Exploring serendipity in Humanities research

Anabel Quan-Haase Research ProfileHumanities scholars interviewed by FIMS and Sociology Professor Anabel Quan-Haase and her collaborators at the SocioDigital Lab have expressed concern about the loss of serendipity in digital environments.

The interviews with humanities scholars are part of Digging Digital Humanities, a five-year, SSHRC-funded project the SocioDigital Lab is conducting to explore their research habits and daily work practices. The primary goal of the project is to obtain an understanding of how the information world, research practices, and knowledge production of humanities scholars changes with the rise of digital materials, the prevalence of digital tools, and the digitization of primary sources. How do these scholars locate and make sense of information, and how do they develop insights around the work they do? What are the challenges associated with navigating and integrating online and offline worlds?

Quan-Haase says she and her fellow collaborators have observed that serendipity is an important component of the research process for humanists. “We’ve been very keen on trying to understand where and when these serendipity moments happen. Do they occur in physical libraries? In archives? Do they also occur in digital spaces like Twitter? Can we develop and design better tools that will help facilitate further serendipity?”

In contrast to a physical, sensory-rich environment such as a library or archive, there’s a loss of context in a digital setting. “A lot of research looking at historians in particular and other humanity scholars has shown that building that context up in terms of making connections between pieces of information is really critical for gaining insights,” says Quan-Haase. “We’d like to know more about how it changes in digital information environments and how loss of context potentially influences how we also make connections and experience serendipity.”

Quan-Haase says research has shown that in digital environments, people are good at searching; keyword search is something we’ve perfected. In general, there is less opportunity for serendipity in a web search as people don’t usually go past the first page of results. Quan-Haase and her collaborators have decided it may be worth exploring what tools might facilitate serendipity in these environments and how to redesign existing tools to foster information discovery. For her, “while some aspects of context are lost online, there is also potential to design for new means of gaining context in a digital space. This could directly benefit scholars and their work.”

Several tools have been developed to restore serendipity in various contexts and digital libraries are also implementing different strategies to encourage users to explore more. One example is Serendip-o-matic, an online tool that connects one’s existing sources to digital materials located in libraries, museums, and archives around the world.

Try it out here: http://serendip-o-matic.com 

Serendip-o-matic is based on three key ideas: feed-whirl-marvel! The idea is that the output can delight and surprise the user. It is information at the boundaries of search, as the tool points towards materials that are somewhat unexpected and therefore marvel. Quan-Haase sees Serendip-o-matic as a fun and first step into the right direction, but she also expresses some reservation. “I think the problem with many of these tools is that obviously if you have a stand-alone tool, users are less likely to go to it. Also, serendipity is something you can’t control very well.” This creates a need for more research around what features and tools are best suited for creating the circumstances for serendipity to occur.
Quan-Haase and her collaborators are exploring functions that help trigger serendipity. She cites Twitter as an example of a tool where humanists often report experiencing serendipity; someone can share information with another person that is relevant to them, follow a hashtag, or skim through a page for key words or look for certain people. “We find that both informational and social features of certain tools can help highlight information and trigger serendipity,” says Quan-Haase. “It is this act of both highlighting information, making connections between pieces of information, or relating new pieces of information to other work, where we see some of the potential for discovery and unexpected encounters to occur.”

Quan-Haase is also co-editing a book on social media research methods, slated for release in 2017, titled Sage Handbook of Social Media Research Methods.

“From what we know, it's the first collection that has this kind of step-by-step, hands-on approach on how to deal with social media data, how to analyze the data, and visualize the data, which deals with the full process that is involved in a social media research project,” says Quan-Haase. “We feel that there's a real need for students and scholars that are moving into this area to have something like this, that can provide best practice and shows the complexity involved in designing a social media project from ethical considerations to choices in the data analysis tools to be used. Big data and social media data in general have a lot of issues in terms of the validity and trustworthiness of the data, and how the data are preprocessed. You cannot just simply start collecting the data without being aware of the key decisions involved. The handbook is meant to make people aware of the challenges inherent and provide some solutions on which we can build in the future.”