Forget Paywalls – How About More Serendipity?

If ChatRoulette does nothing else, at least it seems to be getting some traditional media outlets to think about their content differently. For Chris Thorpe of The Guardian, the lightbulb went on during a lunchtime presentation by media analyst Clay Shirky at the newspaper’s offices in London. Thorpe, a former research scientist who is in charge of The Guardian’s Open API project, asked Shirky what was left for newspapers to do once their content had been atomized and digitized. How could the serendipity that newspapers provide be replicated online, he asked, without them just becoming “ChatRoulette for news?” After some laughter from Shirky and elsewhere in the room, the conversation continued; but Thorpe and a colleague thought the idea wasn’t ridiculous at all, and within a few hours they had built Guardian developer Daniel Vydra had built Random Guardian — a site that pulls a random article from the newspaper’s site with the click of a button (there’s a New York Times (s nyt) version, too).

It isn’t ChatRoulette at all, of course — in part because there is a distinct lack of nudity, which has more or less become a hallmark of that service. It’s more like Stumbleupon (which offers a service called StumbleThru that works on a single domain). It’s quite a fun experience, though, clicking randomly through the newspaper’s pages. And while it may be a trivial enough app, thrown together in a matter of hours, Thorpe believes that it taps into something powerful that newspapers can offer their readers: namely, serendipity (something I’ve also written about here).

For people who think that paywalls or the iPad are the things that will be the magic bullet that saves the newspaper industry from falling over a cliff I think there’s an easier answer; more random/serendipity please. If you take me to unknown places I’ll read more and I’ll spend more time, be more engaged, you can target me better and I’ll love you and buy things. Bring me wonder and magic and I’ll love you forever.

The Guardian is clearly going down that road, not just with Random Guardian but with features such as the Zeitgeist, an expanded version of the “most popular” boxes that many newspapers feature, and with its entire Open API project, which is designed to allow developers to create their own experiences using Guardian content. Meanwhile, Rupert Murdoch is busy erecting paywalls at several of his newspapers. Time will tell which route is the more successful one, but my money is on The Guardian.

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Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user piterart