Friday, September 30, 2005

Saving Serendipity (a long post)

Syndicated content, enhanced by collaborative filtering, social networks and personalized ads, tells each of us precisely what we want to know. But all this technology carries a hidden price: the slow death of serendipity.

We all subscribe to the news stories, blogs, search results, and product alerts that we wish to read--fine tuning our feeds until our home pages perfectly reflect our individual values and desires. I already know the keywords of the news stories I'll read, the artists whose music I will hear, the authors whose books I will pre-order online, the opinions of bloggers I will follow, and the buddies with whom I will message. I'm not bothered by noisy, unfiltered content. I will know everything about what I already know, and my beliefs will only strengthen.

As my sights focus, I lose my peripheral vision. I find myself surprised to have missed important news developments (White House scandals, government coups, fad diets, Supreme Court decisions...). Increasingly I hear passing comments describing films, plays, sporting events, parties, concerts, speeches, festivals and TV shows that, had I known about them, I might have enjoyed.

I'd have had no time to reflect upon this today, if not for the serendipitous breakdown in one of my favorite personalization technologies. It happened while I was driving south on 101 to the wonderful Cordevalle Resort in San Martin. When the time came for me to serenade the empty cabin, I noticed that the face plate of my Omnifi media player (see Favorite Car Gadgets) had fallen under the seat.

For the first time in years I was forced to listen to someone else's musical programming, so I scanned my way through the FM dial to A Prairie Home Companion. After Prudence Johnson's rendition of After You've Gone, Garrison Keillor interviewed 92-year-old Diane Cummings, a former neighbor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who lamented that nobody goes downtown anymore. Diane's observation was another bit of serendipity, because it shed some light on a question that has been on my mind: why have I, along with so many of my neighbors in Menlo Park and Atherton, been trying so hard to save Kepler's Bookstore, the 50 year-old hallmark of downtown Menlo Park? WHat distinguishes this displacement from the healthy economic consequences of competitive business that drive down costs everywhere else in town, not to mention the planet?

On May 14, 50 years ago, Roy Kepler founded an innovative bookstore to sell paperbacks, a controversial new product in the 1950's dismissed by traditional publishers as subversive, because the lower production costs democratized the set of potential authors (Stanford's book store buyers refused to buy them because they weren't really books). Roy was a conscientious objector and active pacifist who had started schools and radio stations, served jail time for his protests, handcuffed himself to a White House staircase bannister, and lectured Congress on the dangers of eroding personal liberties in the interest of national security.

Kepler's became a magnet for peace activism and civil rights. Jerry Garcia and other Grateful Deaders would frequent the store, along with Joan Baez and restless Stanford students to sing, read, and enjoy Roy's pot of coffee. Over the years, the store has committed itself to the open flow of information, defying attempts by the Menlo Park police, school boards, the FBI, vandals, neo-Nazi terrorists, and fatwas to censor what people read.

Kepler's Bookstore is Silicon Valley's original browser. Its search engines are the clerks who actually read the books.

Under the management of Roy's son Clark (pictured left), Kepler's moved to downtown Menlo Park, next to the equally hip Cafe Borrone (where Peter Borrone sneaks Madeline cookies to my kids). The two stores share an outdoor plaza and playful fountain that attract families in the morning and students at night. The store hosts story hours for kids, and Author Nights that have featured interactive talks by Gloria Steinem, Jimmy Carter and Madeleine Albright, not to mention my favorite authors Christopher Moore and Michael Shermer. High school bands play there on holidays, and parties erupt on the eve of new publications (e.g. Harry Potter, of course). The Kepler's / Borrone scene has clearly emerged as the cultural, social and intellectual center of town.

But with the one-two punch of chain stores and Amazon, Kepler's cash flow has failed to satisfy both the publishers' Receivables departments and the store's Bay Area landlord. Finally, three weeks ago Clark Kepler shut his doors, sending a shock wave through the town as we contemplated family brunches at Cafe Borrone without the requisite stroll through our neighborhood bookstore to peruse best sellers, hear stories, skim foreign newspapers, and meet our friends.

