In March of 2011, Pelago, the company known for having produced Whrrl, wrote a mini essay detailing their ideas about a concept they labeled “anti-search.” Anti-search, they claimed, was a movement in search of “serendipitous world discovery,” writing: “Search engines are good at addressing those “high intent” situations, like “where’s the closest Starbucks?” or “what kind of food does this place serve?” or “how are the reviews for this restaurant?”  You know what you’re looking for and it’s easy to express your intent as a query” and continues, “Serendipity is “zero intent” discovery, i.e. when you aren’t actually looking for something, but a great idea finds you.   Between these two extremes are discovery missions of varying degrees of intent, e.g. “I’m hungry” or “I’m bored.”

Which they represented by this interesting little graphic:

For me, this brings up the question, has the deliberate searching and querying of our surroundings via technology– whether those surroundings are natural or unnatural—really precluded the opportunities for actually, well, discovering places and things? Is there a chance that with the proliferation of location aware technologies, and geographic social mobility coupled with mobile internet access, we are no longer actually capable of physically seeing and interacting with what is actually around us? Are we completely incapable of tripping down a little ivy-laden alley and discovering a mural, or a coffee shop, or a funky shoe store without the aid of a mobile device or online coupon website?

According to Pelago, anti-search is comprised of three elements:

  1. “The right data in order to “know” a user.  I.e. user actions like check-ins, the social graph, interactions among users (which I’ll talk about in a second), etc.
  2. The right algorithms.  We need to take all this data and turn it into personalized recommendations.
  3. The right social ecosystem.  This is decidedly the hardest part.  The necessary content and data is locked up in people’s heads and hearts – we need to make it motivating and easy to get that content out, to get people taking the necessary actions to create the data to feed the algorithms that ultimately allow us to provide an amazing discovery experience.” (http://www.pelago.com/blog/community/2011/03/its-time-for-real-world-anti-search/)

But I would argue that the act of discovery does not rule out the possibility that the discoverer will stumble upon something they don’t like, something they wouldn’t have chosen. I would also argue that to prevent each of us from doing so is robbery, plain and simple, of the experience being challenged in our sense of taste. How are we supposed to define what we don’t like about something if we’re never faced with the distasteful something in the first place?

Besides, the word serendipity – in part- refers to an unintended experience. How can you possibly achieve that if your intention is to plug a social recommendation engine full of data to steer you towards intended unintended situations or experiences?

Which is why, with Groupon’s reported acquisition of Pelago, the whole ridiculous ethos of these sites and recommendation engines (which are, at their heart, merely designed to sell you things) has come full circle in a doomed cycle of self-mockery.

This acquisition clearly runs counter to Whrrl’s stated “anti-search” goal of “serendipitous world discovery.”

Case in point: how many among us have purchased at least one Groupon at this point (i.e. are unique Groupon users)? There aren’t any real numbers on that at this point, but it’s safe to say that number is in the millions, given that the number of Groupons bought at the time that this was published was in the 40 million range. Yet how many of us have subsequently struggled to find the time or the energy to use said coupon, or let the coupons pile up until one or two have expired without being used? I’d wager that number is in the high hundreds of thousands, if not also in the millions.

So someone tell me how that’s not intent or a deliberate attempt to make the time to go somewhere and use something that was purchased with that specific intent in mind. It’s not serendipity, it’s a scheduled appointment to go spend money at a pre-determined location.

At the risk of sounding like a complete luddite, the next time someone wants to indulge in a little “serendipitous world discovery,” I would honestly recommend that they go for a walk in their neighborhood- no headphones, no phone- just them and the buildings, parks, animals, and people around them.

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