Surfing the Internet

An excavation of perhaps the most infamous pop cultural misappropriation of surfing—what it seemed to mean originally, what it means now, and what it can tell us about riding waves.

Light / Dark

Try “surfing the internet” for the origins of that once-futuristic, now-antiquated term and you’ll find the first wave of articles mis-crediting a librarian from upstate New York named Jean Armour Polly. Surfing is strange that way, a form of movement that rarely leaves you at your expected destination. Or, when it does, it rarely leaves you there with linear efficiency, but does so rather through indirection, a sequence of movements you can never again re-create. 

What Jean Armour Polly should receive credit for is such indirection, a self-mythologizing wake left in the first groundswell of internet history. Polly lays claim to “surfing the internet” on a technicality: In June 1992, her reference appeared in the first published academic article to use the phrase—a distinction rendered utterly meaningless by the web itself, where all writing equals publishing. Only by surfing the web further will you find that many uses of the metaphor predated Polly’s. It’s depicted in the 1991 comic book  The Adventures of Captain Internet and CERF Boy. And computer scientist Mark McCahill (the father of Gopher Internet protocol) used it online in early 1992, before Polly’s article was circulated. And before him, a bunch more dudes in Silicon Valley had been using it colloquially. And before them, decades before the internet existed, philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote about “surf-boards [riding] along the electronic wave,” to say nothing of the durability of surfing as cultural metaphor in general (see: channel surfing, couch surfing, crowd surfing, et cetera). 

Polly’s own inspiration for “surfing the internet” came from a similar reference that preceded hers: an Apple Library mouse pad depicting an “information surfer” riding awkwardly and totally out of position on a wave that looks unmistakably like those on Oahu’s North Shore in winter. (Visually, it’s a perfect candidate for the @barrel_dodgers_anonymous Instagram handle.) 

In the pre-commercial era of surfing the web, anonymity and pseudonymity reigned. It didn’t matter who you were online. It was better that no one knew. It certainly didn’t matter who got credit for bringing the language of the web into existence. Identity and attribution seemed to matter only in hindsight, once a certain level of legitimacy had been established by money flooding the web during the dot-com boom. 

After Polly claimed the term, surfers started sending her hate mail, she told a local newspaper in 2019. Evidently she was unaware that a “claim” is also surf slang that describes someone excessively celebrating one of their own rides—a clear violation of surfing’s unwritten rules. At the time Polly did her celebration dance for “surfing the internet,” that kind of posturing was still endlessly ridiculed by actual surfers—much less so in the present day, where self-promotion by way of the social web has infected every facet of culture, surfing included, and you can now find those who compete on the pro tour enthusiastically claiming some of the most forgettable surfing ever claimed in surfing history. 

What’s clear in hindsight is that the origins of “surfing the internet” matter far less than the simple fact that so many people unanimously and independently agreed that the web was at one time surfable, even if they failed to grasp why. The misrepresentations of actual, literal, ocean-bound surfing that accompany its budding usage show how little early users of the web understood about the subject of the metaphor. Polly said she chose surfing as an analogy because “it’s hard. You need some skill. You never know if there are going to be sharks.” 

Yet nothing about surfing the internet is hard—quite the opposite— and neither does it inspire a fear of sharks. No one at the time seemed able to account for what aspect of the web made it surfable beyond the strictest dictionary-defined manner in which users navigated from link to link—loosely comparable, at best, to the act of surfing. 

If the term once was culturally accepted without question, to speak of surfing the web now sounds like something that only a ’90s dad in pleated khakis and a tucked-in T-shirt would say. The phrase has receded from the popular consciousness because we have come to regard life online differently. In other words, no one really says that anymore because no one really does that anymore. Those conditions vanished just as quickly as they had come together, the way they so often do with good surf of any kind.

The world’s oceans and the World Wide Web are equally big, spanning the exact same distance, and most “surfers” access both only from their edges. It’s easy to experience a sense of awe at the size of the ocean as we stand before it. It’s much harder to experience the same awe as we stand before the web, a sea of information, an ocean of content. We are warned of sinking too far—the deep web, the dark web—so we ride across its surfaces until we reach the comfort of shore again. 

Surfers are, by necessity, particularly sensitive to changes in their environment. A storm must gather at the perfect distance from land, and at just the right angle to enter the swell window of any given stretch of coast. Finding good waves requires knowing, at any particular moment, the wind and swell direction, the swell height and period, the movement of the tide, and the effect that all those factors have on each surf spot. Sometimes, even when you know all that, it just doesn’t happen. 

