Jeremy Garner, creative director at OgilvyOne, asks what we're missing out on now that our lives are dictated by data
Whatever happened to all the talk about serendipity?
A few years back it seemed that everyone was discussing it. You almost couldn’t get as far as the counter in your favourite coffee shop before you’d heard it said three times, and that was just by the barista alone. Highlight, for example, remember that? It was an app which alerted users to other people nearby with similar interests as a way of maximising serendipitous possibilities. It caused a lot of buzz at SXSW 2012 when it was first launched.
In recent years, the topic seems to have dropped off the agenda. Why? Could it be because so much of our lives is governed by algorithms now (and these, of course, can only help predict or anticipate the predictable), which diminishes the element of chance and reduces the possibility for serendipitous events?
After all, algorithms do underpin so much of our day-to-day lives. Google, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Spotify, and Amazon – as forerunners in the area – are obvious examples.
There’s also shopping loyalty schemes, loan applications, calculating the shortest route on public transport networks, deploying police resources, stock trading, online dating, news feeds on social platforms. The list goes on. So much so, in fact, that it is genuinely difficult to escape the data-driven orderliness and step back to a simpler world where absolute chance is free to reign supreme.
That’s why history’s best-known examples of serendipity seem so clear and unsullied – they happened in a time when information wasn’t as widely available and data so prevalent. Penicillin, the microwave oven, the Post-It note, Velcro and X-Rays were all pretty much created by accidental events.
But could it be that against the data-driven, algorithmic-led background that characterises modern life, the propensity for happenstance still survives?
Proving this is a challenge. With innovations becoming increasingly difficult to trace back to a single eureka moment due to the multiple layers of input, showing them to be truly serendipitous is often impossible.
There are exceptions. Remember the ice bucket challenge? Nearly everyone was getting involved in the summer of 2014, and you may remember it as a breakaway viral campaign; simple, entertaining, using time and peer pressure to just the right degree and ultimately generating 100m+ dollars for a worthy cause.
Consider the other side of the story. In June 2014, just as the ice bucket challenge was getting started, Facebook updated its algorithm to upweight natively uploaded video – and downweight video links. And, in the same update, Facebook decided to increase relevance of videos based on what the user had just watched.
The effect of all this was to bring algorithms and serendipity together and make them inextricably linked at a time which was hugely beneficial for the campaign. Was it ultimately responsible for its success? Well, it certainly gave it an auspicious beginning.
Which goes to show that data often doesn’t only power algorithms. It can drive serendipity, too.