Randomness and Serendipity on the Internet

This is a short biography of a link, as it relates to the randomness and serendipity that drives conversation on the web.

A couple weeks ago Tim Harford, the Financial Times columnist and author of the stimulating new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, was in town on book tour. I've read Tim's stuff for some time but hadn't met him, so I went to his talk at the World Affairs Council and we grabbed dinner afterwards. We had a delightful chat, and later that night Tim linked on Twitter to an old blog post of mine, 50 Ways to Expose Yourself to Randomness.

Seeing that Tim is — according to the hottest economist in America — the best economist on Twitter, he has a strong following and the link got picked up a bit.

This morning, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a noted foreign policy scholar and former Obama State Dept official, tweeted: "Someone that I follow sent out a great piece last week on ways of adding randomness to your life, but now I can't find it. Pse resend!"

An hour later, Michael Clemens, an economist from the Center for Global Development — who I randomly met at a conference in Miami on Latin America and who I've stayed in touch with online ever since — replied, "50 ways to expose yourself to randomness" from @BenCasnocha http://bit.ly/jJYBPB." Presumably, Michael remembered Tim tweeting about it and figured it was the link Anne-Marie remembered.

Shortly thereafter, Anne-Marie wrote a post for CNN's GPS blog about creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship, and linked at one point in the piece to my post on randomness. It was cool for me to see this – I read Anne-Marie's book The Idea That Is America a couple years ago, and linked to her post on the development of China three years ago. Cooler yet, Fareed Zakaria just tweeted the CNN post on creativity and asked Amy "Tiger Mom" Chua for her reactions. And Amy Chua just replied.

I'm detailing the backstory here because it's fun to point out the random connections that gave rise to Anne-Marie's link on…cultivating randomness. Every day in the blogosphere and twittersphere these types of conversations happen; being able to trace the outlines of how ideas and memes come together is one of the unique joys of the online intellectual experience.

It's also worth pointing out that it was a year-old blog post that got picked up by Tim et al. Blog posts are easily searchable and archivable. It would have never happened with a tweet. It supports the point of my post (and Anil Dash's): Twitter, Transience, and Tempo.

Finally, I think it's relevant that in-person relationships played a role in how the link made its way into Anne-Marie's post. I met Tim for dinner, and afterwards he took a closer look at my blog and then felt compelled to tweet it out. I met Michael, the guy who responded to Anne-Marie's initial question, in-person in Miami and he started following me (and I him) after that. The internet does a marvelous job at connecting people from around the world. Even if I've never met a blogger or tweeter I follow, the connection I feel I have with them is anything but superficial. But it remains the case that an in-person interaction creates a unique bond. In my experience, even just one in-person meeting can enrich the online communications with the person for years to follow.

9 comments on “Randomness and Serendipity on the Internet
  • I had a very similar experience this week with a blog post more than a year old (but it all happened on a much smaller scale!). It does really bring home the fact that posts are social objects in a more permanent way than we sometimes think. It also reminds me to do a better job of proofreading…

  • Fascinating read and something I can easily relate to.

    I never cease to be dazzled by the way my connections weave their way into kaleidoscopic views of the world – social interaction online enhances and surprises the way I think.

  • Great post Ben! It’s interesting to think about what effect this very blog post describing the power of a link will have on the world. I’m sure the new ideas it spawns will change the world. It’s pretty neat to think that one blog post can harness that kind of power. The Web, mostly for the better, has simply changed the economics of consuming information. By the way, I just now purchased Tim’s new book and I’m looking forward to reading it thanks to this post.

  • Is all this extra connectivity, gained only in the last decade or so, actually improving and adding to society, or is it simply changing our culture ‘sideways’ so to speak?

  • Hi, I really enjoy your blog.

    In the spirit of ‘randomness and serendipity’, let me share this. 1) I read your previous post. 2) I read this related article by Scott H Young: http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2011/05/30/live-longer/ 3) Yesterday, I found out Eagleman will talk at my public library (SLC) on June 20. 4) I re-read your post quoting Johnson on moving and time again, this time reading the comments, because it struck me that Young had written about something similar at about the same time. 5) I saw the research Eagleman does, now making me interested in his talk, which I will certainly attend.
    How cool is this? And thus linked together are three blog posts and another author.

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