Serendipity. n. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.
We are indebted to the English author Horace Walpole for the word serendipity, which he coined in one of the 3,000 or more letters on which his literary reputation primarily rests. In a letter of January 28, 1754, Walpole says that “this discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call Serendipity, a very expressive word.” Walpole formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He explained that this name was part of the title of “a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of….”
The American Heritage ® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
One of the great things in life is serendipity. I love it. It’s much like emotion in that it’s hard to categorize, difficult to understand, and benefits our well-being consistently. Serendipity sounds like it’s accidental in itself, but if you look at the definition again, you’ll notice that it’s an aptitude, not an accident. In my language and my world, an “aptitude” begs for a system to be made out of it. Or, if nothing else, a pattern can emerge from it.
In a long and entertaining discussion with Steffan Antonas about the use cases of social media and specifically Twitter, we came to the same conclusion. There are many ways to use these new tools, but one of the biggest benefits is the serendipity which results.
Steffan has been able to meet some amazing people and hear some fantastic stories from people who he probably never would have met if it weren’t for social media. He’s talked with intriguing people in completely different countries on subject matters that could easily turn into best selling books. He’s made money by simply being available and talking about things that interest him with people who want his knowledge.
I’ve had similar experiences. When I meet new people in San Diego, often I hear the question, “Wait.. are you the Nate Ritter who did that thing with Twitter and the fires?”. Of course I have to give all the credit for that publicity to serendipity. I’ve also gained financial advantage simply by being known and giving away advice. It’s not simply being nice that creates that gain.
Now, since I like serendipity and finding patterns, and because serendipity has something to do an aptitude for positive “accidents”, I naturally want to put myself in the best possible position where a positive accident might occur. Call it probability if you want. In the past few years, Twitter has been a great place to be when it comes to the probability for positive accidents to occur. I’ve enjoyed the fruits of simply using social media, talking to others, and giving and receiving advice. It’s led to a greater amount of serendipity, and it wasn’t by accident.
However – and this is a big “however” – since the day the Hollywood celebrities started making Twitter popular, there has been a serendipity drain. In short, Twitter’s usefulness has changed. It’s turned from a useful communication tool into a popularity contest and publishing platform. I never wanted another publishing platform and I’ve come to believe the reason the “early adopters” abandon popularized things is because it’s usefulness changed. It’s not about purity. It’s not about being cool. For us geeks, it’s about utility. Masses of people, network effects and such, change the usefulness of a particular tool or service and it’s not always for the better.
So as Steffan and I talked over our fabulous mexican food, beers, and margaritas, we came to the realization that the serendipity we’ve experienced using Twitter has been few and far between lately.
In a moment of brilliance, we both decided to make today, Tuesday October 13th, Unfollow Tuesday. Today, we’re both purging who we follow on Twitter. We’re taking our Twitter experience into a different realm, the one we use Facebook for – friends. Because Twitter’s no longer helping us find those positive accidents, we figured we ought to simply use it as a different tool.
Steffan has the statistics to prove this next thought, but bare with me. We (social media early adopters) know that the number of followers means absolutely nothing. It’s not how many people are supposedly following you that counts. What matters is whether or not they listen and care about what you say (which usually includes conversation) and the serendipity which results. So, if you want to track a statistic, track how many people click on the links you post. Even better, track who clicks on the links you post. Track who you’ve had conversations with and what those topics were. Track follow up actions after you’ve posted something (and who did them).
Those are all difficult things to track right now, but you need to know who the people are who care about what you’re talking about. Only then will Twitter’s serendipity come back. Only then will the usefulness return.
So as I write this lengthy post, I can’t help but think that if you’ve made it this far, taking the time to read my thoughts, you’re probably the kind of person I want to know. You’re probably the kind of person who I would get along with. You’re probably not just another social media marketer. And if that sounds like you, I invite you to jump in on this conversation and let me know what you think. Let’s make this a two way street.
All the other people out there on Twitter who read the first 3 words and scanned the rest of the post to see how long it was… you people I’ll be unfollowing today. Unless you’re entertaining to me, a friend of mine (I have friends who are bored by these long posts too), or we have valuable things to share with each other, the probability for serendipity with you is too low for me to spend time on.
Today, Steffan and I are hereby invoking the Serendipity Pareto Principle with Twitter.