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Engagement vs. Serendipity

Bookmarked Engagement Is the Enemy of Serendipity (dancohen.org)

Engagement isn’t a form of serendipity through algorithmically personalized feeds; it’s the repeated satisfaction of Present You with your myopically current loves and interests, at the expense of Future You, who will want new curiosities, hobbies, and experiences.

I’m not sure whether I’m convinced that engagement and serendipity are antithetical? Gonna think through this a little… πŸ€”

To me, old-school blogging is one of the best sources of serendipity and rabbit-hole diving I’ve encountered. But I’ve also discovered lots of new things and people through social media (mostly Twitter). Sometimes that’s from people I follow sharing others’ posts, sometimes that’s reading comments — both sharing and commenting being forms of engagement the platform’s designed for.

But, my experience may be despite, not because, of these platforms’ design to maximize engagement. I suspect part of your experience depends on how much you rely on the algorithm to shape your experience from the start, versus seeding your own beginning.

The seed of people I started following on Twitter were artists and authors I already knew about (people I found in the Old Web days when it seemed like every art student linked to their artist friends on their blogroll). Turns out creative folks have a lot of strong political beliefs and opinions, so they shared lots of things from other folks who I found interesting.

And the further you branch out the diversity of people you follow, the more you benefit from the expansion of the total interest pool — because every person has unique interests that they tend to share about on social media beyond their “main topic” that open you up to new topics and more people to follow. For example, I discovered that one of my favorite authors, Ursula Vernon (pen name T. Kingfisher), also has All The Feels about gardening. I branched out into Science Twitter and Science Education Twitter and Paleontology Twitter and Entomology Twitter and History Twitter — academics being another group sharing both awesome info and strong political opinions πŸ˜‰

For sure, discovery has been hampered in recent years by Twitter maximizing design for engagement, which amplifies outrage. The endless anger and lack of safety controls makes social media an unpleasant place to hang out, and frankly a scary place to put yourself out there because the world is sadly full of people who think it’s OK to threaten strangers they vaguely disapprove of with death. (WTAF is wrong with our society. It would be less scary if we had gun control and swatting wasn’t a thing due to our militarized police force πŸ˜‘) Creative Twitter has, like other parts of the internet, gotten louder and louder about horrible things going on in the world — to the point where I’ve gotten overwhelmed and can only dip my toe in briefly (and usually regret it when I do). So, in that sense, yeah, engagement has destroyed a great source of serendipity I had.

(Tangent thought: I would guess the safety problems with social media have led to the blossoming of the newsletter ecosystem — a safer place for creators, with more control, though less discoverability. The newsletter world feels smallish in that lots of newsletters I read link to each other, but also that’s probably a bad sign that it’s too insular. If only it were easier to start a website, and more people used RSS, so people could have pivoted back to blogging from social media when it turned too toxic.)

So, I think serendipity and engagement can coexist and even benefit each other up to a certain level, but once you go all in on engagement the negative side effects cancel out the serendipity indirectly.

(See also: browsing is learning)

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at tracy.durnell@gmail.com. She/her.

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