Serendipitous searching in the real world

Swedish ethnologist Erik Ottoson of Uppsala University studies how people browse at flea markets, wander through malls, window shop, and even dumpster-dive, to understand the psychology of "searching." Specifically, Ottoson focuses on "serendipitous searching," what he defines as "open browsing for anything that awakens the person's interest." It would be interesting to compare Ottoson's research on real world searching with serendipitous searching online. From his PhD thesis, titled "Seeking One's Own: On Encounters Between Individuals and Objects":
The people in the study are not just looking for certain things – they are also seeking to come to terms with what they are actually looking for. Ideals of what is beautiful, useful and reasonable materialise in conjunction with the experience of what is available and what is absent or out of reach. It is suggested that this mode of looking for goods is not only about purchase deliberations, but more importantly is a specific way of interacting with the world and making places meaningful. It can be viewed as a way of creating and moderating anticipation, and thereby cultivating affect. Searching for things thus becomes an experiential horizon.
Link to thesis abstract, Link to press release



  1. I feel significantly less guilty about myself when I browse randomly at a bookstore than when I StumbleUpon, but I guess it’s the same thing…

  2. Serendipitous information seeking behavior is not new, but does diverge significantly from most of the fundamental theories. Fundamental theories focus on relevance which is bound tightly to intent (Typically depicted as a pre-cast motive). Serendipitous browsing has little, if any, relationship to relevance (at least as a precondition) to the search initiation. Relevance would only become an issue at the instance of awareness, being the moment in time when discovery, relationship, and applicability merge. Anyone having further interest may wish to explore the Information Science studies by Foster and Ford or by Erdelez.

    Erdelez, S. (1996a), “Information encountering: a conceptual framework for accidental
    information discovery”, In P.Vakkari, R. Savolainen and B. Dervin (Eds), Information
    seeking in context: proceedings of an international conference on research in information
    needs, seeking, and use in different contexts, Tampere, Finland, Los Angeles, Taylor
    Graham, pp. 412-421.
    Erdelez, S. (1996b), Information encountering on the internet, In M.Williams (Ed.)
    Proceedings of the 17th National Online Meeting, Information Today, Medford (NJ), pp. 101-
    Erdelez, S. (1999), “Information encountering: it’s more than just bumping into
    information”, Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science, Vol. 25 No. 3, pp.

  3. I’m curious if he found more women doing this kind of searching. I also wonder if a culture that has more interest in recycling objects would even out more on the male/female ration of searchers.

  4. No longer looking for mushrooms hidden beneath a carpet of pine needles. Mind seeks it’s own game, foraging for nourishment in the forest of information. I hunt novel patterns in an attempt to feed my head.

  5. My online searching habits are somewhat similar to my “treasure” hunts. I generally start with a specific task, ie. recently went on my weekly yard sale expedition for vintage fashion accessories, came home with some of those but also with a new desk to replace my old falling apart one, and a gorgeous art print. My best finds are generally “happened” upon and I always leave myself open to changes of direction. I also start out information hunting with a focus but am open to other paths, on recent search for London gangsters, ran across Doug and Dinsdale Piranha, and looked up “litotes.” Got the info I needed, had a good laugh, and educated myself. My sense of elation when I find an absolute treasure is not that different than the satisfaction I get from a successful online search. However when I don’t find any good treasures on my excursions, I’m mildly disappointed but there’s alway next weekend. When I can’t find information I think is out there, the frustration level gets pretty high.

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