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Facets of Serendipity in Everyday Chance Encounters

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Facets of Serendipity in Everyday Chance Encounters
  VOL . 16 NO . 3, S EPTEMBER , 2011 Contents | Author index | Subject index | Search | Home   Victoria L. Rubin Jacquelyn Burkell and Anabel Quan-Haase Faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada N6A 5B7AbstractIntroduction.  This paper explores serendipity in the context of everyday life by analyzing naturallyoccurring accounts of chance encounters in blogs. Method.  We constructed forty-four queries related to accidental encounters to retrieve accounts fromGoogleBlog. From among the returned results, we selected fifty-six accounts that provided a richdescription including a mention of an accidental find and a fortuitous outcome. Analysis.  We employed grounded theory to identify facets of serendipity and to explore their inter-connections. Results.  Based on the literature and the data analysis, we developed a model in which the find bringstogether all the facets of the serendipitous encounter. A person with a prepared mind (Facet A) realisesthe relevance of the find in the act of noticing (Facet B). The find is what people encounter by chance(Facet C) and what leads to a fortuitous outcome (Facet D). The find is the essence of the re-telling of the story, which involves reframing the encounter with the find as serendipitous. Conclusions. Understanding everyday serendipity will allow for the effective support of serendipity ininformation technology. Our results suggest information systems should focus on enhancing the facetsof noticing and prepared mind. CHANGE   FONT Chance encounters with information, objects, or people that lead to fortuitous outcomes are an integral part of everydayinformation behaviour. Erdelez stresses that '[r]esearch-driven and anecdotal evidence suggests that users often find interesting and useful information without purposeful application of information searching skills and strategies' (2004:1013). Some researchers have expressed concern that opportunity for this type of encounter might be reduced in thecontext of technologically facilitated information behaviour (Thom-Santelli 2007). In response, work in informationsystems has proposed the development of interfaces that support or enable serendipity (Thom-Santelli 2007; Toms and  McCay-Peet 2009). The effective integration of serendipity in information technology, however, requires an understandingof how people experience serendipity in everyday environments. We propose to address this gap by developing acomprehensive model of serendipity in everyday information seeking. We begin the paper with a review of the literature onserendipity, most of which is based in the context of scientific discovery. We identify the core characteristics of serendipityexpressed in this literature, and contrast these with serendipity as described in non-elicited, natural descriptions of  Facets of serendipity in everyday chance encounters: a grounded theory a...http://www.informationr.net/ir/16-3/paper488.html1 of 2111/20/2013 9:17 AM  accidental encounters collected from blogs using keyword searches. The result is a model of serendipity in everydayinformation seeking.Past studies of everyday serendipity and chance encounters have taken three approaches. In some cases, interviews or surveys were used to elicit retrospective reports of such events (e.g., Erdelez 1997; Pálsdóttir 2010; Yadamsuren and  Erdelez 2010). In other research, descriptions of chance encounters emerge as part of a larger exploration of information behaviour (e.g., Foster and Ford 2003; Williamson 1998). Finally, in some research attempts are made to trigger or elicit such events (e.g., Erdelez 2004; Toms and McCay-Peet 2009). Retrospective accounts produced for the purposes of  research provide some insight, but their usefulness is limited by the demand characteristics of the research context and theretrospective nature of the recall. The event elicitation approaches allow control over the situation in which a chanceencounter is evoked, but it has proven difficult to provoke serendipity, perhaps because the artificial situations have limited meaningfulness to the participants, who therefore lack the deeper involvement that may be required for serendipity(Erdelez 2004).In response to these limitations, Erdelez (2004) calls for approaches that are based on participant self-generated data(Gross 1999). In the current study, selective blog mining is introduced as an alternative method of data collection thataddresses these concerns, focusing on naturally occurring descriptions of chance encounters that are created by bloggersindependent of the study. The accounts that make up our dataset were written by self-motivated bloggers for an unspecified audience. While many of these texts do not address all of the nuances of a chance encounter episode, they offer realisticretrospectives produced by the