ser-en-dip-i|ty – 1. a seeming gift for finding something good accidentally 2. luck, or good fortune, in finding something good accidentally.
At least that’s the definition in the Webster’s New World College Dictionary I keep at my desk (but rarely open because I so often use dictionary.com).
A series of posts on a discussion thread that I monitor got me thinking about the word. In the process, I stumbled across a serendipitous discovery of my own. The word “serendipity” was created in 1754 by English author Horace Walpole, who formed the word on an old name for Sri Lanka, Serendip. He attributed the new word to a fairy tale called “The Three Princes of Serendip,” in which the main characters were always discovering things they didn’t intend to find.
Serendipity is a word often used by newspaper folks. It’s a notion that newspaper readers will often find and enjoy articles that they weren’t looking for when they first opened the newspaper. A former editor of mine (and probably a former editor of his) used to call them “Hey, Martha” stories, as in “Hey, Martha, come look at this story!”
Among print journalists’ many complaints about the rise of the Internet is the loss of reader serendipity. If people stop reading newspapers, they worry, how will people ever stumble upon articles that they didn’t know interested them until they read them?
I’d argue, however, that the Web is at least as serendipitous as print, and probably moreso depending on the reader. In my daily life on the Web I’m constantly exposed to articles and ideas I’m not looking for. I visit a variety of blogs just to see where their links might take me. On Facebook, my friends and acquaintances are constantly posting links to articles I wouldn’t have found myself. Occasionally a friend will e-mail an article that is fun or interesting. When I check my Hotmail in the morning, MSN is kind enough to show me links to some of the more interesting stories of the day, and sometimes I actually read them. In fact, I’m more likely to browse through those links than I am to flip through the A section of my newspaper (which I still look at every morning).
There are even whole Web sites dedicated to serendipity (see “stumble upon” above).
Actually, there’s no reason to worry about the disappearance of serendipity. By definition, it’s always there, and you never know when you’ll bump into it.