Now, how will we impart our love of reading to our kids, without the tangible props and festive atmosphere that Kepler brought to life? Will we ever again meet our favorite authors in person, to personally thank them, ask them our questions, and bring home a signed first edition to expand our libraries with a souvenir of the day?

As much as we try to stem entropy, life cannot evolve without the critical component of serendipitous mutation. In a post-Kepler world, where will we face random literary discoveries and chance encounters to knock us off course now and then? Or do I simply become my home page?

I'm pleased to report, however, that there is hope. My college friend Daniel Mendez (who first got me into serious book collecting), called Clark Kepler the day after closure to save the store. Daniel has since recruited me and 16 like-minded neighbors (whom Daniel has named the "Kepler's Patron Circle") to fund the continued operations of Kepler's, subject to the landlord's willingness to re-structure the rent obligations. It's a long shot, but with the support of new investors, and, more much importantly, the patronage of readers, the Keplers' store will persist for another half century. Judging by the vocal protests and rallies organized by Menlo Park City Council Member Kelly Furgeson, Bay Area residents are fired up to move their business back offline. (Makeshift signs in the downtown plaza read "Browse on Amazon, Buy at Kepler's").

When Kepler's re-opens, I will invite you all downtown to join us for brunch and a stroll through the store (but turn off your cell phone and Blackberry). Be sure to look for your friends, and meet some new ones. Pick up a New York Times to see what's happening in the world, and check out the authors featured in Kepler's coming season.

You never know what might happen that day.


  1. David

    Enjoyed that post. Caught my eye in the middle of reading Web2 posts :-)

    There is a life outside of the internet, and of large retail stores. And in Ireland (and England too) town and cities are loosing all semblence of character because of the squeezing out of smaller retailers.

    And we (as human beings) are loosing the chance to have enjoyable, productive and worthwhile discussions and banter with the people who work in those small retailers. Something I believe is important to ensure that the act of consumption is made less sterile.

    I hope the campaign works :-)

  2. David,

    I disagree with you. All the technologies you described are not the causes of the "death of serendipity.” you mentioned, they do better enable you to ignore background noise. However, whether you want to tune in/out is still your choice, you have just chosen to tune out information that do not interest you. It’s also true that when you do choose to tune into something that doesn’t interest you yet, others have laid the path of discovery for you. However, whether you follow that path or stray off every once in a while is up to you and who’s path you follow is also up to you. You have to place yourself in position for serendipity to happen and whether you want to be in that position is a personal preference; the technology just makes it easier to effect your choice.

    I think the cause of what you described is the tendency for people to settle into a routine and do what is familiar because it’s the easy thing to do (e.g. having dinner/drinks with the same group of friends, read the same websites/books/magazines, go to the same venues for entertainment, and etc. etc.). I see many of my friends fall into this trap and it’s little wonder that they hardly do anything new because they’ve removed all deviations from their lives. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just a personal preference.

    A counter example…

    Recently, I went to the farewell party of a friend (a Russian Jew who’s sister I went to college with) that’s leaving NY for Shanghai. I met him at a random Russian party…interesting guy…went to Caltech undergrad (computer science), NYU for his MBA (marketing related) and then got restless and decided to bounce around the world. Given that he, his sister and his cousin all work in the finance industry, I thought I was going to be at a party full of finance geeks (typical of parties thrown by my investment banking friends…as you probably know, banking is a very cliquey industry). I was pleasantly surprised and met some very interesting people including an industrial designer full of crazy ideas, a med student and a computational chemist. Of all the random things to talk about over large quantities of beer, to the utter amazement of the investment bankers at the party, we talked about how one would build a silly robot to rob bank vaults, various weird medical device ideas that may be useful and reverse engineering the computational processes of DNA for programming genes like computers. During the drunken silliness we came up with 1 or 2 nuggets of legit ideas that even got the bankers salivating. Now all this happened because my friend chose to befriend people outside of finance and the party goers chose to not talk exclusively about the corporate take over of the month. He consciously chose to place more diversity in his life.

    John Yau

  3. David, its surprising for me to hear you say that personalization kills serendipity.

    The goal of personalization is exactly the opposite, to enhance serendipity and discovery, to help people find things they wouldn't have found on their own.