individual who experienced the encounter. Analysis of these descriptions allows us toexplore the contextual factors associated with experiences of serendipity.Our paper has the following three goals: 1) to test the effectiveness of an alternative data collection method for serendipityresearch; 2) to propose a more refined conceptual model that outlines the facets of serendipity; and 3) to better understand serendipity in the context of everyday information behaviour. The proposed model is an extension of previously presented findings (Rubin et al  2010). Literature Review In 1997, Gup lamented the ' end of serendipity ', recalling with fondness his childhood experiences coming across interestingtidbits of information while flipping pages in the encyclopedia. In his article, Gup (1997) expressed concern that the ' vastlymore efficient  ' pursuit of information supported by computers would rob us of the 'random epiphanies' and 'accidentaldiscoveries' that are limited in an information environment that is tailored to our needs and where ' nothing will come unlesssummoned  '. Gup is not alone in his concerns, which are echoed by others (including McKeen (2006)). Gup has an antidoteto lost serendipity, expressed in this fantasy:One day I will produce a computer virus and introduce it into my own desktop, so that when my sons put intheir key word – say, 'salamander' – the screen will erupt in a brilliant but random array of maps and illustrations and text that will divert them from their task. (Gup 1997: A52)Obviously, for Gup serendipity amounts to random encounters that draw us away from the task at hand. Others whoattempt to build serendipity back into the online environment take a different approach, and implicitly embrace a differentnotion of serendipity.  BananaSlug  is ' all about serendipity ' billing itself as the '  Long Tail Search Engine '. The search engineadds a random factor to a regular Google search by ' throwing in ' an unrelated (and randomly selected) word from acategory of the searcher's choice. The inclusion of this random factor effectively re-orders the search results, bringing tothe forefront results that the searcher might not have noticed in a traditional search. In this case, serendipity apparentlyrefers to unexpected noticing of information related to a current task.  AssistedSerendipity  does not rely on randomness atall, instead delivering to the user information they might not otherwise access: the purpose of this mobile phone app is totrack the male/female ratio at locations you specify, notifying you when the ' scales tip in your favour  ', presumably so thatyou can increase your chances of meeting someone of the sex of your choice. SerendipitySeattle  marks the locations of  potentially interesting, and presumably unnoticed, events such as theatre, talks, music ' and more ' on maps on mobiledevices: instead of connecting users to people, this app connects them to events they might not otherwise know about.  Inception  also relies on enriching the information environment to create ' serendipity '. This application is a ' social browser  'that ' tells you what to browse next  ' by gathering and sharing links from other users on the social web.Eagle and Pentland (2005) developed a system for enhancing the possibility of social encounters with others of similar interests, and Newman et al . (2002) propose a system that will allow for opportunistic or serendipitous discovery of networked resources such as printers, cameras, or microphones. These systems work by empowering our devices to Facets of serendipity in everyday chance encounters: a grounded theory a...http://www.informationr.net/ir/16-3/paper488.html2 of 2111/20/2013 9:17 AM  automatically scan the environment for relevant information: other users who have expressed similar interests (Eagle and Pentland 2005) or nearby networked devices ( Newman, et al . 2002). Google plans to take this one step further: atTechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco on September 28 2010, Google CEO Eric Schmidt announced that the company was building a ' serendipity engine ': ' autonomous search ' that operates in the background and without your direction ' while youare not even doing searching ', drawing your attention to things that you do not know, that would (according to your pastsearch history and expressed relevance) interest you (2010). (This new prototype of search engines heavily relies on personal data and continues to raise privacy concerns.)Something, however, does not sit quite right with these applications, and Google's foray into the serendipity game hasengendered a particularly strong response. As Farrar observes, Google stands to ' end serendipity (by creating it) ' (2010);Carr echoes this sentiment: '  Awesome! I've always thought that the worst thing about serendipity was its randomness! '(Carr 2010).There does seem to be something inherently contradictory in the attempt to '  program ' serendipity: after all, at the very coreof the term is the