The Serendipity Effect in Social Media

by Brian Blum on November 9, 2009

in Classified Advertising,Product Management,Social Media

Image from Mary Lindsay's blog

Image from Mary Lindsay's blog

When the web first started becoming paramount in how people consumed news, there was a lot written about the dangers of information “narrowcasting” and how it would result in a populace that knew little about what happening outside their own limited sphere of interest. Traditional print newspapers and magazines were lauded because by their very nature they enable readers to serendipitously stumble across news they might not have searched for on Google.

An interesting interview on a recent episode of NPR’s On the Media with Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center, and Clive Thompson, a writer for Wired and The New York Times Magazine, suggested that – surprisingly – social media could be an answer.

Thompson cited the research presented in Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point” about how many people someone can actually have as friends or colleagues. The number, says Gladwell, is 150; human beings can’t really keep track of more than that. But on social media, that number jumps to the hundreds (and in some cases, particularly on Twitter, the thousands).

I have over 600 Facebook “friends.” Do I know all of them well? Certainly not. But something interesting happens when it comes to learning about news. The more “friends” we have, the more likely it is we’ll learn something about a topic we didn’t expect to and likely wouldn’t have searched for either.

And if enough of our friends share or re-tweet on a particular subject, we will come to think this is “important” (even if it’s really about some ludicrous boy in a balloon). More seriously, the tweets emanating from Iran during the recent mini-revolution definitely opened many new eyes.

Admittedly, most of our friends are “like us” in terms of educational backgrounds and socio-economic standards. But some of those friends may have a wider circle that includes one or two more exotic colleagues. And I have not been terribly discriminating about who I “friend” – when I have a question that I need answering, I then have a wider circle to whom I can publish.

The issue of serendipity in social media has come up recently with one of my clients. The client has a particular organizational focus, and most of what we post relates to that topic. But sometimes we also publish links to articles off-topic which we feel will be interesting to our readers. It’s a way of keeping the site timely and relevant. But it also has the effect of populating our fans’ activity streams with news they might not have seen otherwise.

So, if part of the product management services you provide your clients includes preparing and executing on a social media “content plan,” keep in mind the serendipity effect. It can help establish you more as a destination site within the social media universe…and it’s good for the world too.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 nettie feldman November 11, 2009 at 8:24 am

Good, good point! I get a bit miffed when I hear the complaint: oh, but how can you have so many friends; it’s just a waste of time. But I, too, find the serendipity, more often than ever!

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