Search, Serendipity and Fleetwood Mac

There are those who lament that in the digital age we've lost the ability to browse, as we do in a bookstore or at a newsstand, who say we lose the serendipity of finding the un-searched for, the unrelated, the completely quirky, the thing we might not have considered while strolling past a shelf or gazing over a shoulder.

I have an answer for those doubters: Fleetwood Mac. I was searching the online offerings of my local library today to see what they might have from the old rock band, an interest rekindled via my wife when we and our children watched a recent episode of the "Glee" TV show that featured a song by the group.

There weren't any Fleetwood Mac online-only offerings, but there were eBooks about "Mac" computers, how to code them, hack them, use Applescript and so on. It happens that tinkering with computers is a hobby of mine, and I grabbed a couple of the books, which will be fun and help me do a little coding and hacking, for work and pleasure.

My friend and sometimes colleague Rafat Ali has pointed out how links, tags and feeds can lead to "the serendipity of tripping over fascinating articles about things I would never" have explored. (I'd give the link, but the PaidContent site appears to have moved or deleted the post.)

I couldn't agree more. It's not that we no longer have serendipitous discovery. It's that the nature of it has morphed a bit. Besides, you can still go to a bookstore or magazine stand if you like. It's not either-or. It's additive.

Quoted on SEO by Columbia Journalism Review

CJR Column Mentions The Simpsons : CJR: "“Generally speaking, what’s best for human beings, to find and understand something on the web, is what’s best for the machine,” said Benkoil. “A lot of people will come across what you’re offering via a short link and perhaps a snippet of text. If that headline is cutesy or elliptical or hard to understand, and somebody doesn’t know what he’s going to get, he’s less likely to click. If it’s straightforward and honest about what it’s about, they’re likelier to click. And that’s the same for SEO.”"

Further Thoughts on the Japan Quake, Media and Sharing

In preparation for a radio interview for NHPR's "Word of Mouth" I was prompted to answer a few more questions about the Japan earthquake:

I have not previously had such a clear case of "compare and contrast" as with this example of the Kobe quake in 1995 vs. the recent quake and Tsunami in northern Japan.

I discovered that the richer portrayal I  am getting this time of what is going on is through the combination of traditional media, social media AND personal contacts I maintain through social media and other means. It's almost like different brush strokes of a painting, all of which help fill it out. I wouldn't have had the full picture if I didn't have all four devices there in front of me, as described earlier here and in this PBS MediaShift piece.

Print, TV and radio are relatively linear. You start at one point, keep going along a straight line, and then come to the end once you finish consuming. Digital, however, can be entered at multiple points, and the timeline and consumption pattern is up to you. It's many dimensions all at once. Perhaps I can say it’s 4D: length or top-to-bottom, start-to-finish  [text or linear video or audio]; width or sideways [slideshows for example]; depth [links that let you jump through “stacks” of information];  plus time. I could compress time, by reading the posts of my friend on Facebook, who was sharing what she was seeing on TV. I could scan her wall posts all at once, and not have to watch for the full length of time she did to learn what was happening. I could combine the various dimension -- for example watch a TBS TV stream from Japan saying there are no deleterious health effects at the same time that someone on Twitter was worrying about whether they could go outdoors in Tokyo.

It also pointed up to me something that had always nagged at me when I was a foreign correspondent -- how little I, or anyone, could portray about the way things really were on the ground because we were limited to whatever constructs were there -- the breaking news wire report, the 45-second radio interview or 2-3 minute TV or radio spot, the 1,200, or even 3,000-word written piece. Inverted pyramid. The need to use space or time to explain the basic facts.

I usually monitor Twitter professionally, getting facts, figures, information, leads, and was surprised with how much of the raw Twitter stream was taken up with exclamations that were simply emotional, in Japanese. "How horrible!" "I can't believe this is happening." "Oh, No." "Wow". It brought home to me how people are using these media to get things off their chest in a way that they would use conversation for, and that others were jumping in to console or comfort them or share sympathy.