notion of chance, or unexpectedness. The sense that the online environment is increasingly determined and predictable promotes a widespread feeling that serendipity is threatened. The perspective seems to be that effectivesearch engines, narrow-casting , and an increasingly tailored information environment are detrimental to the experience of serendipity in everyday life. What is really meant, however, by the term serendipity in these discussions? Or, more to the point, what do we need to build back into the environment to promote serendipity? The answer to this question relies on afuller understanding of the nature of serendipity, particularly in the context of everyday information seeking. In order tocreate an online environment that promotes everyday serendipity, we need to know more about how people experienceserendipity, what triggers serendipitous encounters, and the circumstances that promote serendipity. The history of serendipity As many have noted, Harold Walpole coined the term serendipity in 1754 (Merton and Barber 2004). The word languished largely unused until the mid 1900s when it was adopted as an apt descriptor of the process of accidental or unplanned discovery in the scientific context (Merton and Barber 2004). Since then, the term has steadily risen in popularity and expanded in use, so much so that it was voted UK's favourite word in 2000 (BBC News 2000).Despite the popularity of the word itself, serendipity remains elusive and difficult to define. The word derives loosely fromthe tale of the Princes of Serendip , which chronicles the adventures of three traveling princes whose notable powers of observation and deduction lead them to accurate, insightful, and surprising conclusions. Walpole's definition of serendipityhighlighted some aspects of the story; that of accident, or surprise, and sagacity, while obscuring others, notably that thestory relies on the princes' keen powers of observation that are employed independently of any particular personal goal(Merton and Barber 2004). The examples that Walpole used to illustrate the concept make clear that he intended serendipity to entail two things: the accidental encountering of information and an outcome of the information encounter that is the solution to a personally relevant problem, question, or concern, either pre-existing, or resulting directly from theinformation itself. Although there are certainly disagreements as to the precise nature of serendipity, all accounts agree thatthe following two aspects are central: serendipity necessarily involves a chance observation or encounter where afortuitous outcome is critical (see Merton and Barber (2004) for a comprehensive discussion of the meaning of serendipity).Although Walpole's srcinal examples relate to his own life and not the realm of science, the word came to refer almostexclusively to a particular sort of discovery in scientific research; discovery emerging out of chance observation (e.g.,Andel 1994; Meyers 1995; Rosenman 2002). There is, not surprisingly, given the vague nature of the word, some debate regarding what constitutes a serendipitous scientific finding. In particular, some have distinguished serendipity from pseudo-serendipity on the grounds that the former necessarily involves accidental and fortuitous discoveries that emerge inthe course of an unrelated task   (Andel 1994; Roberts 1989). Among scholars who make this distinction, for example, the discovery of penicillin is identified as an example of  pseudo-serendipity  because, while the relevant observation wasaccidental and the outcome certainly fortuitous, Fleming was at the time looking for exactly what he found: a new bacterialinhibitor for staphylococcus (Andel 1994). There is no universal agreement, however, on the distinction betweenserendipity and pseudo-serendipity and, indeed, Andel's example of the latter (Fleming's discovery of penicillin) is cited asan example of serendipity in many other publications on the subject. It appears, therefore, that in the scientific contextserendipity requires chance observation and a fortuitous outcome; some examples of serendipity also involve a shift of  problem or task so that the outcome is not that which was being sought at the time of the observation, but others do not.Serendipity in the prosaic context of everyday life is much less studied. There is a small body of research in information Facets of serendipity in everyday chance encounters: a grounded theory a...http://www.informationr.net/ir/16-3/paper488.html3 of 2111/20/2013 9:17 AM  studies that examines serendipitous information encounters (e.g., Foster and Ford 2003); some work examines elicited retrospective accounts of these encounters (e.g., McBirnie 2008) and other work has attempted to trigger informationencountering in an experimental context (e.g., Erdelez 2004). Little research, however, has examined serendipity as itnaturally occurs in everyday environments, especially with respect to accidental encounters that are not restricted toencountering