  4. Greg,
    I think Findory is a great example of personalized content. I use it all the time to read news and blogs. But the more I use Findory, the narrower my scope of news and opinion, and so the less likely that I will stumble upon something new, outside my normal range of content. Don't get me wrong--I'll take personalized content over mass-market media any day of the week. Except, just perhaps, on Sundays. :-)

  5. I was thinking about this more in the context of Amazon's personalization given the bookstore example, but we could also talk about Findory and personalized news.

    You do find that Findory narrows the scope of news and opinion you see? We explicitly designed Findory to avoid that kind of pigeonholing. Most feedback we get on Findory is from people telling us that we helped them discover articles and sources they wouldn't have found on their own.

    In fact, while we don't get a lot of complaint e-mails, one of the more common is that some people are upset that they aren't pigeonholed more, particularly in opinion articles.

    Some people normally read opinion articles from one particular perspective from a small list of sources. Findory aggregates from thousands of news sources and shows opinions from a diverse set of perspectives and viewpoints.

    A few people who only read from just one side of the echo chamber or the other became upset when Findory showed them opposing points of view. But we believe this is a good thing, that the personalization is working and helping people discover information they wouldn't have found on their own.

  6. David Mortman2:03 PM

    Hallelujah! This is great news. Anything I can do to help?


  7. Exciting article.

    "The death of serendipity" is probably the wrong terminology here. Serendipity by definition is the opposite of what you are talking about. I think you are talking about the obfuscation of knowledge through the obliterration of value, but you would need to approve of my framing of your thoughts of course...

    However, if you are looking for a way to make a web portal serendipitous, the best way is to challenge the portal followers rather than the portal followers challenging the portal.

    In other words, what am I saying? Quiz your readers. People like to prove they know something even when they haven't the faintest clue or interest otherwise... this is why Jeopardy has an audience. Why else would people listen to a show that makes them feel dumb? has a quote of the day at the bottom of their page for their diehard readers, except with the CHALLENGE to the readers: "Which movie is this quote from/Who was the actor who said this quote?"

  8. As recently as five years ago, there was much discussion of "data smog," or information overload. I think it's fascinating how fast we've become worried about "data blinders"!

    Admittedly, the twin blights of spam and intrusive marketing are as virulent as ever. But those evils aside, filters--of one sort or another--have given us more control of our media diets than we could have imagined. And I'd argue that a great bookstore like yours is itself a kind of (offline) filter. It sounds to me like you walk into Kepler's knowing you will encounter as much interesting material as you have time to digest. Just the kind of place I would enter a healthy young man and emerge from--months later--as a pale, pink-eyed mole person.

  9. Anonymous11:39 AM

    That's a posting after my heart.

    Next time you're in Kepler's, pick up Ray Oldenburg's "The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community."

    Oldenburg explains why "third places" like this are key to the health of neighborhoods and the people in them. And not surprisingly, many of the most important political revolutions and artistic movements in history bubbled out of such places.

    New communications tech doesn't have to work against these critical local places and the benefits they provide. We can use tech to -enhance- our natural, healthy uses of local places, it doesn't -have- to turn us into zombies blind to them. We need to stop designing Internet services with the assumption that people still use them heads-down at the desktop, completely abstracted from their local surroundings.

    Sean Savage

  10. "i'm going to purchase the next book i see w/red cover." and that resulted in my purchasing, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, which makes my top ten list, and is a book i don't think i would have found otherwise.

    "next song on the radio will determine whether or not i... (fill in the blank)." this resulted in a recent NBC appearance which was rewarding in a not-for-profit - but great-for fun kind of way.

    visit blogs at random - resulted in my finding this blog site - which i've thoroughly enjoyed and will be back to visit (hey - that's what i need - a venture capitalist!)

    i do these things exactly because the silliness of it results in my heading northeast when on my own i would have gone south. results in my interacting with people i would have never met on my own. results in experiments, failures, and successes outside of my own, safe, comfortable, little world.

    Indeed, and I'm grateful, we can block out unwanted phone calls, faxes, news, lights, sounds, and circumstances with the click of a button, the shutting of a door, the change of a channel. But equally - we can stimulate and excite, shift and expand our awareness and life experiences utilizing those same options in a creative, random, proactive, fun and silly kind of way.