between peoplae, but the findings are quite general. What’s might be neat is that there is a formula for serendipidy, and you can measure it in WoW’s!

The formula came out of research into machine vision, and it uses a nice applicaiton of Bayes’ Theorm to take into account how we re-adjust to the new and how a change in a stimulus fades as it becomes familliar. The original paper looked images, and tried to determine what chagne in an image would be considered most surprising by an observer. I thought that the same mechanisim should surely be applicable to netowrks. If you could weight the informaiton content of a network by appying some measrue to the connections, then this formulat might be able to tell you which rewiring of the network for a given node would be the most surprising connection for that node.

Our social netowrks are not composed of simple connections. We have many different connections of many different types. I wondered whether one could mine into the hidden or partially obsured ties between people and bring out the make clear to them the surprising kinds of connections. For example, at a conference about a particular topic, there is no surprise that all of the people there are interested in that topic, but where some of those people are connected by some link that has nothing to do with the topic at hand, you might be able to bring out a surprising connection, you might be able to enable a seridipitous moment. This would not be discovery, not saying to someone somethng they might reasonably know, but rather uncovering a hidden, perhaps even an uncanny link between people, perhaps even a link they may prefer to remain hidden or uncovered?

The discussion tonight was really fun. I had thought about this topic a lot over the past few years, but only thorugh the lens that I’ve laid out in this post. The talk tonight made me think a little afresh about this. Unsurprisingly, of course, it’s complicated. That beautiful equation is only a model. These netoworks that we build online again only models. The mathematical structures are loose nets, shaow representations of social realities, capturing only whisps of the structures they aim to represent.

We like to be surpried (when the surprises are pleasant ones). We like to tell stories, to find the narratives of ours and others lives. Serendipity has a powerfull hold over our imaginations, and I think perhaps because it is the making of a very good story. That connection that instantly brings us closer to another person. And yet what are we doing when we talk to people, other than probing, looking in a very directed way (though perhaps unconcsiouly) though the shape of what they tell us for a connection, a moment where we can go “ah-ha”. We pass over the mundane and find our way quickly to the delightful, the conneciton, the turn in the story, the revelation.

My thinking about all of this started with a desire to find ways to use technology to make people happy. I’m sure that is still a goal we can aspire to, perhaps by progromatically intorducing a little more chaos into our lives. I’ll have to leave now, these threads to others to follow up. Perhaps I’ll be surprised by what I find out here in a few years.

I think that the web is in good hands. Ciro Cattuto, and researchers like him, are doing amzing work looking at how people are connected in meatspace, on the web. Lanyrd arrived like that, out of nowhere, out of a honeymoon. These people are building some very powerfull ways of brining people together. They are doing it with a dash of delight. I hope that over the next few years there will be many many places on the web that will be a little like that shop I still remember so fondly from my days in Edinburgh.

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