The continuous serendipity of Twitter.

Last week I read with amazement Umair Haque’s post on the NY Times potentially buying Twitter.  As the numerous comments point out, this is financially impossible for the Times and would be strategically suicidal for Twitter.  It’s also hard to come up with a case where 2 businesses, each currently without a viable business model, combined to create something of great value.

Twitter bird Despite their rapidly fading business model, newspapers and magazines continue to offer readers something that has only recently been replicated on the web: serendipity.  You flip through the pages and see something you didn’t know you were interested until you read the headline or the first paragraph.  Or you saw the display or classified ad.  Something you weren’t sure you needed became something you immediately wanted because it was on sale.

The “link economy” and RSS readers have been a poor substitute for print serendipity.  Links don’t flow and an RSS reader doesn’t achieve the anywhere near the right level of information triage.  There are tabs on my Netvibes page I haven’t looked at in weeks.  This why aggregators, tapeworms they may be, play such an important role on the web for information filtering and presentation.

Twitter, however, hits the serendipity home run.  You follow people whose interests may align with yours and they recommend stuff you might want to read. They provide a snippet or summary in 140 characters and you decide whether or not to click through.   If, over time, your interests and theirs diverge, you cancel your subscription – you just stop following.  To me it’s not “what are you doing?”  It’s “what are you reading?”  “What are you thinking about.”

Reading newspapers and magazines via Twitter is the best of all the online experiences I’ve tried – through an RSS reader, via email alerts, direct website access, or on a BlackBerry.  One format combines mainstream, alternative and “friend” media on any device.  And if I’m in the market for something, I can follow merchants who have goods and services on sale.

Despite offering a serendipitous experience, print has lost its audience, and it’s not coming back.  Seriously curious people will flock to Twitter as it is the most compelling, robust replacement.