information. As a result, we know relatively little about the conditions that promote serendipitous encounters,the fortuitous outcomes that arise from these encounters and the situational and personal factors that promote everydayserendipity. Aspects of serendipity The literature on serendipity, does, however, provide some insight into the important aspects of the concept. In theremainder of this literature review we will focus on two: noticing and preparedness. Serendipity and noticing In her model of information encountering, Erdelez (2000) notes that ' noticing ' is the first step, and anecdotal accounts of serendipity typically begin with noticing of the critical observation. Noticing is non-trivial, since much, if indeed not most,of what we encounter in the world is ignored: in fact, we can think of noticing as being the exception rather than the rule inour interactions with the world around us. In examining serendipity it is therefore important to understand how the criticalobservation comes to be noticed.There is widespread agreement that some people are more likely to experience serendipity than are others (Erdelez 1999;McBirnie 2008) and this may have to do with individual differences in the tendency or ability to notice. Merton (2004: 257), in his afterword to The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity , notes that dictionary definitions of serendipity almostexclusively refer to a '  faculty, capacity, gift, or talent for making felicitous discoveries by chance '. Walpole (1754)identified himself as someone prone to the sort of ' happy accident  ' he identified as serendipity:This discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr. Chute calls the sortes Walpolianae, by which I find everythingI want, à point nommé [at the very moment], wherever I dip for it.Heinström has found that individuals who are extraverted, open and agreeable (personality traits associated with theinformation seeking style of ' broad scanning ') are more likely to encounter information incidentally (Heinström 2006a,2006b). Within the domain of psychology, serendipity is often associated with creativity, particularly the sort of creativitythat involves the association of previously unrelated ideas. Numerous authors have demonstrated that this sort of creativityis enhanced among individuals who show reduced attentional focus, or a broader attentional ' window '; (Ansburg and Hill2003; Carson et al . 2003; Dorfman et al . 2008; Memmert 2009). In the context of information seeking, Pálsdóttir (2010) has demonstrated that individuals who seek information more actively are also more likely to encounter information,suggesting that encounterers  may have a general orientation toward acquiring information. It appears, therefore, that someindividuals simply have a propensity toward noticing, and thus being able to take advantage of serendipitous observations.Environmental or contextual factors may also contribute to noticing. There is ample evidence that contextual factors driveattention at the perceptual level.  Difference or change  in the environment tends to attract attention. Thus, for example, wetend to notice unique items (e.g., a single red circle in a field of blue circles; e.g., Theeuwes 1994) or sudden changes (suchas item onset; Egeth and Yantis 1997). In a complicated auditory environment, and even when closely attending to onesignal over competing signals, listeners will react to emotionally loaded or meaningful words on the unattended channel(this is commonly known as the ' cocktail party effect  ', e.g. Wood and Cowan 1995); and a similar effect has been observed in visual attention (see Shapiro et al . 1997). These results and others like them indicate that although we often decidewhere to direct our attention, under some circumstances attention is drawn or pulled by aspects of the environment. Theenvironmental or contextual factors that draw attention are in many cases perceptual in nature, but in some situations (as inthe cocktail party effect) attention is automatically deployed on the basis of higher-level characteristics such as word meaning (e.g., Pratto and John 1991). It is possible, therefore, that attention could be drawn to items, information, or  people in the environment because they are salient (e.g., large, loud, close by, etc.), or because of their relevance to anongoing problem. Serendipity and preparedness Louis Pasteur famously declared 'chance favours prepared minds'. An examination of the literature on serendipity reveals Facets of serendipity in everyday chance encounters: a grounded theory a...http://www.informationr.net/ir/16-3/paper488.html4 of 2111/20/2013 9:17 AM  two kinds of preparation that provide a fertile substrate for serendipity: prior need and background knowledge.Few if any instances of serendipity as described in existing literature are forward-looking in that the chance observation becomes relevant only at a later point in time. Instead, serendipity typically involves a chance observation