Serendipity: a case study

I was trying to write a joke about astronomy yesterday, and ended up researching the ethics of marketing to teenagers.

In library science, this is called serendipity: the accidental discovery of useful information while you were searching for something else.

It’s when your searching the library shelf for a book on machine learning, and stumble over one on fuzzy sets, or when you look up the Australian Defence Force on Wikipedia and a few links later you’re reading about how we lost the Emu War.

Serendipity is the black magic of library science. There’s an element of luck, of stars aligning. You can encourage it, but you can never quite control it, or where it will lead.

It’s how I started out learning about time travel, and ended up learning about teenagers.

Consider this a case study. It’s a bit more interesting than a bunch of random links.

It started with time travel

It started with a video: Why Going Faster-Than-Light Leads to Time Paradoxes.

I read a bit of science fiction, and I’m pretty sure it was a Charles Stross book that introduced me to the idea that travelling faster than light means you can effectively go back in time and violate cause and effect. But I never really understood it.

Then this video showed up in my YouTube suggestions, and it’s the clearest explanation I’ve ever heard. It’s such a clear explanation, I shared it to Twitter.

And then I followed that tweet up with a joke.

My secret power

You see, the video is by David Kipping from the Cool Worlds Lab at Columbia University.

The Cool Worlds Lab researches exoplanets that are cool enough to support life. Hence the name. But I knew immediately that I had to make a joke playing off the difference between cool-as-in-temperature and cool-as-in-hip-and-fashionable.

The problem is I am a middle-aged librarian. I am not cool. I have no idea what people consider cool. I can do weird, or nerdy, but not cool.

Of course, being a librarian, I do have a secret power: I can look stuff up.

I pulled out the card catalogues. I dusted off my volumes of the Dewey Decimal Classification. I lit a candle to S. R. Ranganathan, and offered up prayers to the gods of WorldCat.

Then I did what everyone does, and googled it.

“What’s cool with gen z?”

I didn’t even have to refine my search terms. I was halfway through typing my first search phrase when Google suggested what’s cool with gen z?

There is a huge amout of material online that tries to answer that question.

Google have a Cool Book to summarise what teenagers think is cool. There’s nothing revelatory in it: teens like smartphones and sneakers and YouTube. Also Oreos, apparently. Also they think Google is fun and fuctional! Isn’t that lovely for Google?

Business Insider’s 2019 The State of Gen Z report that goes beyond just consumer preferences. It says:

  • Gen Z likes diversity: 48% are non-white. 62% see diversity as good for society. 35% know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.
  • 55% think America is going poorly. 54% think humans are causing climate change. The “overwhelming majority” think Donald Trump is the biggest issue facing America.
  • They really want to legalise weed.

There’s some brand stuff in there too: Gen Z like Nike and McDonalds and Amazon and Netflix.

Here’s another report, this time from a company called GWI: What Gen Z really think and why you should care

  • They’re stressed: 45% of Gen Z say they’re prone to anxiety compared to 25% of baby boomers.
  • They want to learn new skills (61%) and be successful (62%)
  • In the US, climate change is their biggest concern out of a list of 21 worries – something that’s overtaken concern about infectious diseases.
  • They’re becoming tired of picture-perfect content on social media – “Gen Z’s interest in celebrity news and influencers dropped by 26% and 15% respectively since Q2 2020”

As I said: none of this is revelatory. If you’re active online, you’ve probably picked up most of these trends just from the ambient culture.

Which makes me wonder: if you can pick most of this up just from being online, why are there so many surveys and reports about Gen Z?


Because marketing. Because there’s money in teenagers and what they think is cool.

It makes my skin crawl.

Teenagers are a vulnerable population. They are still developing neurologically, psychologically and socially. And all of the reports I linked to above are essentially telling companies how to manipulate them into giving you money.

It’s unethical.

My only hope is we can use the tools of Capitalism against itself, that these reports can be used by teachers and youth librarians and YA writers to show teenagers how companies are trying to manipulate them, and to give them some weapons to defend themselves.


Ironically, none of these reports helped me write my joke. It took an ad on an unrelated to article to remind of one of the more popular young musicians out there.

Is that serendipity? Or just the random stuff of life on the internet? I don’t know. This whole post is, frankly, little more than a way to make some random links appear like a coherent set.

Anyway, here’s Wonderwall my tweet about the video:

And my joke:


About davidwitteveen

IT person. Zine Maker. Level 0 Library Nerd. Doctor Who fan.
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