It’s easy to experience a sense of awe at the size of the ocean as we stand before it. It’s much harder to experience the same awe as we stand before the web, a sea of information, an ocean of content. 

The surfer who most embodies the era of surfing the web, Dane Reynolds (a surfer who, by his nature, would never claim such a thing), put the ocean’s fragile alchemy into perspective on Marine Layer Productions, his now-defunct blog:

i always think about how lucky we are that there’s even an ocean, and it’s not too hot or too turbulent and it’s not made of acid that burns our skin off. and how lucky is it that the land tapers into the ocean in just the right way so that when lumps of energy approach from a thousand miles away they gently rise up and crash at just the perfect speed so that we can wave our little arms and match their speed and hang at the crest weightless for just a second before sliding down the face. free to ride it in any way you please. and there’s not just one of them. there’s tons of them. they keep coming. all different sizes shapes and speeds. every day they’re different. endless joy.

Surfers spend a pathetically short amount of time engaged in the joy of riding waves, usually less than a couple of minutes per session. In a sense, as surfers, we know “surfing” is a bad way to describe surfing. “Paddling” or “floating” are more accurate summaries of how the majority of our time is spent. 

Which is to say that surfing is a totally unnecessary, inefficient, highly transitory form of movement that nevertheless forces you into an awareness of the constantly changing environment around you. So when surfing the web came into existence in the 1990s, we should have understood that such a highly transitory form of movement, so dependent on the fragile balance of environmental factors, soon would be rendered obsolete by the rapidly shifting technological and financial conditions around us.

We turned out to be pretty terrible at predicting how the web would transform our lives. We once thought of it as ephemeral. Now we see it as a more permanent place of record. We thought of it as superficial. Now it’s where life is lived—the public square, the school, the workplace. We thought it was something that helped us get to information quickly, but, in destabilizing our trust of information, it’s also made it harder to establish a clear sense of truth by producing so much utterly useless data. 

When surfing the web entered the popular consciousness, criticisms of it were similar to those of channel surfing or actual surfing—the same as those of the archetypal beach bum: that the pleasure surfing the web gave us would make us lazy. 

A 2006 Pew Research Center poll declared, “Surfing the Web has become one of the most popular activities that internet users will do online,” ranking only behind email and using a search engine in how respondents said they most commonly used the web. But none of the questions posed in the actual survey contained the word “surf.” Instead, Pew asked, “Do you ever go online for no particular reason, just for fun or to pass the time?” 

One often finds in Pew polls the unhinged and slightly accusatory tone of a crazy aunt or uncle, whose line of questioning is clearly meant to lead the respondent in one predetermined direction or another. The questions often tell you more about the country’s changing sentiments than the answers. “The internet is increasingly a place where Americans just hang out,” the poll concluded, which by today’s standards would seem an impossibly naive description of how people spend their time online—showing how drastically perceptions of the web have changed. 

The web is now viewed as essential. Surfing is generally regarded as recreational. We understand that very little of what happens on the shores of the internet at present qualifies as surfing. It’s no longer a place we visit for recreation, like a surf spot, nor is it a place where surfing would seem to enter the picture as a top-ranking pursuit. 

It appears no Pew poll in recent years has bothered with the question of how much time people spend “surfing the web.” That term became obsolete by the early 2010s, due partly to fundamental changes in how we interact online. More importantly, it disappeared because the era when using the internet felt like a frivolous pursuit had expired as well. 

By March 2021, your Crazy Uncle Pew had instead concerned himself with coaxing respondents in the direction of our collective anxiety over how pervasive internet usage had become, finding that “85% of Americans say they go online on a daily basis” and “31% of U.S. adults now report that they go online ‘almost constantly,’ up from 21% in 2015.”

People rode waves for centuries before anyone called it surfing, and the Europeans who encountered it on expeditions throughout Polynesia had just as little idea how to give language to what they were witnessing as early explorers of the web. In the most-cited early account, a member of Captain James Cook’s 1777 Pacific voyage saw a local tribesman in Tahiti’s Matavai Bay riding waves in a canoe and, unsure what to call it, described the pursuit with a kind of stunned admiration: “I could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea.” 

But surfing in the colonial era, and in the early days of the internet, was ultimately shaped by that twisted piece of the human psyche that cannot help but want to take ownership of something beautiful, and in doing so mess it up for everyone else. Colonization in Hawaii set off a series of plagues and cultural clashes that killed 90 percent of the Indigenous population, and by the late 1800s outside business interests held title to 90 percent of Hawaiian property, according to Matt Warshaw’s definitive account, The History of Surfing. “By any measure, the nineteenth century was a disaster for surfing,” Warshaw wrote. “The era came to be known as surfing’s own Dark Ages.” 

