In a separate article, I describe a small experience of Controlled Serendipity, as I was doing research on Nick Bilton’s recent NYT article ABOUT Controlled Serendipity. Another bit of serendipity that had its source in my research on the Bilton/NYT article goes deeper, leading to insights about the concept of “controlled serendipity” and its relationship to storytelling.


In thinking about the article, I Googled Bilton, and found that one of his interests is storytelling, and that he’s working on a book that has the sub-title The New Business of Storytelling. And I noticed that Maria Popova, who’s cited by Bilton as the coiner of the term “controlled serendipity,” includes “storytelling” as an interest in her Twitter Bio, and that she’s made an imaginative short video called The Evolution of Storytelling.

… So, I think  — Maybe controlled serendipity and storytelling are connected? … Yes, I think — Isn’t that what I’m doing when I do Google (re)searching on the Web? — Following a story… gets me thinking about metaphors … Following a story is like “following a thread,” an old geek/newsgroup idea, apparently having origins in the technical computer science term thread of execution — “a fork of a computer program into two or more concurrently running tasks.” … Now, with the Web, there’s an almost infinite number of “concurrently running” stories, and the trick of Controlled Serendipity is to follow the right story, the one that’s going to Answer The Question.

The thread metaphor leads to others – Fabric, Network — and Salman Rushdie’s word-picture of an Ocean filled with Streams of Stories — Last year, when I wrote a series of articles on The Stream, based on Rushdie’s envisioning of the Web, I emphasized the idea of The Stream, because that metaphor was being talked about by several commentators as the new metaphor for The Web. But Rushdie’s vision goes beyond the stream — He talks about an Ocean of Streams

[The Ocean] was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity … these were the Streams of Story …

This is a very compelling vision of how we experience the Web, I think — Trying to pick out the right story, the right strand, the right stream — And then to follow it as it weaves in and out with 1001 other streams. I think the term Controlled Serendipity catches our fancy because it resonates in our brains in the same way that Rushdie’s word picture does — a poetic description of how we experience the Web.

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Eric Rumsey is at: eric-rumsey AttSign uiowa dott edu and on Twitter @ericrumsey

5 thoughts on “Controlled Serendipity & Storytelling

  1. Eric, I’ve been following your controlled serendipity thread attentively, and I’m much taken with the way you’re now weaving story into the flow. One of the themes that I’ve been exploring over the past few years is that of the public library as fundamentally a “story” resource (and a democratic story itself) rather than an “information” resource – and the further thought that the public library’s primary “information” function is not directed search, but serendipitous browsing. All of this based not on theory but on my 33-year experience of what actually happens in public libraries. I’d like to touch base sometime when I’m in Iowa City. –Roy

  2. Roy, Glad you’re seeing my idea here, how storytelling and controlled serendipity weave together in the thinking of Popova and Bilton. It took a while for this to bounce around in my head until I made the further connection with Rushdie’s Ocean of Story Streams, which seems to fit into the flow also.

    Your idea of storytelling and controlled serendipity as models of what public libraries (and maybe libraries in general) do is good. I’ve written about Rushdie’s Ocean of Stories as a metaphor for the Web, but maybe it could also be used as a model/metaphor for libraries — Worth exploring — I hope you’ll consider writing about this.

    … It’s interesting how this discussion turns into a “story about storytelling” isn’t it …

    Stop in to chat when you’re in Iowa City.

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