Surfin’ the Web

I can’t remember who first coined the term “surfing” as a metaphor for strolling around web servers. Technically, I should be old enough to remember this event, but practically I’m probably already too old for still having an alert memory ;-).

Anyway, I’m sorry to say that whoever came up with the metaphor didn’t do a good job of describing the process. In the defense of this person it should be noted that at the time the term was coined there was most likely no way to imagine the popularity of both the term and the activity in one’s wildest dreams.

Whatever. In my personal impression the process of using a web browser much more resembles a strolling from this corner to another corner and back. You stay for some time at a nice place and then you continue to move around. Everybody can do it; you don’t need any training for strolling the web in the same way that you don’t need any kind of training to stroll your neighborhood.

Surfing, on the other hand, requires a big deal of skill and training. This pastime is reserved for a limited selection of aficionados. I most likely couldn’t do it (well, maybe the small ripples ;-) although I have to admit that I never tried.

(source: Wikipedia)

What I did try, I distinctively remember, was a new tool I stumbled upon by sheer chance. Back in the early nineties, when I was a researcher at the a university in northern Germany, we already had e-mail, FTP, talk (does anybody remember talk?) and yet I still couldn’t help perusing the content of the local FTP server in search for new gadgets.

And there it was: NCSA Mosaic and this was its logo: Mosaic logo (source: Wikipedia)

All new and shiny and I have to admit that at first I didn’t have the slightest idea what it was good for. I found out soon enough (here is the first URL I ever typed into a web browser: http://www.uni-paderborn.de) and was stunned by the idea. In a matter of minutes a group of colleagues were gathered around my desk and equally enthusiastic about the discovery.

At that time the choice of websites was pretty limited and basically consisting of academic institutes and universities. And yet, it was clear to us that this had to be the next big thing.

Where was I? Ah, yes, the surfing metaphor. This article may be able to shed some light on the original question although it fails to identify a human origin by name. But wait, the clues are good enough to start a search in the Usenet archives. And (phew) there it is.