Traversing the Geek Tail

Shamus laments the difficulty of traversing the long tail of geek blogs, and I can sympathize. The need for better information aggregation and analysis has been something of a theme on this blog for a while, so I figured I’d make a few comments. Interestingly enough, this dovetails with another discussion I followed a while back (and never got around to writing about).

First, to illustrate a point, I wanted to recount how I found Twenty Sided. Basically, it all started with that infamous blond joke. I didn’t link to Shamus for the joke, but it turns out that we both linked to the same place (and we both apparently found out about the blond joke from Chizumatic). I was intrigued by the blond joke phenomenon, and made a half hearted attempt at mapping the tree of links (once I realized how many branches and branches-of-branches there were, I gave up). Since we’d both linked to the same place and since we’d both pinged that blog (so that our links showed up on the linked post), Twenty Sided was one of the first I recorded. At some point, I ended up viewing his main page and commented on one of this posts. Shamus apparently noticed and then started reading my blog, and on we went.

There are a couple of things to note here. I discovered Twenty Sided almost completely by accident. It was the result of a lame yet deceptively complex blog meme (the sort of thing I used to avoid like the plague). In short, I found his blog through serendipity. What’s more, I’ve found that many of my favorite sites were found in a similar manner: when I wasn’t actually looking for them.

Which brings me to a recent (er, 5 month old) article on the subject:

Serendipity is defined as the ability to make fortunate discoveries accidentally. There’s so much of modern life that makes it preferable to the vaunted good old days – better hygiene products and power steering leap to mind – but in these disposable days of now and the future, the concept of serendipity is endangered.

Think about the library. Do people browse anymore? We have become such a directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find – with an irritating hit or miss here and there – exactly what you’re looking for. It’s efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding. Inside, the book might be a loser, a waste of the effort and calories it took to remove it from its place and then return. Or it might be a dark chest of wonders, a life-changing first step into another world, something to lead your life down a path you didn’t know was there.

… Looking for something and being surprised by what you find – even if it’s not what you set out looking for – is one of life’s great pleasures, and so far no software exists that can duplicate that experience.

There is obviously value in analog serendipity (i.e. browsing the library stacks, etc…). Indeed, I used to take a guilty pleasure in ransacking the shelves of the library in which I was supposed to be studying. On one such expedition, I discovered The Book of Imaginary Beings (“a handbook of the strange creatures conceived through time and space by the human imagination”) which inspired me to create a new website (that has sadly been neglected for years). On the other hand, what the hell is this guy talking about? Like Steven Johnson, I have to wonder if this guy even uses the internet…

I find these arguments completely infuriating. Do these people actually use the web? I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student. Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the “binding.”) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books.

Is there a way to harness serendipity in an organized fashion? After all, serendipity isn’t just random noise, it’s the unexpected discovery of signal. The trick is really getting started. Shamus mentions in his post that his starting points are Google, Technorati, and referral logs (i.e. noticing that someone has linked to you). Google is a reasonable starting place for general information, but there’s way too much information to sift through there, and it’s difficult to find a good geek blog that way. Technorati is hit or miss (mostly miss, in my experience) and referral logs are wonderful if you get noticed (but that’s not as easy as it sounds and doesn’t happen all that often, especially to beginners).

In the past, I’ve found blogs I’ve liked in many ways. Often, I will find a blog I like, then surf through blogrolls. This will sometimes result in a good find (often chaining through several blogroll trees), though it also seems to induce something of a short-term ADD in me as I mostly scan without reading unless something really catches my eye. I used to post a lot on discussion boards and do a lot of debating. This often led me to do some research on various subjects, which sometimes turned up interesting articles. Finding these articles, then exploring the site it’s on or googling the author will sometimes yield results.

There are, of course, the big social aggregators like Digg and Reddit. I’ve always found to be a good place to start (particularly the popular page). Of course, you still have to sift through all of these things to find the hidden gems, but once you do, the structure of the internet gives you the ability to follow a trail of associations (blogrolls being the key example here) easily and efficiently (once you find a blog you like, aggregators like Technorati become a little more useful). Those social aggregators are a good starting place, but they still leave something to be desired. However, all of these sites have come on strong only in the last couple of years and they’re growing better every day.

In any case, I’ve noticed that my blogroll has become a bit stale these days. I still read most of those blogs regularly and they’re all good, but I think it’s time to add some new ones. After all, the past several entries have referenced the same blogs over and over again! Alas, I’ll be away on vacation next week, with little or no computer access, so perhaps I’ll just start with a “link to someone new” type post…

1 thought on “Traversing the Geek Tail”

  1. Yeah, I generally find arguments along the “Things-were-so-much-better-back-then” line to be generally misguided attempts at nostalgia. Things are certainly *differnet* now, but as to whether they’re better or worse? The nature of things changes, and I have to say, I agree to some extent that we’re losing some of the serendipity off-line. People off-line are very focused, and, as the article points out, the directness with which we do things certainly cuts down on opportunities for serendipity, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that it’s endangered. I’ll agree that the searching the stacks example is kind of contrived, but it’s not completely. I’ve definitely pulled books off of the shelf just because I thought that the binding looked neat. In most cases, the book sucked, but some of the best short story collections I’ve found were totally by accident. I think, though, that we miss out on things like running into random people. I noticed this recently. I see tons of people in the grocery store who are on their cell phones, and, thus, oblivious to my presence. I don’t go to the video store anymore, because I can order things through netflix or buy things through amazon or ebay. Between the internet and cell phones, the number of places I need to go has been drastically reduced. Why waste my time going to the store if I can order off their website? And even when I do go, I’m as likely to see people on the phone as not. So, yeah, I think that our serendipitous interactions with people are probably on the decline, but finding random things that we derive enjoyment from online? definitely easy.

    I’m not sure that made any sense at all. Heh.

Comments are closed.