Early web colonialists, too, found indigenous communities forming along the digital shores and saw dollar signs. Surfing on the web met its decline as, one by one, the communal zones transformed into proprietary ones. Corporations began dredging the open web into their own lucrative channels and moving users inland to their easily contained streams. 

More recently, Mark Zuckerberg attempted to reheat surfing as online metaphor during Facebook’s rebranding to Meta, which was accompanied by an unsurprisingly tone-deaf animated video of him and Maui pro Kai Lenny surfing together in the Metaverse. And Zuckerberg’s own personal rebranding has involved plastering Instagram with photos and videos of himself foilboarding, wakesurfing, and using media appearances to talk about his “extreme sports” endeavors, which he says include surfing “15-foot wave[s].” 

Any surfer with an awareness of the sport’s past cannot help but read headlines like “Mark Zuckerberg adds 110 acres to controversial 1,500-acre Hawaii estate” with a certain level of astonishment at the ignorance and disregard for history, perhaps even finding some very dark justice in the knowledge that before Captain James Cook could leave Hawaii, he was clubbed and stabbed to death on the shores of the Big Island’s Kealakekua Bay, then dragged ashore for dismemberment.

Early surfers of the web may have struggled to translate the term because, in certain ways, the metaphor completely sucks. A web is something you get caught in. A net is something that catches you. Surfers catch waves. You aren’t supposed to get caught. To get “caught inside” is to find yourself in the most treacherous zone where waves break, the very thing to avoid. By comparison, “the cloud” works somewhat better than surfing as a metaphor for life online. The cloud lets you know that you don’t have to engage with it directly, and that you can’t control it, but at the same time it’s fucking huge, it’s hanging over you all the time, and it might precipitate the kind of biblical storm that washes away your entire world. (Consider how much of our digital ecosystem’s clouds are hosted by Amazon to understand the possibility of such a storm coming to pass.)

Environmental metaphors are especially useful because they provide definitions that we understand are subject to change in much the same way that we understand the weather—or a surf forecast—is subject to change. They’re also great in helping us escape the sterility of most tech jargon, like the hard-to-parse dialogue on “Web3”—the latest iteration, now coming into existence—which tells us absolutely nothing about how to relate to our environment. Surfing the web, imperfect as the metaphor was, helped people to see past the internet’s cold architecture, and the cloud did much the same.

To see these terms together, in their totality, is to see an online creation myth—a new world coming to life around us. It lulls us into thinking of the metaverse not as futuristic or prophetic, but as an inevitability that in many ways is already here with us, enclosing us in its weather. As with surfing the web, each new environmental metaphor becomes yet another self-fulfilling prophecy that receives its true definition in hindsight.

Maybe there was something portentous to surfing’s first arrival to the mainland United States, just beyond the mountains that form Silicon Valley’s western border, in 1885, when three Hawaiian princes visiting Santa Cruz rode waves formed by a sandbar where the San Lorenzo River feeds into the Pacific.

The princes rode long, heavy, traditional Hawaiian designs, hewn from local redwood. Surfing at that moment was still weathering its post-colonial hangover and didn’t gain any real popularity for another half a century, in part because boards like those long, heavy, traditional redwood planks—often weighing more than a hundred pounds—were so difficult to carry down to the beach, let alone ride. As board design improved in the twentieth century, it changed not only the way that people ride waves, but the way that surfers relate to one another. 

If you surf the internet for images of “surfing” today and then surf the internet for images of “ancient surfing,” you will be quickly reminded of the most essential fact of how surfing has changed since it first arrived in the mainland United States. Paintings and sketches of the ancient Polynesians tend to show them riding waves together. Photography of surfing in the present day tends to depict people riding waves alone. 

This idealized lone-rider imagery cuts against the reality that surfing has endured multiple booms in popularity, with the most recent, pandemic-related growth spurt causing surfers to cry foul at the insane overcrowding in some areas. Yet surfing in its modern form is still all about riding waves alone. Riding waves together in our modern understanding of surfing violates the accepted etiquette, an innocent mistake or a joke between friends at best. At spots like Malibu, which have become too overcrowded to sustain such etiquette, it is the equivalent of blowing through a busy intersection without bothering to tap the brakes.

