Engineered serendipity at SXSW: paradox or progression?

Kim McKay KlickIn this guest post, Kim McKay shares her view on the standout trend from SxSW.

Entering our third South by Southwest Interactive festival, we had our ears to the ground and our eyes on the twitter feed for The Trend of 2012. Having witnessed the introduction of “location”/foursquare in 2010 and gamification in 2011, it wasn’t hard to spot the hype around ‘serendipity’.

A somewhat paradoxical notion, several panels and brands were keen to show how technology – or specifically all the social data that has been accumulating on digital folk – can be used to engineer social serendipity.

As Google’s Chris Messina quite simply put it: we’re experiencing a new generation of apps that “accelerate serendipity”. Users are no longer joining a social network to find connections – the onus is now on the social network to create the connection; Joi Ito, MIT, refers to it as a “marvellous extension of your peripheral vision”.

At SXSW, smartphone application ‘Highlight’ was probably the most widely discussed and used. There was also talk of Glansee, Kismet and Sonar (although Sonar is closed network for existing connections).

These apps transform user data into a form personal currency, so although you may be “selling” your information, you are also buying a better and more tailored experience. For this reason it is becoming more important than ever to curate your own personal brand, ensuring that your activities online are indicative of your interests and intentions. These applications are also giving you an option to influence your offline experiences through online curation.

In terms of user benefits, first and foremost these apps are highly sophisticated networking tools which are leading people to meet other folks who can be beneficial to their social or professional networks. Better than a cocktail party, these apps not only introduce you to others. They also provide you with conversation starters by pinpointing topics of mutual interest.

For marketers, the utility of engineered serendipity is less obvious. Some ideas revolve around a brand creating its own social discovery app or platform, which could be particularly useful for businesses with niche audiences such as sports teams or television shows/channels. This could be a great way to unite like-minded people through their interests and your brand. Alternatively, marketers could work out several ways to leverage the fact that this is happening organically through existing apps – which are binding users through their involvement in their Facebook community.

Targetted social discovery may actually be the most useful (and least creepy) manifestation of this trend.  In our experience of using some of these apps we became quickly exhausted by the notifications which advise that one of our colleagues is in the room, or that someone who also likes Mashable, Mumbrella and TechCrunch is nearby. It’s almost as though these apps need to be streamlined to identify unique connections; what if two neurologists are both in a café, and through Highlight they meet and later discover a cure for multiple sclerosis?

Economists have long posed that meta-ideas lead to the “clotting” of creative talent; clusters of brilliance have emerged amongst people when an action has encouraged the spread of ideas (education reforms, public libraries, patent system etc).

Could constructed serendipity be the technological trigger for the next cluster(s) of idea makers? Or from a marketing perspective, is building relationships between your customers by connecting them in the real world of benefit to your brand?

Kim McKay is the director of Klick Communications 



  1. hello_emily
    20 Mar 12
    1:40 pm

  2. Great article thanks Kim.

    PS the app you refer to is spelled ‘Glancee’ –

  3. Nicola
    20 Mar 12
    3:30 pm

  4. Great article Kim. I deleted Highlight after half a day. Too many notifications, a bit spooky and major battery drain!

  5. Julian
    21 Mar 12
    12:30 pm

  6. Lost count at the number of buzzwords here

  7. daveb
    22 Mar 12
    3:25 pm

  8. Good article – it’s pretty heavy on the jargon, but Kim you’ve probably down-jargoned it since SXSW! It’s hard to describe the future sometimes.