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Genealogical Serendipity: Does the Internet lead to more or less of it?

Posted On: August 2nd, 2009 | Posted by: Dean


Damon Darlin writes in today’s NY Times: “the digital age is stamping out serendipity.” He laments that web utilities like Twitter, Facebook and iTunes, rather than spurring us to jump from one creative discovery to another, instead act like a form of “group-think. [In which] everything… comes filtered and vetted.”

Though he didn’t refer to it, Darlin’s article seems to echo a similar sentiment expressed by William McKeen several years back in a fun-to-read essay called “The endangered joy of serendipity,” McKeen posits:

“Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find – with an irritating hit or miss here and there – exactly what you’re looking for. It’s efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding… Looking for something and being surprised by what you find – even if it’s not what you set out looking for – is one of life’s great pleasures, and so far no software exists that can duplicate that experience.”

But back in 2006, Steven Johnson convincingly called baloney on McKeen (and in a tweet today, revisited his argument and targeted it to Darlin’s article as well.) His riposte:

Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books.

I’m siding with Mr. Johnson on this one. I think the web offers all sorts of opportunities for serendipity –  that it in fact can amplify and accelerate serendipitous discovery.  Rather than merely offering the spines of books for your browsing pleasure, for example, Google Books makes those spines transparent, and lets books’ content become the jumping-off point for all sorts of adventures.

One of our family’s most surprising recent genealogical discoveries was partly the result of a casual Google Books search for Benjamin Swetland. Yes, we “found what we were looking for” (i.e., basic info on my ancestor) but we also found stuff we weren’t looking for too, such as a photo of a bed warmer, and Benjamin’s composition of a politically-themed song, which led my fiddle-enthusiast wife to go looking for the tune to which that song may have been sung… you get the idea.

What about you? Do you think the web offers genealogists more or less opportunities for serendipitous discovery? Or to recast Darlin’s, McKeen’s and Johnson’s points into genealogically-relevant questions:

  • Do genealogy-related social networks (e.g., Geni, GenealogyWise) offer better or worse chances to find random-but-helpful genealogy sources or connections to fellow researchers than, say, StumbleUpon?
  • Which process have you found more helpful to your genealogy research: browsing randomly through the stacks of your favorite genealogy library, or searching for random ancestors in Google Books?
  • What would an UrbanSpoon for genealogy research look like, would it be at all useful or fun, and would you buy it?

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