The Role of Serendipity in Digital Environments

The Role of Serendipity in Digital Environments

Anabel Quan-Haase (University of Western Ontario, Canada), Jacquelyn A. Burkell (University of Western Ontario, Canada) and Victoria L. Rubin (University of Western Ontario, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-5888-2.ch390
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Serendipity is usually defined in opposition to information seeking. Information seeking is thought of as a goal-oriented search for information to solve a problem or fill an information need (Wilson, 1999). A number of models of information seeking stress the relevance of browsing and exploration in the initial stages of information search (Brand-Gruwel et al., 2009). These models, however, do not elaborate on how browsing and exploration occur, nor do they discuss how these less directed forms of finding information are integrated into all information seeking stages. By contrast, models of serendipity have as their central focus an examination of how information is encountered accidentally without purposeful search. No single definition or model of serendipity exists in the literature and there is no doubt that the concept is elusive and difficult to define.

Despite the difficulty in defining the concept, its significance cannot be overlooked. A recent study demonstrates the relevance of information encountering in how people locate information. Pálsdóttir (2010) examined how Icelanders encounter health information in their everyday lives. In the study, it was surprising that the information people found was not discovered through purposeful search but, rather, stumbled upon in the context of other activities. The results of the study also demonstrated that those who seek information are more likely to also encounter information, suggesting that perhaps both reflect a general orientation toward information gathering. Foster and Ford (2003) have stressed the relevance of serendipity for all disciplinary areas given its role in connection building, discovery, and creativity. The authors suggest that in the sciences serendipity has been thought of as a product of both mental preparation and an open and questioning mind. They argue that in the humanities serendipity has a role in revealing hidden connections or analogies, and enabling new insights to develop. Martin and Quan-Haase (2013) found that serendipity was central to the work of historians, who reported that the one key resource that they might encounter as a serendipitous find on library shelves or archives could significantly change the outcome of their research.

This article provides a brief overview of the historical roots of the concept of serendipity and it highlights the key elements of what serendipity entails. To provide background on the concept, the article draws from literature in sociology, psychology, information science, and the hard sciences. We then review and contrast the three central models of serendipity in the literature1:

  • Erdelez (1997,1999,2000,2004): A conceptual framework of information encountering, as a type of opportunistic acquisition of information (OAI);

  • Rubin, Burkell, and Quan-Haase (2010, 2011): A conceptual model of serendipity facets in everyday chance encounters; and

  • Makri and Blandford (2012): A model of serendipitous information encountering.

This overview of models is followed by a discussion of how technology design affects serendipity and the design requirements and alternative information systems that are needed to further support innovation, creativity, and resource discovery in digital environments. Finally, we draw conclusions for our understanding of the concept of serendipity offline and online as it unfolds in scholarship and everyday life.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Resource Discovery: The process of exploring collections of books, articles, or information on the Web to investigate a topic generally without necessarily knowing at the initial stage, what the seeker will find.

Creativity: A general umbrella concept and refers to original and unique products or thoughts, which often consist of connecting previously unrelated ideas.

Act of Noticing: A serendipity discovery, requiring the attention toward an object, information, or a person that is encountered accidentally. Noticing will often trigger a change of task or focus.

Prepared Mind: Prior concern or problem and previous experience or expertise. The prior concern is often thought of as a pre-existing background problem that yields an information need.

Cue: Triggers in the environment that help individuals notice information, people, or ideas that are relevant to a prior concern or information need.

Serendipity: Encountering information, objects, ideas, or people without purposefully looking. For it to be considered serendipitous and not just chance, it needs to lead toward a fortuitous outcome and yield new insights.

Information seeking: Brings together all information-related activities that help fill an information need or make sense of that information need.

Information Encountering: Information is encountered accidentally without purposeful search.

Serendipity Engine: A description for search engines that not only support goal-oriented searches, but, rather, also allow for exploration and discovery of new pieces of information through visual display or similar elements.

Digital Environments: All information environments that are mediated via the World Wide Web or similar mobile devices. In particular those environments that facilitate the discovery and search of information, people, and resources.

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