Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The right kind of randomness

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Yesterday, while talking about my search for serendipity in the New York Times, I wrote: “What the [Times‘s] recommendation engine thought I might like to see was far less interesting than what other people unlike me were reading at the same time.” The second I typed that sentence, I knew it wasn’t entirely true, and the more I thought about it, the more questions it seemed to raise. Because, really, most readers of the Times aren’t that much unlike me. The site attracts a wide range of visitors, but its ideal audience, the one it targets and the one that embodies how most of its readers probably like to think of themselves, is fairly consistent: educated, interested in the politics and the arts, more likely to watch Mad Men than Two and a Half Men, and rather more liberal than otherwise. The “Most Emailed” list isn’t exactly a random sampling of interesting stories, then, but a sort of idealized picture of what the perfect Times subscriber, with equal access to all parts of the paper, is reading at that particular moment.

As a result, the “serendipity” we find there tends to be skewed in predictable ways. For instance, you’re much more likely to see a column by Paul Krugman than by my conservative college classmate Ross Douthat, who may be a good writer who makes useful points, but you’d never know it based on how often his columns are shared. (I don’t have any hard numbers to back this up, but I’d guess that Douthat’s columns make the “Most Emailed” list only a fraction of the time.) If I were really in search of true serendipity—that is, to quote George Steiner, if I was trying to find what I wasn’t looking for—I’d read the most viewed or commented articles on, say, the National Review, or, better yet, the National Enquirer, the favorite paper of both Victor Niederhoffer and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. But I don’t. What I really want as a reader, it seems, isn’t pure randomness, but the right kind of randomness. It’s serendipity as curated by the writers and readers of the New York Times, which, while interesting, is only a single slice of the universe of randomness at my disposal.

Is this wrong? Not necessarily. In fact, I’d say there are at least two good reasons to stick to a certain subset of randomness, at least on a daily basis. The first reason has something in common with Brian Uzzi’s fascinating research on the collaborative process behind hit Broadway shows, as described in Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine. What Uzzi discovered is that the most successful shows tended to be the work of teams of artists who weren’t frequent collaborators, but weren’t strangers, either. An intermediate level of social intimacy—not too close, but not too far away—seemed to generate the best results, since strangers struggled to find ways of working together, while those who worked together all the time tended to fall into stale, repetitive patterns. And this strikes me as being generally true of the world of ideas as well. Ideas that are too similar don’t combine in interesting ways, but those that are too far apart tend to uselessly collide. What you want, ideally, is to live in a world of good ideas that want to cohere and set off chains of associations, and for this, an intermediate level of unfamiliarity seems to work the best.

And the second reason is even more important: it’s that randomness alone isn’t enough. It’s good, of course, to seek out new sources of inspiration and ideas, but if done indiscriminately, the result is likely to be nothing but static. Twitter, for instance, is as pure a slice of randomness as you could possibly want, but we very properly try to manage our feeds to include those people we like and find interesting, rather than exposing ourselves to the full noise of the Twitterverse. (That way lies madness.) Even the most enthusiastic proponent of intentional randomness, like me, has to admit that not all sources of information are created equal, and that it’s sometimes necessary to use a trusted home base for our excursions into the unknown. When people engage in bibliomancy—that is, in telling the future by opening a book to a random page—there’s a reason why they’ve historically used books like Virgil or the Bible, rather than Harlequin romance: any book would generate the necessary level of randomness, but you need a basic level of richness and meaning as well. What I’m saying, I guess, is that if you’re going to be random, you may as well be systematic about it. And the New York Times isn’t a bad place to start.

Written by nevalalee

May 23, 2012 at 10:42 am

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