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Big data is all around us. You can sense it – or rather, it senses you. We may even be heading toward a data singularity, a time in the not so distant future when sensors all around us will send vast amounts of information to a centralized source to learn and adapt in real-time.

There are positive aspects to this development including traffic lights that are recalibrated based on the number of cars on the road, accidents or weather conditions. And there are negative aspects too – as in another loss of privacy.

We’re obsessed with big data and trends based on the repeated behaviour of larger and larger groups of people. And because of that, we may be overlooking another form of data that’s staring us in the face.

MEET SMALL DATA 2.0

What is small data? Wikipedia describes it as “data that’s small enough for human comprehension” or “timely, meaningful insights…”

That’s not exactly what I had in mind and I’d like to take that concept in a slightly different direction – let’s call it small data 2.0. In this version, small data is the seemingly random assortment of little details we collect almost unconsciously – fragments of writing, visuals, media and other observations. Every once in a while that collection mashes together and sparks a creative thought.

In other words: serendipity.

Serendipity is the opposite of big data because instead of synthesizing reams of information to uncover a pattern, it notices the expected and rearranges it in a fresh and surprising way.

It’s the magic behind viral videos. No matter how much we analyze the data behind a million or more views, virality is an elusive and unpredictable beast.

Serendipity is one of the reasons I was drawn to Twitter and why it’s still my favourite social platform. If you follow enough of the right people, you will be amazed what you can find if you just lose yourself in the stream.

YOU WON’T FIND IT IN YOUR DAYTIMER

I recently read a New York Times op-ed piece about how certain people seem able to cultivate serendipity in their approach to work.

The trouble is it isn’t something you can plan for and that makes it tough when you’re facing a client deadline. You can’t block out weekly serendipity time in your calendar. Nor is it a replacement for the hard work and long hours it takes to create something memorable. It’s more of a catalyst to the process.

And knowing serendipity comes along intermittently and you have no control over it, here are three ways to open up to the possibilities:

  1. Mix it up. Stop being a creature of habit. Take another route to work or home, eat lunch earlier or later, try a different coffee shop when you’re out for a walk. Little changes can go a long way to refresh your POV.
  2. Don’t scan, read. We’re so programmed to skim social and digital media. Instead, slow down and actually read the words in front of you. In fact, just read a lot more – fiction, non-fiction, plays. Whatever you choose should make you pause and think.
  3. Put away your phone. This one’s the hardest for me, but it’s probably the most important. If you’re on the street, look up and around you and not into your smartphone screen. Let your mind wander. You might surprise yourself by what you notice even though you’ve been in a particular place a hundred times before.

Serendipity, like that other ‘s’ word, just happens. But, I’m convinced it’s worth the wait and each of us can reap its benefits. Unfortunately, I don’t have any big data to back that up.

What are your experiences with serendipity and the world of small data?

A version of this post was originally published in Marketing magazine.

About Martin Waxman


Martin Waxman conducts social media and online crisis training workshops, is a digital and communications strategist and speaks at events across North America. He's the co-founder of three PR agencies, president of a consultancy and has worked in the industry for 25 years. He writes a monthly column for Marketing Magazine, teaches digital strategy and is chair of PRSA Counselors Academy.

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