Improvements in board design, most significantly the contributions of Tom Blake, explain exactly what forever altered the way that surfers perceive one another. In the 1920s, Blake took the same shapes ridden by the princes in Santa Cruz and hollowed them to reduce their weight—a design he patented in 1932—and later, in 1935, added a fin. Without these innovations, surfing may not have so easily regained popularity in the twentieth century. The fin enabled surfers to navigate across the wave face with a level of control they never had before, providing a rudder to steer by, and with that ability surfers began wanting waves to themselves. 

Surfing became an increasingly self-centered pursuit, eroding that pure sense of awe at being caught up in an act of nature. You see that erosion in the way that surf photography and cinematography have tightened their focus around the maneuvers enabled by the fin, on or above the face of the wave. And you hear it in the way that people like Zuckerberg describe surfing as an “extreme sport,” diminished to the realm of landlocked pursuits like skateboarding or motocross, which place the action of the individual at the center rather than the whole unlikely environmental miracle that unfolds to make riding a wave possible. 

The fin, like so much progress on the web, was a contribution that forever made surfing more user-friendly, bringing us together while turning us against one another. This is not to shake a fist at progress, but to observe how, over and over, we choose to relate to one another with the benefit of it. When we are handed a fin, it is so much easier to turn this innovation into a self-glorifying hall of mirrors, much harder to let it inspire reverence for the elevated grace with which it lets us move through the world. • 

In September 2006, Zuckerberg issued an apology for failing to explain what would kill surfing the web in sufficiently geographic terms. “We really messed this one up,” the confession began. “When we launched [Facebook’s] News Feed and Mini-Feed we were trying to provide you with a stream of information about your social world. Instead, we did a bad job of explaining what the new features were.”

Until then, moving across the social web still pretty much matched the experience of surfing the rest of the web. It was an ocean greater than anyone could experience in its entirety, and users navigated it by moving from link to link. With the release of News Feed, the body of water changed beneath users’ feet. The ocean was now a stream, and this drew online outrage as well as IRL protests outside Facebook headquarters.

The first line of Zuckerberg’s apology implied that if only he’d announced how the body of water had changed—or, more accurately, how Facebook’s new features had altered it—users wouldn’t have been so upset. People could grasp the difference between a stream and an ocean. A stream washes over you, which is quite the opposite experience of surfing, where you move over the water. The same goes with the notion of a feed, where you don’t so much eat the news as have it fed to you like cattle facedown in a trough in preparation for slaughter, or hospital patients intubated and pumped full of the horrors of the day.

Whichever of Zuck’s metaphors you’d prefer to have inflicted upon you—by stream or by feed—they marked the moment when an active experience became a passive one, a change in the paradigm of how we related to our online environment. This move toward passivity has only accelerated since then, as recommendation media such as TikTok and AI-assisted search takes control of the discovery process that users once navigated themselves. 

The writer Ben Thompson has charted the web’s progression “from user-directed to computer-controlled,” up through the present, noting, “The first version of Facebook relied on users clicking on links to visit different profiles; the News Feed changed the interaction model to scrolling. Stories reduced that to tapping, and Reels/TikTok is about swiping. YouTube has gone further than anyone here: Autoplay simply plays the next video without any interaction required at all.” 

As Big Tech understood how the recreational pleasure of surfing aimlessly online converted to profits, they began constricting users to ever-narrower tributaries of their own control, gathering our data and cycling more of the same back down our streams, keeping users safely 64 THE SURFER’S JOURNAL upstream, away from the unruly open oceans of the web. The links we once navigated in the era of surfing the web, the surest way out of the social web’s tributaries, grew more scarce. In turn, much of the internet took notice and was reshaped in the image of the social web, and yet again online life is being reshaped in the image of recommendation media and AI to even further discourage users from active engagement.

If surfing the web in the most basic sense meant going from link to link, now most sites work in the opposite direction, consolidating what might have existed before across multiple links into one infinite scroll. Where we used to surf, now we “doomscroll.” Is there any other kind of scrolling? That there isn’t tells you the extent to which the experience of the web as a place of recreation has been erased.

Surfing has been co-opted as a cultural metaphor and a marketing gimmick so often that it’s easy to dismiss any interloper who never bothered to understand it on an experiential level.

All of the web has become less surfable, more web-like. If anything, the web now surfs us: Every site interrupts you with a reminder that you are the one being caught—a prompt to create a new login, or remember your old login, or accept a cookie policy. Where we once navigated freely, we now run aground into paywalls or rotted links, ending the ride before it begins. 

