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.


  1. Well said Rita. Would the introduction of new and emergent tools like Scoop it change the landscape of information search and curation? Aren't we approaching the intersection of Web 2.0 and Web 3.0? I think we are getting close to semantic web, when more tools are integrated for users (especially with the introduction of Google +
    I share with you in that sharing, curating and producing information is time consuming, and we really need some smarter tools (like RSS with intelligence, and Google with ranking, but more customised to our needs)to help us to sieve through the landscape. Cheers. John

  2. There's power and potential in being willing to step off the path once in a while. The difficulty comes when A) you simply don't have time to wander or B) become so global in your connections that they begin to seem forced. By reading the work of smart people it's possible to catch all sorts of leads and often seemingly widely separated notions converge. Trouble is, how do we claim this as deliberate as opposed to being just luck? How we apply the notion of scholarship to a random walk? This is a hard question. Thanks for the posting.