Online serendipity

Went to a talk by Andy at the UCL last Friday. As always, the material was rich and the presentation was gripping, interweaving classic texts of political science and everyday examples of what’s happening on Web 2.0 platforms. Among other themes, I was personally most interested in his point on the possibly increased levels of accidental exposure to political information in Web 2.0 environments. In fact, I understand his new project will be about that. Drawing upon data collected from Twitter, it will investigate the extent to which such “serendipitous encounters” may lead to “by-product political learning” or even further to political engagement, namely voting.

Even outside the electoral context, on a more general note, I have noticed that people who favour Twitter tend to count ‘serendipity’ as one of the biggest merits of tweeting. I am no stranger to this phenomenon of by-product political learning myself. One of the common comments I have observed at the bottom of news articles on political affairs in Korean cyberspace is a sarcastic thank-you to the government and the party in power, as ordinary citizens – in their words – “unwittingly become experts” in the niceties of the legislative procedure (when, for example, the media reform law was passed last summer) or international trade laws (when, for example, American beef imports were resumed last year) while surfing and coming across news about politicians doing lousy jobs. I have a little more to elaborate on this, especially in terms of the practice of RT, but perhaps I will do so in a next post.

In the meantime, here’s something from Daren Forsyth of BBC on the same topic of serendipity. At the 140 Characters Conference, he shared his experience of unexpectedly getting a wide variety of responses, ranging from psychology to philosophy, to his simple question on differences between red and white onions [for making hotdogs], and he opened his talk by the following quote.

Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer’s daughter. (Julius Comroe Jr.)

I will leave it here for now. 😉

3 thoughts on “Online serendipity

  1. I hadn’t heard the farmer’s daughter joke before.
    I recently read the classic text on seredipity written by Robert Merton and Elinor Barber in the 1980s but only published in 2004. They trace the usage of the word from its coinage by Robert Walpole (who lived in what is now Strawberry Hill) to its modern day use in understanding patterns of scientific discovery. Merton would have been fascinated by the example you refer to. It would be good to hear more.


    • Sounds fascinating!

      Are you – or the authors – saying serendipity is, in fact, not accidental? Like Sheldon (of the Big Bang Theory!) put it: “Oh, well, this would be one of those circumstances that people unfamiliar with the law of large numbers would call a coincidence”?

      Well, I guess I will know better once I read the book. Thanks for pointing it to me.


  2. Well, Merton and Barber point out that the term has changed its meaning over time. (I believe, for example, that there is now even a perfume called ‘Serendipity’.)
    Merton’s interest is in how people come to recognize some piece of data as anomolous as a result of their having some pre-existing theoretical expectation that suddenly makes sense of the anomaly. Incidentally, Merton became interested in serendipty because when he was an impoverished student he blew part of his stipend on buying a dictionary (beats blowing it on beer, I suppose) and chanced upon the word ‘serendipity’ serendipitously when he was leafing through it.


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