The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Urbano Reviglio della Venaria: A Right to Internet Serendipity? An alternative way to tackle the threats of an over-personalized Internet experience

Urbano Reviglio, LAST-JD International Joint Doctorate (Ph.D. Candidate)

The paper questions the reasons and the extent to which serendipity, a natural dynamic in human life and interactions could and should be protected in the internet space. The relevance of such question depends on the acknowledgement that recommender systems on the internet automatically personalize one’s virtual experience accordingly to one’s (assumed) preferences. As a result, algorithms shrink the possibilities to encounter unexpected and unimagined information, or to face opinions and perspectives one might disagree with. Academics have argued that this phenomenon might confine users to their own cloistered personalized worlds, in what has been called ‘filter bubble’(Pariser, 2011).

The risk of over-personalization is a kind of cultural and ideological bubble in which users continue to see, listen to, and read what reinforces their view of the world. This bubble is the personal background information surrounding users when we they are online. It is a bubble because everything they encounter is tailored precisely for them, and the more they surf the internet the more it becomes akin to them. It is also invisible with many people not even knowing when you are already in it. Over-personalization has the potential to produce a sort of determinism of information, which has major consequences for the integral development of both individuals and of democratic societies. 

The paper aims at analysing some of these consequences, questioning to what extent the vocabulary of fundamental rights could serve as a useful tool to assess if, and at what extent, one could legitimately claim that states have a stake in reducing the negative impact that over-personalization has on their citizens, and on their societies as a whole. In order to do so, the paper will use the concept of serendipity, constructing the notion of “Internet serendipity” as an epistemic lend though which deepening the socio-political implications of what academia has already worn about, concerning filter bubbles and echo chambers. Indeed, using the vocabulary of rights has proven very effective in raising awareness of certain socio-political issues, while getting one’s normative point through quite effectively. Following this tradition, the paper will question if serendipity is a valuable enough element of human lives that deserves some sort of protection. 

In fact, Serendipity plays a relevant, perhaps fundamental, role in our everyday life. It is considered the 'happy accident' inherent in science research, one of the main forces that has steered scientific progress (Merton, 2006). It is also a common experience that helps us to innovate and to be creative. Yet, it has been already argued more or less explicitly that an alternative way to actually help information-seekers burst filter bubbles may be with serendipity, namely by algoritmically inscribing the possibility to encounter alternative and opposing unexpected views (Makri and Race, 2016).

After having contextualized and positively questioned the value of internet serendipity, the paper will frame a potential “right to internet serendipity”, as an epistemic tool able to both create a common platform through which expressing various concerns which academia already developed concerning the socio-political risks embedded in filter bubbles and echo-chambers, and to facilitate the emerging of regulatory frameworks. Indeed, the fundamental intuition of the paper is the epistemic need to produce a vocabulary capable of capturing the complexity of the discussed issue. Our current conceptual toolbox, in fact, seems no longer fitted to address new ICT-related challenges: we fear and reject what we fail to semanticize (Floridi, 2014). 

Taking into account that the interdisciplinarity of the paper, the research methodology benefits both from direct sources of documentation and from data collection, processing, interpretation and verification. In order to carry out the analysis, we will focus on the development of the theoretical framework for a critical assessment of the filter bubble effect through the literature search, collection, and analysis. 

The paper will first analyze the literature on the filter bubble effect. Secondly, it will briefly deepen the relevant actors – algorithms, users and online intermediaries. Thirdly, it will develop the notion of internet serendipity as an individual and collective value and make a critical understanding of the notion of rights to internet serendipity and its potential applications, ultimately concluding on opportunities that such notion presents for contributing to the current debate on internet regulation and on the democratic drawbacks of filter bubbles created by internet’s over-personalization.


Bozdag, E., & van den Hoven, J. (2015). Breaking the filter bubble: democracy and design. Ethics and Information Technology17(4), 249-265.

O'Hara, K., & Stevens, D. (2015). Echo chambers and online radicalism: Assessing the Internet's complicity in violent extremism. Policy & Internet7(4), 401-422.

Floridi, L. (2015). The onlife manifesto. Springer-Verlag GmbH.

Race, T. & Makri, S. (2016). Accidental Information Discovery: Cultivating serendipity in the Digital Age. Chandos Publishing.

Merton, R. K., & Barber, E. (2006). The travels and adventures of serendipity: A study in sociological semantics and the sociology of science. Princeton University Press.

Pariser, E. (2011). The filter bubble: How the new personalized web is changing what we read and how we think. Penguin.

Urbano Reviglio della Venaria