News & Views

Opinion / Filtering for Serendipity

by Contagious Contributor
Saul Parker, insight and strategy director at Livity, explains why we're living in the age of the edit

As a young man I spent long hours searching out awesome new music. A large part of this hobby entailed hanging out in independent record shops, listening to countless records, and asking lots of questions. Much of the excitement came from the specialness associated with independent artists, labels and shops. It seemed like every trip could unearth a new label, artist, or take on the electronic music that had come to define youth culture in the 1990s. A good relationship with record shop staff was key to finding new music; staff had the greatest background knowledge and exposure to new releases and came to understand what got you excited as a customer. At the same time I pored over DJ charts in specialist magazines, and recorded and rinse-repeated key radio shows to stay abreast of hot new releases.

As consumers we are faced with a tension in the current media landscape, with its proliferation of choice: we are seduced by having the best access to the most content, but find ourselves overwhelmed by the sheer weight of stuff at our fingertips. In the face of such content ubiquity, we increasingly outsource the process of discovery.

The bulk of our demands for outsourced discovery are met by machines: the recommendation algorithms of Google, Spotify and Amazon that model our browsing and purchasing behaviour in comparison to PLUs (People Like Us), and direct us to content they calculate we will enjoy. This process isn't benevolent; it's about keeping us interested in a platform, and identifying things we are most likely to buy. At best it is a mutually beneficial exchange, where algorithms navigate the clutter for us, and we reward them with our most commercially viable resources: our attention and our money.

Through crunching masses of user data and identifying patterns, recommendation algorithms get very good at median responses. They excel at profiling our tastes and serving things they know we will like, but they are less good at helping us find things from farther afield. With the widely unpredicted UK election results this year, coinciding with a key Facebook study published in Science, it dawned on many of us what an echo chamber Facebook really is. Sometimes we need to be surprised and stretched in our tastes and our thinking.

Thinking back to my record hunting days, it's interesting to consider what made this consumption behaviour so compelling:

- Scarcity of goods, in the form of limited vinyl releases and international imports
- A sense of novelty, potentially finding genuinely new stuff all the time
- Personal service, with selections that responded to my tastes and interests
- The notion of missions, seeking out new material then racing home to play it to death
- Editorial voice and expertise, where my exposure evolved based on the expertise of shop staff
- Unique context, in the specialised environment of the independent record shop
- Alternative subculture, where the ecosystem of electronic music existed outside the mainstream, from shops and media to artists and venues

Many of the things that made record hunting so exciting are largely absent in the era of ubiquitous digital media and content aggregation. Nothing seems scarce or hard to find; services are personalised but impersonal; we all browse and shop the same long tail retail spaces; stories and cultural objects play out across a shared transmedia landscape of Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

Right now there exists a huge opportunity to help audiences navigate the content clutter in a way that is progressive and exciting, that surprises and challenges our opinions and tastes. As content creation goes into overdrive, the smartest operators have begun to curate that content, sifting gems from the noise, and making this a central function of their business. The age of content is swiftly followed by the age of the edit. Today, credible fashion figures offer edits of high street collections, media and pop culture gurus present their highlights from the web, leading commentators collate links and articles that stretch our thinking. Curation is rapidly overtaking content as the industry buzzword du jour. Editing and curating is partially about finding and amplifying the best bits, but it's also about novelty and surprise. Curators are artists and experts who tread a less familiar path to bring us new perspectives and fresh ideas.

What role for brands in the age of the edit? Consumer brands' presumed role is so often that of producer that we are now swimming in a sea of branded content. A brave move would be to use curation to offer genuine utility to customers, to demonstrate brand values and personality through the editorial choices we make, the content we reify and the culture we gather around us. Make less unnecessary stuff and gather more gems from the content stream. In an ever more social world, we are defined not only by our actions, but by the company we keep.