We may not have meant to, but those of us who have created, funded and supported social networking platforms have played a significant part in today’s world of isolated bubbles of perception. The algorithms that drive current platforms, by reaching back to your past likes and behaviors to show you what you “want," create and reinforce these bubbles, bubbles that stop us from growing and limit our ability to discover new experiences.
So, how do we break the bubbles?
Well, it certainly can’t be from doing more of the same. Algorithms, by their very nature, produce self-limiting results. By definition, an algorithm is "a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.” For an algorithm, the future outcome is always narrower than the past.
What about AIs? Certainly, AI-based systems could help here. But the key to any AI is its training. If the purpose of an AI is to generate ad views or quick-gratification response, then it will actually make things worse. The AI will simply be a kind of self-teaching super algorithm that generates even more intense clustering than we have now.
It seems to me that the heart of any system that can burst our current bubble trap has to be, at core, human. Humans are surprising, quixotic, illogical, various, sometimes infuriatingly incomprehensible. Humans, because of these characteristics, have always been great at generating serendipity.
And serendipity is what the world needs now.
Serendipity isn’t randomness. Randomness is showing you something you have never seen before for no reason whatsoever. You are highly likely to reject or even be disgusted by something delivered randomly and far outside your experience.
Serendipity, rather, is playing the human hunch that, while you may never have had this experience before, it will resonate on the edge of your consciousness…and fascinate you. Serendipity is how fashions change, or music, or food. Someone you know, and (at least to some degree) trust, suggests something new. It feels odd, uncomfortable perhaps, but not so strange that you reject it. You find you want to sample it, then try it again. And so, new habits emerge which no algorithm would have been able to suggest. People grow, change and shift in unexpected, often delightful, ways.
Since serendipity comes from people, not algorithms, any technological version of it also has to be rooted in humanity. And, in the digital world, that means the social stream.
At any given moment, all the humans linked to me across the worldwide network are doing things I know about and things I don’t know about, things that would be expected and things not expected, things that relate to what we now have in common and things utterly unrelated to that connection.
Our systems today are designed to reinforce the most common and primary connections: the expected things and highly related connections. A Serendipity System, by contrast, would need to focus on the opposite: those people on the edges of my network, those actions present in that network outside my past experience, those elements in my social stream that aren’t the basis for our current connection.
In this sideways glance manner, a Serendipity System would create a fundamentally different experience than today’s social platforms: one based on surprise, newness, and lack of repetition.
Such a system could serve as a powerful bubble buster. It would be healthy for society, I believe, and also, by producing delight, could become as addictive in its own way as today’s fun house mirrors have proven to be. As such, it would be an extraordinary business opportunity.
Where is the great team out there today with the skill and courage to build a Serendipity System? We, at least, would love to back them.