Friday, July 8, 2011

The balancing act between relevance and serendipity in the information stream

Boring! Yehh,yehh, no surprises. Have you had that feeling when looking at the results of your information searches? It is something I have been thinking about a lot the past months.

If the role of the educator used to be to challenge learners by providing different points of view and coming up with, to the learner, unexpected ideas and points of view to stimulate the thought processes, how might this be facilitated in a networked environment? Algorithm-driven search engines recommend relevant information to our search query, and are not (yet) up to recommending us serendipitous information; information that also contains unexpected gems of information that ensures new angles to feed our thought processes. I believe that currently the best way to achieve serendipity in our information steam is through human intervention.

Web users can now be in control of their information stream and pull information in from human sources. These sources might be information brokers, knowledgeable nodes on the network, or be aggregated through feeds written and produced by a multitude of interesting authors, or news sources and distributed through micro-blogging tools such as Twitter or Tumlr, or through curation sites such as . What all these sites have in common is the 'human touch'. They ensure that users get recommendations from people in their area of interest, and quite often also recommendations 'one step removed' from these people, such as through #tag communities on Twitter, which should result, as described by Jarvis, in 'unexpected relevance' in the information received.

When I look at my own information stream, I am still not quite happy with the level of serendipity, even though I use all these tools and have automated their use and made them more appetizing, for instance through the use of the 'flipboard app'. There is a lot of 'dross' that I have to sift through to find these really interesting bits. I find that I invest an increasing amount of my time at sharing, curating and producing information, which is not a bad thing as the activity in itself helps my thought processes and might also provide an aha moments for someone else.