that addresses a prior need or question. In some cases of serendipity (note that these are the cases sometimes identified as  pseudo-serendipity ), the prior need is ' top of mind  ' at the time of the chance observation, as it was for Fleming in the discovery of  penicillin (Andel 1994). Alternatively, the need could be in the background, triggered or resurrected by the chanceobservation. Thus, for example, the observation that led to the development of the trickle irrigation method was made byan Israeli water engineer when his attention was drawn to a single tree that was growing much taller than its neighbours.When he looked closer, he realized the tree was receiving a constant drip of water from a leaking pipe, and although he had not been thinking of irrigation at the time he noticed the tree, he quickly realized the applicability of his observation to the problem of growing crops with little water (Andel 1994).Although the existing literature does not specifically address the issue, research in other domains suggests that a prior need may even influence noticing by making relevant observations more salient, or more likely to attract attention. Studies of early attention suggests that high level goals and strategies can affect item salience and very low level (and thus very early)attentional allocation (Chong, et al . 2008; Fecteau 2007; Ferrari et al . 2009). These results are only suggestive, but theyindicate that high level goals (e.g., to find an effective treatment for seasonal allergies) could serve to increase the perceptual salience (and thus noticing) of relevant objects, information, or people in the environment (so that, for example,you might suddenly and unaccountably find yourself listening closely to the radio show that had been playing in the background when an allergist comes on to speak).Background or domain knowledge appears to serve a different purpose in serendipity. There is strong evidence thatextensive domain knowledge is a critical antecedent of creativity (e.g., Weisberg 1999). Without domain knowledge, thereis no possibility of making the unexpected connection or seeing the unanticipated solution. At the same time domainknowledge can be constraining, locking the individual into accepted or traditional ways of thinking (e.g., Dane 2010). In particular, it appears that domain knowledge supports serendipitous insight when no related focal task is activated. For example, Barber and Fox (1958) document the stories of two scientists, each with the background knowledge required toidentify a surprising reaction of rabbits to the injection of a particular drug. One researcher, stalled in other research at thetime, noticed and pursued the anomalous observation, while the second, whose primary research program was progressingwell, did not. In the context of scientific discovery, the background knowledge that is required is a detailed understandingof the topic of inquiry. In the context of everyday serendipity the relevant expertise may take the form of more prosaicskills and background. Thus, for example, McBirnie (2008) suggests that information literacy plays a critical role insupporting serendipity. In her research, information literacy skills constitute the background knowledge required for serendipitous discoveries. Summary What we know about serendipity, primarily from the context of scientific research, is this: serendipity involves a chanceobservation that is instrumental in a fortuitous outcome. Typically, the outcome is relevant to a prior problem, question, or concern. In some cases, the chance observation occurs while addressing the prior problem, while in other cases the chanceobservation is relevant to a background task or problem that is reactivated by the observation. Serendipity relies criticallyon noticing the observation. There are individual differences in the capacity to notice in that some people systematicallyshow a stronger information-gathering orientation or an inclination to information encountering (see Erdelez's (1997)notion of super-encounterers). Situational factors may also affect noticing, since it appears that the likelihood of noticing isdecreased when an individual is intensely focused on a demanding foreground task or problem. Prior needs may affectnoticing by making relevant information more salient and thus more likely to attract attention. Finally, prior knowledge or expertise is critical for making sense of the observation, identifying it as anomalous, surprising, or new, and fitting it intothe problem context.The goal of the current project is to examine examples of everyday serendipity to determine whether these characteristicsare evident in accidental encounters in everyday life and to explore the ways in which these characteristics interact indescriptions of accidental encounters. Facets of serendipity in everyday chance encounters: a grounded theory a...http://www.informationr.net/ir/16-3/paper488.html5 of 2111/20/2013 9:17 AM
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