Looking for serendipity in the New York Times
In his book Information Anxiety, Richard Saul Wurman claims that an average issue of the New York Times contains more information than an ordinary citizen of seventeenth-century England would have been expected to absorb in his entire lifetime. I believe it. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that many of my nonworking hours online—perhaps as many as half—are spent on the Times website, which has long been my primary portal to events in the world around me. Yet I find myself barely scratching the surface. I rarely go past the articles displayed on the first page, for one thing, although a click on any section reveals vast amounts of additional material. And I generally don’t go looking for articles on subjects that don’t already interest me, at least not without an extra nudge. Which is why the little box of “Most Emailed” articles along the right side of the page is so useful: it’s a crowdsourced list of the best stuff in the day’s paper, and I always find something fascinating there that I wouldn’t have seen anywhere else.
On March 10, 2011, however, everything changed. Instead of displaying the “Most Emailed” list, the Times defaulted to a new tab called “Recommended for You,” based on their new recommendation engine, which suggests articles based on what you’ve read in the past. “Most Emailed” was still there, but it was hidden by the recommendations tab when you were logged into your Times account—which was all the time, if you wanted to read more than the ten free articles they offer you every month. You could change your preferences fairly easily to put the “Most Emailed” list up front, but like the passive slug that I am, I left things in default mode for a whole year. And a funny thing happened: I stopped using that tab. The recommendations list updated less frequently, for one thing, and the algorithm behind its suggestions often seemed crude. But the real problem was more fundamental: what the recommendation engine thought I might want to see was far less interesting than what other people unlike me were reading at the same time.
What I discovered, in short, was that the least interesting thing the Times could possibly do for me was indicate stories that were similar to articles I’d read before. To put it in a slightly paradoxical way, I don’t care about the stuff I already care about: I want to be surprised, or at least find articles that break me out of my usual routine. “Most Emailed” does this beautifully; “Recommended For You” sure as hell doesn’t. In the end, I finally did what I should have done months earlier: I clicked the one link that restored the “Most Emailed” tab as my default setting, and I noticed the change almost at once. Overnight, I was happily reading great articles that I would have missed before—but I still can’t help feeling a sense of regret at the thought of that lost year. (Of course, the really serious way to find good stories is to browse, page by page, through a physical copy of the paper, as I keep meaning to do every Sunday. Whenever I open the paper at random, I invariably find something surprising and interesting. But for all my good intentions, I still have yet to engage in this kind of systematic browsing.)
I’ve spoken before about the importance of serendipity—our chance encounters with unexpected ideas in libraries and bookstores, in encyclopedias, and in the world around us—and how the end of browsing has led to a corresponding decline in such experiences. (George Steiner calls it “the genius of waste,” the quality of a great bookstore that allows us to find what we aren’t looking for.) The question of whether the Internet tends to increase or decrease serendipity has been hotly debated, with lots of good points made on both sides. What seems clear, at least to me, is a recommendation engine can only diminish the kind of serendipity that we all need, especially those of us in creative fields. It may be exactly what a lot of Internet users want, and I assume that the Times wouldn’t put its recommendations front and center if it hadn’t seen a corresponding increase in clicks. But try this: go to the New York Times homepage, scroll down to the “Recommended for You” list, and click the “Don’t Show” link at the bottom. Hiding that tab made my life better and more interesting. It may do the same for you.