The deep, dark depths of the web that we once stood at the edge of have been tamed and civilized. We don’t surf. Corporations define our world. We live in the mostly commercialized zones where no wave has ever been ridden: we Uber and Lyft, Slack and Zoom, Grindr and Tinder, Prime and FaceTime, Google and Airbnb. 

Even outside the apps where most of online life is now lived, browsing seems far more accurate than surfing to describe the majority of our behavior, engaging the way you would in a store, mall, or city center. 

Surfing is a low-friction experience. The goal of the web at present, as any tech marketer will tell you, is to get as sticky as possible—to capture your data and then use it to keep you stuck where you are in order to sell you something. It’s a high-friction experience that at its best creates the illusion of low friction, making it harder to move fluidly across the web as we once did. Where surfing the web was meant to celebrate the virtue of unfettered movement, it has since been replaced with the vice of captivity.

In 1978, acid demigod Timothy Leary spoke of surfers as “throw-aheads” who had discovered earlier than the rest of humanity the values required to inhabit a coming environment that sounded a whole lot like a metaverse. “The key to post-terrestrial living is going to be grace and aesthetics,” Leary told Surfer magazine in an interview with The Surfer’s Journal founder Steve Pezman. “There’s no more constraints on linearity, of four walls.… It’s tied to surfing because it means that we’ll be freed from gravity, and we can be totally into style and grace.” 

But if the web ushered in the future Leary described, it did so with much less harmony than he’d hoped. And neither has ocean-bound surfing moved any closer to that vision since Leary gave it praise. If surfers in the pre-colonial era rode on crafts recycled from their natural environment, in the present most ride toxic chunks of foam and fiberglass destined for landfills. If they once rode free from terrestrial concerns, now overcrowded surf spots in California, Hawaii, and everywhere else surfing has taken root around the world are not bastions of grace and aesthetics, but the same chaotic fight for finite natural resources that you see reflected on land. 

On the web, as in the ocean, we haven’t freed ourselves from the constraints of the terrestrial world as Leary predicted. Instead, we have replicated its tensions while making the problems of the terrestrial world more severe. The web could hardly be described as a place where people live with grace and aesthetics. Rather, it’s a place where, much like ocean-bound surfers, beneath the surface-level grace and aesthetics, even greater discontent has been sown. 

Leary acknowledged that surfers hadn’t yet practiced in their own lives the higher values learned from riding waves. “In a sense, it’s a dilettante situation. The next step is to create the future, to take responsibility for it,” he said. 

That sort of call to action will probably leave many surfers uncomfortable. I know it makes me uncomfortable. We’ve come to regard surfing as a sport, a form of recreation, a lifestyle at best, a humbling form of communion with nature at most. But regarding it as something more comes with responsibilities that, empirically speaking, very few among us have been willing to assume. 

Surfers are conditioned to approach the claims of outsiders like Leary with skepticism, in much the same way that we approach early claims to surfing the web with skepticism. Surfing has been co-opted as a cultural metaphor and whored out as a marketing gimmick so often that it’s easy to dismiss any interloper who never bothered to understand surfing on an experiential level before including it in their own bold proclamations. 

There’s also something about technocrats, from Leary to Zuckerberg, pushing visions of the metaverse that are clearly at odds with whatever higher values might be learned from a thing like surfing. Leary believed that we should be preparing to leave the planet behind—and that surfing could help us move toward this transcendence—but in the hands of Zuckerberg and the other power-hungry executives running global corporations, this quickly reads like an excuse to devalue the planet while continuing to disenfranchise people of their place on it, in exchange for the promise of another cheap dopamine hit and the vague notion of online influence. 

If there aren’t any higher values contained in the experience of riding waves, it’s hard to understand why surfers get so profoundly upset every time someone claims surfing as a cultural metaphor. Maybe there’s plenty to surfing that Leary got wrong, but if he was right that there are greater moral obligations contained in it, there must also be a cost to our failure to enact them in our corporeal existence—not in the social streams, the corporatized clouds, the name-branded metaverse, or whatever gravity-free post-terrestrial life Leary and other new-age technocrats have in mind. 

Those spaces are mere reflections of the way we live on the only surf-sustaining planet we’ve got. But if we surrender the responsibility that Leary called us to assume, we continue to allow others to shape our physical and virtual existence according to their own codes. 

“How lucky we are that there’s even an ocean, and it’s not too hot or too turbulent and it’s not made of acid that burns our skin off,” Dane Reynolds wrote. 

The ocean still exists just beyond the bounds of human control. It can still teach us how to live as throw-aheads of our own kind. It isn’t too late to rediscover it.