Social Media and the Death of Serendipity (or on experiencing the ‘pre-bump’ for the first time)

As I start to write this post I am sitting at a departure gate in Stockholm’s Arlanda airport waiting for the late night flight north to Umeå. I am on my way back from Moscow where, for the last few days, I have been taking part in a conference at the Higher School of Economics’ Research Centre for Contemporary Culture on the Challenges of Participant Cultures. The whole event was really interesting and a lot of fun (some photos of it are available on the department’s Russian language site). It was also all digitally recorded so rather than discuss its academic content here, I will wait until the videos are posted online and instead use this opportunity to briefly discuss something that happened to me during the course of my stay that has made me think about one of the less commented upon consequences of the permeation of social media within our every day lives. In my few days in Moscow I experienced for the first time what I have come to think of as ‘the pre-bump’.

So here’s the story…

I am sitting in a presentation by Ellen Rutten about her really interesting new project Sublime Imperfections when she shows a couple of images of the type of run-down ‘shabby-chic’ cafes that many of us in western Europe are now well accustomed to – you know, the ones with mismatching chairs and half wallpapered walls (I call this the Berlin style because that’s where I first saw it about a decade ago). So anyway these images bring to mind the work that a friend and former colleague of mine, Christian Haid has been doing in Berlin on the aesthetics of informality that is increasingly borrowed from the global south by the global north. I mention this to Ellen in the coffee break and she tweets me in the next session and asks me to connect her with Christian. At this point I realise I don’t follow him on Twitter so I find him, follow him and Twitter introduce the two of them. Moments later I am surprised when Christian asks if I am in Moscow too. He is also in the city for the first time supervising an architectural field trip. We exchange a couple of comments on the crazy coincidence of it all and then quickly start to plan whether we might be able to catch up that evening.

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Cue lots of multi-platformed (twitter, whatsapp, sms) exchanges regarding changing plans and what at times felt like the impossible task of trying to co-ordinate meeting with loads of different social plans associated with the conference and its participants. Christian and his lot have been planning to go to a club. I am not sure it will work as one of our group also has somewhere in mind too and I plan stay with the conference group. Slowly it becomes apparent, however, that the clubs are close to each other and then eventually it transpires that they are actually the same club. We meet and I introduce Ellen to Christian in person a couple of hours after saying they should get in touch. OK so this is ready like some wannabe academic socialite story full of name drops, an edgy conference location and a trendy club  but there is a deeper point I am trying to get at here (honest).

Christian and I were both pretty excited about the coincidence of being in Moscow at the same time when we met (I think he was as excited as me) but then I realised that this excitement would have been far more intense if we had bumped into each other in person at the club where, in all likelihood, we would have met regardless of all the earlier social media organising. So leaving aside the coincidence of following him on that day (had I followed him earlier he might have noticed that I would be in Moscow from earlier tweets) we had bumped into each other per-emptively on Twitter, in other words we had experienced the ‘pre-bump’ and the chance for a ‘truly’ serendipitous meeting had been lost forever.

Now, I know I am probably not the first to comment on how the advance of social media might well spell the end for those moments when you bump into your friends in totally unexpected places, but still I find it quite interesting to think of some of the consequences of these changing circumstances. For example, in a world characterized by the likes of Twitter and Tinder, would the plot of 2001 non-hit USA film Serendipity still be convincing? (OK so it wasn’t so convincing back then but you see what I am getting at). Cusack and Beckinsale would have been Facebook friends and Twitter followers before they even had a chance to scribble their phone numbers down on a five-dollar bill and dog eared copy of Love in the Time of Cholera and left it to fate to decide whether they would meet again. (They probably wouldn’t have even encountered each other over those black gloves in the first place, having instead opted to buy them on amazon.) Thereafter their endless status updates would have served to keep them informed of each other’s whereabouts and serendipity would have probably melted into indifference or perhaps, more creepily, some kind of social media stalking.

Despite this appalling choice of example, more credibility is lent to the point I am trying to make by the fact that today there are even apps available to help you avoid bumping into your social media friends.

Cloak, an app that has been around for about two years, scrapes yours social media feeds to show you where all your friends are so that you can find them or, as its name suggests, avoid them. The app even allows you to flag particular individuals, which means you will receive real time alerts if they come within close vicinity of your current location. Of Cloak, one ‘style blogger’ basically summarized more succinctly what I have I been trying to put my finger on since pre-bumping into Christian and in a way that also somehow helps me justify the tone of this entire post. They wrote:

“Cloak basically confirms what we already know: That technology is stripping our lives of coincidence, and that we’re totally comfortable  catching up with people we know so long as there’s an iPhone screen between us, and that personal contact—especially when it’s not orchestrated—is fast becoming a thorn in our collective sides. Still, that’s not to say this app won’t be a hit with social media users who live in towns or cities that are stacked with “friends” lurking behind every Starbucks door, and for people aren’t always in the mood to do the whole semi-awkward “oh my god, how are you?” song and dance.”

Of course the app might also prove really annoying for those who live with or in areas permeated with their friends. I also imagine that it only works one directionally so that ironically an invisible cat and mouse situation could occur whereby one person is using the app in order to avoid a another person who is themselves using it to actively track down the other.

 

I am not sure what I would have done if Christian had been someone I had wanted to avoid (he wasn’t!) but in all likelihood I think it would have resulted in a Twitter mediated moment of awkwardness a bit like the one of excitement that did transpire. In other words, a more moderated emotional experience than might have occurred had we meet for the first time in an unexpected place in person. Of course this connects back to a myriad of discussions about emotion and social interaction ‘online’ vis-à-vis ‘offline’, leading ultimately, to the almost default conclusion that requires me to temper the title of this blog post and acknowledge that social media probably isn’t leading to the death of serendipity but is contributing, among other factors, to serendipity’s transformation as we understand it.

 

That’s all for now – hope to (pre)bump into you soon!

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