marcus westbury

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A death of serendipity?

May 30th, 2011 by marcus

TECHNOLOGY is creating a strange paradox when it comes to art and culture. It’s expanding our options but narrowing our choices. It’s a phenomenon that has consequences far and away from the online world and one that is even threatening the business models and viability of some companies and art forms.

Recently, the National Endowment for the Arts in the US released a report that attributed much of the decline in the audiences for large-scale traditional arts to what it called the “decline of the omnivore“. For the NEA, “omnivores” — culturally speaking — are people who involve themselves in a broad range of cultural activities. They have long made up a large proportion of the audience for what is traditionally regarded as “the arts”, but the trend over the past few years is that there are fewer of them and they are seeing fewer things.

A decade ago, American author Ted Gup wrote about what he called the “end of serendipity” — the idea that in a world of information it is becoming harder, not easier, to learn about things that we weren’t already looking for.

As the internet, social and niche media take over from mass media as the way that people find and share things, it is becoming harder to be an omnivore. The more we get recommendations from those we select for ourselves, the less we find out about things we don’t already know about.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the internet and social media. You’ll easily find me on Twitter and Facebook. I’m neither a techno utopian nor a curmudgeonly sceptic, but social media are changing the way we create and consume culture in ways both good and bad.

On the upside, I’m enamoured of the proliferation of small-scale cultural production; I love that creation is outgrowing consumption as the way people engage with art and culture; and I’m enriched by the constant conversation and connectivity. But the downside goes beyond simply the changing demographics and behaviour of arts audiences.

Away from the arts, consider a highly polarising issue such as global warming and the carbon tax. The mass media — at their (occasional) best — provide a range of viewpoints. They allow you to hear conflicting arguments and compare different points of view. Online, it is all too easy to follow links, read arguments, and only hear from people who validate and reinforce your own point of view. It is easy to live in a self-reinforcing bubble — regardless of which side you are on — and there are real dangers in a world that is so siloed.

In the arts, compare reading this article in the pages of the newspaper to online. They are very different experiences and processes. In the paper you could well be reading this almost unintentionally: because it’s your lunch break, because you were reading the piece next to it or because you happened to open to this page. If you are reading this online, chances are that someone sent you here or that you were searching for it. Online, you are less likely to view the articles around it and you are more likely to read what is most similar to this next.

I’m not too worried for arts marketing. Smart arts organisations are finding new ways of building communities around the content and not the form of the work. While audiences may be less inclined to sample from a range of cultural organisations, they are more capable than ever of following an interest — in design, a musician, computer games or history — into a gallery or performing arts centre. As a result, arts programming and marketing that leads with content and not form is growing massively.

But I can’t help but fear for the loss of serendipity. So many of my significant cultural turning points were mistakes or accidents — the product of discovering something by mistake, of reluctantly being dragged along to a thing I had no intention of seeing, of having my interest captured by something out of left field. Of discovering and enjoying the unexpected — sometimes in spite of myself. It would be a terrible thing to lose that.

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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 amy May 30, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    interesting post, thank you. i’ve been thinking about serendipity a bit lately. have you read Eli Pariser’s book The Filter Bubble?

  • 2 john May 30, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    This sort of ‘hedgehog’ narrowness vs foxy broadness is an old story.
    a pretty Monty Pythonish real world example of what can happen (in this case not happen)when we get too specialised

  • 3 john May 30, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    sorry correct link

  • […] (This is relevant to our Library argument) Read Marcus Westbury here. […]

  • 5 john May 30, 2011 at 4:57 pm

    Ps should have said Nice post -you are spot on-So many of my significant cultural turning points were mistakes or accidents — Me TOO!

  • 6 Chloe Langford Jun 3, 2011 at 12:39 am

    This is an interesting article about the same topic:

  • 7 Lena Tisdall Jul 2, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    Hi Marcus,
    I see the point you’re making but I disagree with the premise that the likelihood of serendipity ocurring is being reduced by the nature of the internet.

    Instead, I think the huge volume of information available to us from all forms of media has the ability to deliver precisely what we need to know when we need to know it.

    The skill that is more important to us now is recognition. By this I mean that “Aha!” moment when a precisely timed and directed piece of information drops in our lap from whereever.

    Are we tuning in to the correct frequency or are we tuning the diamonds out with the rest of the noise?