What is it that makes my favorite online services so compelling? I’m talking about the whole family of services that includes Dopplr, Wesabe, Twitter, Flickr, and del.icio.us among others.
I find it interesting that people don’t generally refer to any of these as “web sites”. They are “services”.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Dopplr’s Matt Biddulph and Matt Jones last week while in London where they described the architecture of what they’ve built in terms of connected data keys. The job of Dopplr, Mr. Jones said, was to “surface coincidence”.
I think that term slipped out accidentally, but I love it. What does it mean to “surface coincidence”?
It starts by enabling people to manufacture the circumstances by which coincidence becomes at least meaningful if not actually useful. Or, as Jon Udell put it years ago now when comparing Internet data signals to cellular biology:
“It looks like serendipity, and in a way it is, but it’s manufactured serendipity.”
All these services allow me to manage fragments of my life without requiring burdensome tasks. They all let me take my data wherever I want. They all enhance my data by connecting it to more data. They all make my data relevant in the context of a larger community.
When my life fragments are managed by an intelligent service, then that service can make observations about my data on my behalf.
Dopplr can show me when a distant friend will be near and vice versa. Twitter can show me what my friends are doing right now. Wesabe can show me what others have learned about saving money at the places where I spend my money. Among many other things Flickr can show me how to look differently at the things I see when I take photos. And del.icio.us can show me things that my friends are reading every day.
There are many many behaviors both implicit and explicit that could be managed using this formula or what is starting to look like a successful formula, anyhow. Someone could capture, manage and enhance the things that I find funny, the things I hate, the things at home I’m trying to get rid of, the things I accomplished at work today, the political issues I support, etc.
But just collecting, managing and enhancing my life fragments isn’t enough. And I think what Matt Jones said is a really important part of how you make data come to life.
You can make information accessible and even fun. You can make the vast pool feel manageable and usable. You can make people feel connected.
And when you can create meaning in people’s lives, you create deep loyalty. That loyalty can be the foundation of larger businesses powered by advertising or subscriptions or affiliate networks or whatever.
The result of surfacing coincidence is a meaningful action. And those actions are where business value is created.
Wikipedia defines coincidence as follows:
“Coincidence is the noteworthy alignment of two or more events or circumstances without obvious causal connection.”
This is, of course, similar and related to the definition of serendipity:
“Serendipity is the effect by which one accidentally discovers something fortunate, especially while looking for something else entirely.”
You might say that this is a criteria against which any new online service should be measured. Though it’s probably so core to getting things right that every other consideration in building a new online service needs to support it.
It’s probably THE criteria.
6 thoughts on “The Internet’s secret sauce: surfacing coincidence”
this reminds me of this essay by Lindsay Marshall:
“We are not, I believe, looking for tools to record our thoughts or to provide them with structure. What we seek is something that leads us to the unforeseen collisions, the copulations that lead to new thoughts, new connections and yet more new meetings.”
Great post, Matt! I love the idea of surfacing coincidence. It’s interesting that the services you highlight (Dopplr, Wesabe, Twitter, Flickr, and del.icio.us) seem to have added this layer of meaning on top of fairly specialized data, at least initially (finance, photos, short text, etc). The larger, catch-all social networks don’t seem to have reached this level as clearly – is that a function of the more complex/vague data, the ways that people use those networks, or something else? Can serendipity be achieved by a ‘one-stop’ or aggregating network? One would think that the extra data can only help, but perhaps this isn’t the case.
Hey, I’ve done something that sort of surfaces coincidence with flickr photos with my footsteppr hack: http://bluesmoon.info/hacks/footsteppr/
Great post…I’ve been using serendipity and discovery for awhile, but your connection to life tools really resonates.
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