It’s January 7, 2002, and shortly after waking up, I press the connect button on my AOL login screen, and after about three minutes of excruciating dial-up noises, I am finally presented with my AOL homepage.
There I see the latest results of the Kentucky election (not my home state) as well as the latest urban golf results. I generally hate golf, but this urban golf thing seems very interesting. After having my morning Red Bull--I really don't like coffee--I open up my newspaper and see there is a quidditch tournament listed in the events section. What in the world is quidditch? So although I am not a sports person at all, I decide to check it out with my daughter. Might be fun.
On my way to work, I turn on the radio and scan through the channels to find something aside from commercials. I end up on a random station that is playing a strange but very interesting classical piece. I eagerly wait for the radio host to announce who is performing it, as I generally know nothing about classical music but would love to get a copy of this one to play on my CD player.
During my lunch break, I head over to the library to find a new book. As I browse through the aisles, I come across a wide variety of topics from competitive knitting to how to get rich while sleeping. I decide to pick up a book on the Norwegian glaciers because although I know nothing about Norway, I am very impressed with those fjords. After work, I relax in front of my TV and surf through the channels. I can’t find any of my shows, but I stop on the first channel that did not have a commercial running, and guess what? Within five minutes I am on the edge of my seat and thoroughly enjoying a home makeover show, which is something I never would have chosen to look at before.
Spontaneous Moments Of Discovery
If you are 30-plus years old, this day may sound faintly familiar to you. We used to go through the day and have literally hundreds of moments of discovery. I was not actively looking for a new show to watch, an event to attend, or a new artist to follow; each situation just presented itself and I stumbled upon it. In 2002, I gained a new favorite musician and TV show and found something really interesting to do on the weekend on a monthly basis. On top of that, I also learned some random things about the Kentucky elections and the latest urban golf trends, neither of which I had been purposefully looking for.
This is how we used to discover new things, through unpredictable but somewhat adventuresome moments. We discovered new things we then chose to sample, and we made a conscious choice. Think about the defunct Blockbuster chain: The new releases were always hard to get, and when you arrived and the title you wanted was gone, you had to make an alternate choice—and you might end up discovering a great new movie, genre, or actor.
I remember as a child that if I wanted to watch TV in the afternoon, I had to watch what my dad was watching since he controlled the remote. I couldn’t just go in my room to watch my show on an iPhone or iPad like my daughter does today. But by stumbling upon my father’s programs, I got exposed to some of the great German classics like “Tatort” that I would not have otherwise seen--and I enjoyed them. That was true discovery.
However, the world has changed, and today we do not randomly stumble upon things as often anymore. We are served predefined and algorithmically selected content instead. Like dial-up Internet, discovery is quickly disappearing in our connected, programmatic, and audience-centric world.
Younger Generations Don't Discover
Over the past few months, I have been closely (but non-creepily) observing my two daughters and their social circles. They live through these social circles; they only do things their friends do and have somehow lost those moments of true pop-up discovery.
The girls only watch shows they choose to watch when they want to (rather than stumbling on them); they don’t browse for new music, movies, books, or TV shows and stop at something that catches their eyes or ears. They don’t browse the Web; they make very distinct decisions on what to visit and what to read based on suggestions in their social circles or recommendations from Google and Amazon. Most of all, I am afraid that the younger generations do not know or even care about anything that’s outside of their circle of interest.
Without true discovery, people will only know as much as their friends know. This is seriously limiting. I know this sounds slightly dramatic, but it’s true: Discovery as we know and love it is dead.
Let me explain where I am coming from. I believe that with today’s advancements in technology and our connectedness to each other and our devices, the things we “discover” are defined by our network, friends, family, and recorded behavior (search history, engagement, etc.) All of that is wrapped into a sexy algorithm, and we are then presented only with the things we are likely to use or appreciate through programmatic ads delivered to us in our feeds, streams, inboxes, and on the Web. We are not being randomly exposed to anything new to discover. The scary thing is that this touches all parts of our lives.
What Ever Happened To Stumbling?
For example, Google shows us results based on our locations, preferences, and recorded behavior. Why suggest a new place to eat pizza that is 10 miles away if there are plenty of choices in my neighborhood that I have visited before? When I open my new homepage (newsfeed), I am presented with content and news pieces that are relevant to me and my friends who share similar tastes or preferences.
If I am not connected to at least two quidditch players, I won’t see the game announcement in my newsfeed, and I might never find out about it. I only listen to mainstream music, so why would Spotify, iTunes, or Google Play suggest such amazing selections as Metallica? They wouldn’t. (Although I doubt it would become my favorite band anyway.)
Being the proud father to two girls, I experience this on an even more intimate level.
Today’s youth, while highly connected, are not exposed to what’s going on in the world in the same way we were just 10 or 15 years ago. They don't watch live TV, they create their own programming; they don’t discover new books in the library, they order what they want or what someone suggests from the platform they prefer. In a cloud-based environment, they always expect to get what they want when they want it—it’s always available to download—and therefore they are never forced to make a secondary choice (and new discovery) as we used to do in Blockbuster.
Coming from an advertising background, I fully understand how we have gotten here.
Brands need to stand out in the forest of messages; they need to create relevant content to get the user engaged. After all, telling our brands that we got zero sales, but really inspired some people who will never buy their products is just not an option. So serving consumers what we presume they want to see, hear, or read is what happens instead.
I think the original idea of the social platform StumbleUpon was great, with users sharing new things they’ve never seen before with other users. However, with the growth of their ad product and dependency on its revenues, StumbleUpon—and many other social platforms—have become reliant on advertisers who pay well to get high user engagement. Discovery by users is being replaced by this: “Put the right message in front of the right user at the right time.” The last place that really is presenting disruptive discovery is Reddit, where you can discover new things you did not know about on a daily basis.
I know creating a portal that shows you the opposite from relevant content is not an option. (Imagine a video site that only shows you videos that none of your friends like, or a search engine that shows you the least relevant result. It makes no sense.) I mean, I love running at night, but if I am searching at 11 p.m. for tips to fall asleep, a “NIKE GO RUN NOW AD” might not be the best option to show me.
Don’t get me wrong. Purpose-driven research has gotten better. We can leverage reviews and the social graph to know which product consumers think is good and what is not, but informed research is not discovery. I believe this to be a considerable risk for us as a society. If we are not able to discover new things, how are we going to expand our knowledge, and most of all, be inspired to do great things?
How Can We Bring Back Moments Of Discovery?
When the Internet first started to gain popularity, it was excitingly addictive. You could get lost for hours surfing the 'net. You would jump from page to page and topic to topic. I remember being stuck for hours behind the screen discovering new things. Today’s browsing behavior is much more targeted and action-based. Unfortunately, the Internet has lost some of its discovery powers.
Long story short, I feel that as a society, we should start thinking about how can we recreate and promote true moments of discovery. How can we take the library or even flea market example of discovery and put it back into people’s daily media lives? And should we?
For me, it is really about making sure my two amazing daughters are getting a broad exposure to everything that is happening in the world. That kind of discovery will be meaningful to them when they look for inspiration for their career and life choices in the real world, and they can draw upon the experiences and knowledge discovered, sampled, and learned from, in their digital lives.