For those who would like to know more, or help, here is a link to a page of resources about the quake and Tsunami.

The Japanese Earthquake - Media and Feelings

UPDATE: I've written a longer and more detailed account of the below here, for PBS MediaShift.
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The reports and pictures of devastation in Japan  reminded me of reporting on the earthquake that leveled Japan's port city of Kobe in 1995. I pray that this time the death toll turns out to be smaller than the 6,000-plus killed those years ago. The pain for me is, perhaps, sharper because of the memories, and that this many years later my friendships there have grown that much deeper.

As a media participant and observer, what struck me this time was how rich and multifaceted the information flow was. Then, I sat in the AP bureau in Tokyo, trying to understand what I could from Japanese broadcast news reports. We were sometimes able to reach someone , official or not, in the Kobe region via phone for a quick interview. We, of course, covered the major news conferences. I (and we, I believe) relied largely for information on the reporters and photographers  (including me three weeks, then six months after the quake) who were dispatched to the scene. Listening to and watching the broadcast channels, and the other wire services was an overwhelming and chaotic, but by today's standards, thin experience.

 Today, sitting in my living room in New York, I felt I had more information at my fingertips than I did then in the AP bureau in Tokyo. In front of me I had a TV connected to digital cable, an iPad, a Blackberry and a Web-connected computer. I got ahold of one Tokyo resident, one of my best friends, via his cellphone in Osaka. I confirmed another close friend in Tokyo was fine by reading her Facebook wall.Yet another I could see was OK by reading her bylines in AP reports. (She was, understandably, quite quiet on Twitter). I meanwhile, was able to watch Japanese TV channels via Ustream links I was referred to by my New York-based friend Sree Sreenivasan. I dipped into the Twitter and Facebook streams as I could. I flipped among reports from multiple publications and sources -- a New York Times slideshow here, a BBC TV show there. A decent amount of the Twitter stream, especially in Japanese, was not very useful in an informational sense; exclamations of relief or horror, or people making strange exclamations that seemed almost senseless. But there were also referrals to data, reports, information I could tap into all at my fingertips.

Each medium served its purpose, and none was better than the other, especially. The sheer amount of video, of course -- from a country that may have more cameras and camera-equipped cellphones than any other per capita -- was that much greater. Even on TV, I saw constantly updated videos among the various channels, rather than the same loop of packaged videos one tended to see in the TV-only era, and some of that video was from handheld cameras and cellphones. My friend in Tokyo, an American who is a very fluent translator, fed us information from Japanese news reports and her own eye-witness accounts. I learned, and was able to confirm, details large and small: that this was either the 5th or 6th largest quake in recorded history, that a nuclear plant was having trouble with its coolant, that 200-300 had died in one area, that a bunch of new cars were washed from a port, that 2 people had died in one town, 7 in another. I learned, by looking at captions of photos, of the geographic expanse affected and imagined what it was like in train stations and an airport I had visited where planes were now strewn about like children's toys. I wasn't reporting, but the feeling of being overwhelmed with data, getting reports that seemed wrong or needed clarification, not being sure what sources could be trusted, and knowing that numbers and quantifications would change (often for the worse) was the same. The feeling of being connected was much stronger, this much farther away.

So far, it seems, all those I know are fine, though I fear the missive that tells me who among my circle has suffered. I know the disaster will be felt for many many months, as it was in Kobe. We'll all feel it, if nothing else, in the way stock markets react and as there are hitches in manufacturing and shipments of Japan-made cars and other goods.</div><br /> In some ways, the connections this time were stronger and richer than they could have been then. My Tokyo friend's uncle and other relatives and friends logged on from New Jersey and wished her well. Friends in the U.S. asked about my loved ones in Japan in a way that was easy to handle but would have been intrusive in an era when we all had to rely on phones. Again, the media and communication did not change the event, fundamentally, but did change the way we were able to experience and share it. Resources like the Google people finder  in Japanese and English, and some social media outreach may have even changed things in a more fundamental way.