Ethan Zuckerman on how to engineer serendipity online

A discussion with the Harvard Internet scholar on how to stumble upon the Web’s gems.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Ethan Zuckerman is a fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and cofounder of Global Voices.

In a wired world, finding information about events in a distant part of the world – the score of a soccer game, the aftermath of a military coup, or a nascent hip-hop movement in a conservative country – is straightforward.

Even if news sites overlooked a certain event, chances are that a blogger has not.

“But how do you find stuff you don’t know you are looking for?” asks Ethan Zuckerman.

This koanlike question comes from his work as a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Mr. Zuckerman spends a lot of time pondering the intricacies of the Internet and how to realign its many moving parts to make the Web more useful.

He helped start the Web-hosting service Tripod and later founded Geekcorps, a nonprofit that aims to help emerging nations get online and join the global conversation.

While wearing these many hats, Zuckerman has seen again and again that people love what the Internet can provide them, but they have no idea how much they are missing.

“People generally pay attention to what they already know about and what they care about,” he says.

Serendipity can strike – users can occasionally stumble on a marvelous new site – but that rare find shouldn’t be left to chance, he says. It should be engineered into the system.

For example, even a film buff may be unaware of Nigeria’s movie industry. But Nollywood, as it’s called by fans, is the third-largest movie industry in the world after Hollywood and India’s Bollywood.

“These movies made in Lagos [Nigeria] will probably not be on your Netflix queue anytime soon,” he says. But the Internet puts the films, directors, and Nollywood fans within reach for Americans.

Discovering such gems in the online rough can be difficult when you rely on people much like yourself to expand your online horizons. News aggregators such as Digg and Reddit help, but their audiences are still pretty homogenous.

“The Reddit community, for instance, is 92 percent male, 70 percent employed in the IT industry or as students, and 70 percent from the US,” says Zuckerman.

There’s a word for this social quirk, where people tend to hang out with like-minded individuals: homophily.

“This can make you really dumb,” says Zuckerman. “We need to break out of such echo chambers.” Part of the solution, he says, could come from tapping into the informed bloggers of the world.

Right now, the blogosphere gets a bad rap. Without a good filter, its many diverse viewpoints can come off as babel.

That’s why Zuckerman cofounded in 2004. He wanted a site that could help guide readers through the international maze of citizen journalism.

A team of “bridge bloggers” contextualizes the news coming out of Asia, Africa, and elsewhere for an international audience. “Their insight can help us connect the dots,” he says.

Mahmood’s Den is one of Zuckerman’s favorite blogs. “I try to dispel the image that Muslims and Arabs suffer from ... in the rest of the world,” says blogger Mahmood Al-Yousif, a Bahraini engineer who has worked in the United States. Mr. Yousif’s goal is to “create a better understanding that we’re not all nuts, hellbent on world destruction.”

Zuckerman’s mission, in turn, is to amplify voices like that of Yousif.

Yousif stopped blogging recently but others, such as his compatriot Amira Al Hussaini at SillyBahrainiGirl, continue at Global Voices.

"Blogs tend to be mirrors of society and they don't only focus on serious happenings like revolutions, bombings and gloom," says Ms. Hussaini, the Global Voices editor for the Middle East and North Africa. "People party, they care about pets, post recipes and, in fact, write about everything under the sun."

Such blogs give readers a window into the lives of others, adds Hussaini, who currently lives in Canada.

“The Internet can only make the world smaller when we let it,” says Solana Larsen, the managing editor of Global Voices. “The truth is, we’re still trying to figure out a way to make people – and bloggers and journalists – more curious.”

Step 1 is letting them know that it’s possible to figure out what bloggers in other countries are saying, she says. Hopefully, her team and other sites will soon figure out a good Step 2.

“Homophily, in itself, is not a bad thing,” writes Amy Gahran, an independent media consultant on her blog Nor does Zuckerman dismiss the value of “commonality,” she points out.

Zuckerman’s aim, she notes, is “to recognize broader and subtler commonalities – by gaining respect for divergent views and experiences.” In other words: Tuning in to diverse viewpoints prevents us from being blind-sided, as many were after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. Suddenly, many Americans needed to learn a whole new vocabulary – Sunni, Shiite, Al Qaeda – words that were within reach online but somehow not in many people’s line of sight.

Zuckerman refers to our news diet as a problem of “broccoli versus chocolate cake.” Right now, he says, it is as if we are at a buffet of news stories and we reach out for whatever gratifies us immediately. We are unlikely to change our habits without compelling reasons, he says.

“Perhaps our information diet should come with the equivalent of nutritional labels,” he says. “Search in the future needs to lead us to people, to places, to voices.” The possibility of that accidental discovery that could essentially alter one’s worldview cannot be left to random chance, he emphasizes.

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