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Forget Paywalls – How About More Serendipity?

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If ChatRoulette does nothing else, at least it seems to be getting some traditional media outlets to think about their content differently. For Chris Thorpe of The Guardian, the lightbulb went on during a lunchtime presentation by media analyst Clay Shirky at the newspaper’s offices in London. Thorpe, a former research scientist who is in charge of The Guardian’s Open API project, asked Shirky what was left for newspapers to do once their content had been atomized and digitized. How could the serendipity that newspapers provide be replicated online, he asked, without them just becoming “ChatRoulette for news?” After some laughter from Shirky and elsewhere in the room, the conversation continued; but Thorpe and a colleague thought the idea wasn’t ridiculous at all, and within a few hours they had built Guardian developer Daniel Vydra had built Random Guardian — a site that pulls a random article from the newspaper’s site with the click of a button (there’s a New York Times (s nyt) version, too).

It isn’t ChatRoulette at all, of course — in part because there is a distinct lack of nudity, which has more or less become a hallmark of that service. It’s more like Stumbleupon (which offers a service called StumbleThru that works on a single domain). It’s quite a fun experience, though, clicking randomly through the newspaper’s pages. And while it may be a trivial enough app, thrown together in a matter of hours, Thorpe believes that it taps into something powerful that newspapers can offer their readers: namely, serendipity (something I’ve also written about here).

For people who think that paywalls or the iPad are the things that will be the magic bullet that saves the newspaper industry from falling over a cliff I think there’s an easier answer; more random/serendipity please. If you take me to unknown places I’ll read more and I’ll spend more time, be more engaged, you can target me better and I’ll love you and buy things. Bring me wonder and magic and I’ll love you forever.

The Guardian is clearly going down that road, not just with Random Guardian but with features such as the Zeitgeist, an expanded version of the “most popular” boxes that many newspapers feature, and with its entire Open API project, which is designed to allow developers to create their own experiences using Guardian content. Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch is busy erecting paywalls at several of his newspapers. Time will tell which route is the more successful one, but my money is on The Guardian.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user piterart

15 Responses to “Forget Paywalls – How About More Serendipity?”

  1. Charles

    @Online Editor “people want news that is relevant to themselves and their social group.”

    Yeah, that’s why they click on the stories about puppies that swam 150 miles to find their owners, 74-year-old new fathers, and Tiger Woods’s latest mistress’s sexy text collections. Because it’s relevant to their social group.

    Well, sort of. Great definition of news: “stuff I care about, stuff I want to pass on.” The two don’t always overlap. NewsRoulette may bring you some of the latter; you already know, usually, how to find the former (it’s in that blank box at the top right of the site/browser).

    While there may be no inherent need for serendipity, we don’t like in a world of needs, for the most part (and certainly if you’ve got an internet-capable computer). You’re in a world of interest, which gives serendipity that little space to invade your brain.

  2. Online editor

    I totally disagree – serendipity is the great rationalisation that generations of journalists have convinced themselves has some consumer value — the truth is, we invented the “broad church” concept as an excuse for the fact that we were (and continue to) produce newspapers designed to be produced on a 500-year-old technology that cannot offer a customised experience. Anyone who has worked as an online news editor knows no one will ever click on these Guardian or NYT random features — people want news that is relevant to themselves and their social group. There is no inherent need for serendipity — check Maslows’ hierachy – it’s just a convenient lie swallowed by generations of print journalists

    • I think we are just seeing the continuation of the trend of “polarities” – middle gray is less and less relevant as most people polarize to the extremes.

      We want to go faster – at the same time we want to disconnect and slow down

      We buy high end customized products, or we go to Walmart and get the super deal

      We want complexity personalized news that is truly relevant to us or we want serendipity and leave it to a random moment to see if we can discover something that we know we wouldn’t discover otherwise.

      All to say, customized experience doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t interested in random.

    • Not sure I agree — I know that serendipity is one of the things that I enjoy about newspapers and plenty of other things, including blogs and Twitter. And a lot of people I talk to seem to appreciate being exposed to new things, although they may not use the term serendipity to describe it.

  3. From the page: It’s more like Stumbleupon, but for a single site. It’s quite a fun experience, though, clicking randomly through the newspaper’s pages.

    StumbleUpon has been providing the very same utility for years now. From the toolbar, choose All > StumbleThru and you can stumble pages from a single site. SU offers domain-specific stumbling for partners with reasonably deep content archives. Some of the StumbleThru sites/newspapers are CNN, Huffington Post, The Onion, BBC:

  4. Charles

    And it’s now growing like Topsy – Daniel Vydra has built, in quick succession, NYTRoulette and Australian News Roulette.

    There’s actually a key argument embedded here. Part of what we do on the internet is focussed – but part of what we also enjoy is serendipity. I think that GuardianRoulette (as I prefer to call it) would be even better if it were to spin randomly through the entire Guardian canon – which goes back a very, very long way. (1840s or something.)

    It’s interesting too to see some comments on my post about it on Friday ( – such as the people saying “If you put this in the iPhone app I’ll never get any work done.”

  5. Agree that serendipity needs to be a fundamental element of news online, as it probably needs to be for many other forms of digital content (e.g. video). Of course, only someone who shows up at the Guardian site can benefit from the “serendipity engine” there. Getting them there in the first place, still a challenge. Getting them there by soliciting and winning a paid subscription from them… well, don’t think serendipity alone will win their subscription payment.

    • That’s a good point, Paul — and I don’t think this feature or any other is going to do that by itself. But shows that they are thinking about their business a little differently. Thanks for the comment.

  6. I think what is so interesting is that they are attempting to fundamentally shift the core DNA of how they are building their product. “Serendipity” in of itself isn’t in my mind a winning strategy, but an important pillar of an overall product marketing approach.

    Quick to market moments that capitalize on reader insight sounds like a brand platform that could differentiate the Guardian from the inside out.

    Good for them.