Huddle 2018 - Content Hub

Surprise! How the Internet killed serendipity

Andy Rementer, Summer of Love. Commissioned by WeTransfer.

By Rob Alderson, Editor-in-Chief of WeTransfer. Rob runs its content site WePresent, which is designed to expose readers to new kinds of ideas.    

In Derek Thompson’s excellent book Hit Makers, he tells the story of Spotify’s first tests on the Discover Weekly feature. Initially it was envisaged that these tailored playlists would provide users with music they’d never heard before. But the early feedback wasn’t good. It was only when Spotify tweaked the algorithm to include a couple of tracks and artists with which people were familiar that Discover Weekly found its feet, and the rest is history.  

Thompson’s point is that we like a combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar – or fluency and disfluency as psychologists call it. Our brains can be very lazy, and so fluent ideas – the movie you’ve seen before or the opinion piece that re-inforces your view of the world – suit us down to the ground. Our brains don’t like to be challenged to work harder than they have to. And so to seek out fluency is a natural human instinct. 

But creatively, it’s a real problem. The worst thing about the internet is that it’s built on the idea that if you like something, you’ll get shown more of the same thing. We are familiar with the idea of filter bubbles, online worlds which funnel individuals towards the familiar, the agreeable and the non-challenging. Some blame for this obviously lies at the door at of the big tech beasts who created and perpetuate this culture.     

We also need to understand our own hardwired weakness for fluency. If the internet has killed happenstance and serendipity, then we aided and abetted it. So the challenge is, how we can build in moments of disfluency into our lives? How can we expose ourselves to ideas, stories and opinions which might not immediately satisfy us? 

It’s not easy. It’s not always comfortable. And it may, at times, lead us down paths that prove to be dead-ends. But again, creatively speaking, that’s ok. Not every path leads somewhere exciting. And yet if we stay on the tried and tested routes, we’re never going to push our thinking into genuinely new territory.  

Here are a few ideas we came up with in our Huddle session to try and build in these moments of disfluency: 

1. Be aware of your own biases. Everything starts here – know what feels fluent, and what doesn’t.  

2. Check your first instinct. If you always open the same app first thing in the morning, try something else. If you always head to the same news source day in, day out, commit to reading its polar opposite for the next week.  

3. Let someone else in. Hand over your Netflix or Spotify to a friend for a while. Their tastes will affect your algorithms and expose you to new things.   

4. If you’re going through a magazine, develop soft eyes. Ignore the things you’d usually jump straight to; concentrate instead on what you’d usually flick straight past. Force yourself to read something you’d never usually be interested in.  

5. Set yourself a challenge to take five photos this week of things you see on your commute. Spend that time looking around; try and see the things you usually miss.   

Of course, there are always pressures which make disfluency harder to embrace – tight deadlines, difficult clients and professional environments that promote consistency. But if you can create even a few small moments a week that go against the grain, you may be surprised where your brain ends up.