An addicted insider’s account of our real lives in the era of the realtime, social web.

Confession #19: Serendipity Killed the Cat

In the early days of the web, I wrote a technology newsletter in which I provided readers with links to the top fifteen or so web related news items of the day. Most of the readers were heads-down internet professionals who needed the news but didn’t necessarily have time to pour over several tech news sites a day.

Later, that newsletter morphed into a service in which I covered all news. I tabbed through about 40 sites each morning, picked the stories, and created a newsletter that provided my takes on the top twenty or so stories of the day. In my Red Bull-fueled internet heyday, I could crush this thing (along with a daily column) in just over an hour.

Over time, thanks to RSS-powered homepages and thousands of blogs, the news links I provided became less critical.

But I kept sharing the links. I couldn’t stop. I became addicted to my daily ritual of finding and sharing these stories. If you were a subscriber, you were going to hear – again – about that latest quote from the White House whether you liked it or not.

Back then, my disease was relatively rare. Today it is a Twitter/Facebook fueled epidemic.

Nick Bilton, author of the upcoming book, I Live the Future and Here’s How it Works, has an interest blog post in the NYT in which he describes his ritual of finding and sharing news:

When I finish writing this blog post, I will Tweet it … Then off I go to scour the Web looking for more news to sift through and ration out to my friends and followers – a natural course of action in my day. I spend a considerable amount of time each day looking for interesting angles about technology, news, journalism, design or just the latest comic video to pass along the daisy chain.

Most of us do this to some degree. We are no longer just consumers of content, we have become curators of it too.

One of the other hunter, gather and sharers that Bilton features in the piece “calls this curating controlled serendipity.” That might be a good way to describe it if you are visiting this evolving museum of links and stories. But I wonder whether, for some curators, uncontrollable addiction is a better description.

It’s almost impossible to be the first person to share a link and difficult to even be the first in your network of followers and friends. Yet, for many, it’s increasingly difficult to withstand the temptation of hitting the publish button.

I was reminded of my own (ongoing) addiction a few weeks ago when we had a minor earthquake in the Bay Area. I thought I felt something. I went to my local news sites and found nothing. So I tried searching Twitter for the term earthquake. There were hundreds of tweets about the quake. In the time it took me to look through the first ten or so, another 957 posts had been published the topic. Some tweets provided links, some people just reported feeling or not feeling something. Soon my own group of local followees began to chime in.

There’s no doubt that my initial Twitter search provided value. But as the day wore on and the thousands of tweets continued to pour in (none of which, at this point, presented any hint of value to the reader), I realized just how magnetic is the pull to publish with today’s tools.

It could be that it’s now harder to resist than to do.

The influx of content regarding a trembler we barely felt made me think of a paraphrase of the old John Kerry quote: How do you ask a man to be the last person to report the news everyone already knows about?

I think the answer is that you don’t have to ask at all.


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My name is Dave Pell, internet superhero. This blog provides an addicted insider's account of what's happening to us in the era of the realtime, social web. You can read more about the site, grab the rss feed, follow me on twitter, join the Facebook page, or get email updates.