These crowdsourcing tools have transformed the way we experience cities, often for the better — they help us streamline our lives and avoid wasting time with subpar businesses. It’s now easier than ever to avoid bad meals and dingy hotel rooms…But for all Yelp’s virtues, pre-screening every experience can inhibit us, too. These days, many of us wouldn’t think of trying a new hairstylist or hotel without first checking others’ impressions online.
…“The efficiency that the Web has brought has downsides,” says Edward Tenner, a historian of technology and culture. “On balance, it works against happy accidents.” Tenner calls this counter-serendipity: when preconceived notions prevent lucky flukes. For instance, a poorly rated restaurant on Yelp might have a few die-hard fans — outliers who, for whatever reason, love the place. Their reviews might even be posted. But many of us go with the general consensus, writing off anywhere with a three-star ranking or less. “Is it possible that a place you really would have liked doesn’t have many positive comments, but you would have been one of the few positive ones?” asks Tenner.
Even if the ranking doesn’t deter us, by the time we do go to the club or the restaurant, we’ve sometimes seen so much of the place online that we’ve basically pre-experienced it. Having online access to so many venues might make us more adventurous in one sense, prompting us to try things we never would have tried or even have known about. But in another sense, it becomes a less-adventurous adventure, certified for us by hundreds of others who’ve already checked it out, assured us we’ll like it, testified to its quality, cleanliness and safety.
Today’s world wide web has developed to organise, and make sense of, the exponential increase in information made available to everyone by the digital revolution, and it is amazingly good at doing so. If you are searching for something, you can find it online, and quickly. But a side-effect of this awesome efficiency may be a shrinking, rather than an expansion, of our horizons, because we are less likely to come across things we are not in quest of.
…We have our paths, our bookmarks and our feeds, and we stick closely to them. We no longer “surf” the information superhighway, as it has become too vast to cruise without a map. And as it has evolved, it has become better and better at ensuring we need never stray from our virtual triangles.
…Cohen worries that even as the volume of media has grown exponentially, “our propensity to explore it is diminishing”. Driven by the needs of advertisers keen to hit ever more tightly delineated targets, today’s internet plies us with “relevant” information and screens out the rest. Two different people will receive subtly different results from Google, adjusted for what Google knows about their interests. Newspaper websites are starting to make stories more prominent to you if your friends have liked them on Facebook. We spend our online lives inside what the writer Eli Pariser calls “the filter bubble”.
To escape it, we can leave our screens and walk outside. But some of our most serendipitous spaces are under threat from the internet. Wander into a bookshop in search of something to read: the book jackets shimmer on the table, the spines flirt with you from the shelves. You can pick them up and allow their pages to caress your hands. You may not find the book you wanted, but you will walk out with three you didn’t. Amazon will have your book too, but its recommendation engine doesn’t even come close to delivering the same stimuli. Similarly, a librarian isn’t as efficient as a search engine, his memory isn’t nearly as capacious, but he may still be better at making suggestions to a reader in search of—well, something.
So, to sum up: the Internet and social media change the scale and efficiency of our lives as consumers, and as with absogoddamnlutely everything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to this, but with topical references to shiny new technogadgetry, we’re going to pretend this is somehow interesting and informative. If only we could work in the ubiquitous “brain scans show that…”, we could have this year’s version of The Shallows.
All of this romanticization of pre-Internet life does some serious question-begging as to how adventurous we really were back then, and the paranoia of influence here is just laughable. Maybe I just have an indomitable will of titanium steel — okay, yes, yes I do — but I’m capable of reading dozens of opinions while only considering the information I find relevant and dismissing the rest. If I read about a restaurant online, it’s only to get a basic idea of their prices and selection, and to make sure there aren’t, say, repeated complaints of rodents and insects showing up in the food. When I read about an album on iTunes, the repeated generic assertions that it rocks, kicks major ass and rules yr world don’t even register in my awareness. And though I sho nuff love me some brick-and-mortar bookstores, I have found countless books through Amazon’s recommendations that I would have never known existed otherwise, having never seen them on the shelf during their limited print run. In short, both signal and noise have increased exponentially thanks to the Internet. Plus ça change.
And honestly, whose friends and bookmarks mirror them so perfectly that they never get exposed to anything new during the course of a day online? I daresay you’ve gotta be one dull sunnamabitch if that’s the case. Even the sites I absolutely love visiting are mostly filled with topics and links I don’t actually have any interest in reading about in depth. A lot of it is passed over at a glance and quickly forgotten, but some of it comes bubbling back up at the most unexpected times thanks to some random trigger, sending me on a vague, fumbling search to try to find the newly relevant source again. Is that not serendipity? It happens to me a lot more on the Internet than it ever did in meatspace, I’ll tell you that much.