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Summary:

The way that social-media tools like Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram have changed our lives is often taken for granted, but the way that they can inject some much-needed serendipity into our lives is often overlooked — even by those who use them a lot.

By now, most of us have grown used to the role social media plays in our lives: we message our friends on Twitter, share photos through Instagram or Facebook, and comment on our friends’ check-ins or look for travel tips on Foursquare. I am as immersed in this as anyone, since social media is a big part of how I do my job. But every now and then, I try to refresh my memory about how disruptive these technologies really are — and one of the most powerful aspects for me is the way that each of them can function as a kind of serendipity engine in our lives, if we want them to. In other words, they can randomize our experiences in ways that were never before possible, as they did for me on some recent trips to New York and San Francisco.

One example: After arriving in New York for a conference and some meetings earlier this year, I decided to go for a stroll through The High Line park on the Lower West Side near the Meatpacking District — a wonderful park that used to be an elevated subway track and is now a huge green space that stretches for about 15 blocks. While I was walking, I decided to check in on Foursquare, since I had never been to the Highline before, and within a minute or two I had a message from someone who saw my check-in on Facebook: they were just a few blocks away and wanted to meet for a cup of coffee.

Randomness can be a very powerful feature

Ironically, this incident took place just hours after I had told someone that I didn’t really use the check-in feature in Foursquare to meet people very much, but mostly used it for tips about restaurants. But after that experience — which resulted in a fascinating discussion with someone I had been trying to meet up with for some time, with no success — I decided to try it more often.

On my next trip to New York, I looked at Foursquare’s stream of friend check-ins to see where some of the people I follow on various services were, and noticed that someone I knew was at a sushi restaurant not far from me. I messaged him on Twitter, but unfortunately he had already left. Since I had an hour or two to kill, however, I checked my stream and saw a photo of Times Square that someone I knew had posted just a few minutes earlier. I messaged her and we wound up meeting for coffee the next day — even though neither of us knew the other was in town until that moment.

On a recent visit to San Francisco for a GigaOM conference, I had a similar experience from the opposite side of the coin: I posted a photo of a street near where I was staying in an Airbnb apartment (another eye-opening experience that I wrote about recently) and within minutes someone had posted a comment saying the street was just a few blocks from where they lived, and offered to buy me a coffee. We had breakfast the next morning at a local cafe, and not only was it a fascinating conversation but we happened to be sitting by the window when the Space Shuttle flew by on its last voyage. Talk about serendipity.

Increasing the likelihood of “bumping into” someone

Not all of my experiences with this kind of random meet-up have been deep or hugely meaningful — in some cases, they have just resulted in someone saying hello, as a New York staffer from a large blog network did on my last trip to the city, when I checked in and posted a photo from Stumptown Coffee Roasters in Chelsea. He introduced himself and said he saw the check-in, and we chatted a bit while we were getting our coffees and then said goodbye. That afternoon, a CEO of a local startup saw that I had checked in nearby, and sent me an email and we wound up meeting for coffee.

Obviously, this kind of chance meeting was possible before social-media tools like Twitter or Instagram or Foursquare came along — you could bump into someone at the store, or on the street, or at the newsstand. But the chance of those things happening is much larger now (or could be, if more users allowed it to happen). Those tools enhance the likelihood that someone who is in your social graph will see your virtual location, and the two of you can connect much more easily through a variety of services as well, so that semi-random meetings become much more appealing.

Not everyone is going to want to throw their calendar out the window or outsource it to Twitter and Foursquare, of course, and in some cases it introduces a lot more randomness than you might want during a short trip to a strange city. I’ve also had lots of emails and direct messages from people I don’t really want to meet with, which is a side effect of the same phenomenon, and I have planned dozens of meetings that never actually occurred. But the vast majority of the ones that did happen were worth it — and that injection of randomness or serendipity is one of the unsung features of social-media tools, at least for me.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Mark Strozier and Shutterstock/MrJPEG

  1. Definitely the dream scenario all of us are building for.

    My belief is serendipity apps will be built on top of events or gatherings of intent. Otherwise, folks won’t allow apps to suck juice on just a random day.

    Alternatively, Apple creates some type of unified messaging system, using iCloud as the proxy, to send messages to a user via one of their installed apps. Somewhat of a centralized mailbox. Wouldn’t be surprised if they are doing this, actually. To them, your identity is at the device-level.

    Either way, on some level, this is what most of us in the social space are building for.

    Cool post.

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    1. Thanks, Chris.

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  2. You also forgot to mention the commercial element in all this , check in and get a five percent off etc.

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  3. I have a serendipity story involving you. Last week, you posted a fantastic article about Prismatic. I learned about it because I follow you on Twitter (though the story also showed up in my Zite!). I contacted Bradford, we ended up sharing a few fantastic bottles of wine, great conversation, and eventually had dinner with his lovely wife. I love the wonderful (guided?) serendipity that the social web engenders.

    -Mark Johnson, CEO, Zite

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    1. Thanks, Mark — glad I could help get you two together :-)

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  4. facebook should have been blocked from buying Instagram on anti-trust grounds.

    the SEC and FTC blew a huge opportunity to let competition live in the social media space.

    instagram now has 150 million users.

    it was the new facebook till facebook was allowed to buy them.

    consumers will suffer in all sorts of ways starting with privacy.

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  5. zite sucks. does the comments section have to be a spot for every entrepreneurs self promotion?

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  6. Mathew,
    Thank you for articulating the serendipity feature of our social media apps. While we can sometimes feel bogged down by our social feeds it is refreshing to hear that these tools can still generate valuable, chance social encounters. My company is applying the serendipity feature to the car, and area that is lacking in social connection and typically filled with boredom. With our smartphone app, drivers can identify others who are driving near them and play interactive audio games against eachother. Have you seen a growing trend of early-stage companies incorporating “serendipity engines” into their applications?

    -Matt Albrecht, Founder, BRIGHTdriver

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  7. Just want to echo what Chris is saying up there! It’d be a dream!

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  8. Serendipity happens. It’s my belief it should happen about 5x as often though. It’s about surfacing the right “nugget of info” to the right person at the right time to make it happen. I’m working on surfacing those nuggets in a travel context..

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  9. The serendipity of social media never ceases to amaze me. I actually met my husband because he randomly saw a tweet I sent asking for help with my website. We had never interacted before on Twitter, and we were each following hundreds of people and living in different countries/timezones, but he saw my tweet, helped me out, and now we’re married. Crazy. Social media is a wonderful thing for so many reasons.

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