Welcome to the bloggy home of Noah Brier. I'm the co-founder of Percolate and general internet tinkerer. This site is about media, culture, technology, and randomness. It's been around since 2004 (I'm pretty sure). Feel free to get in touch. Get in touch.

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The death of “browsing”?

On my walk to work this morning my mind somehow wandered to the term “surf” as it refers to the internet. I began to wonder if the verb makes sense in this context? For as long as I can remember people have talked about “surfing the net,” but what does it really mean?

When you surf in the ocean you ride a wave of water, so what kind of wave are you riding on the net? I guess it could be referring to packets of data going back and forth over connections, but that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. More likely, the verb “surf” is just a holdover from the television days when people referred to hopping from channel to channel to see what’s on as “channel surfing.” So with that in mind, doesn’t it make sense to think about using another verb that might be a little less outdated?

Another term I’ve heard used in the past is “browse,” as in “browse the web,” but does this get at what’s going on here any better? I guess that browsing is a more reasonable comparison, since you can poke around and look at lots of different sites (which “surf” can mean too, I guess). However, “browse” totally misses the other side of the net, the side that allows you to interact. In other words, browse was all well and good back in the web’s categorical days, when you could browse by topic on Yahoo!.

But what about today, does browse do justice to creating a dictionary entry on Wikipedia or commenting on a blog? Is surf a valuable metaphor for what I do when I visit Bloglines and have hundreds of sites deliver their content to me?

Nope.

So Noah, now that you’ve debunked the two most popular metaphors for the action associated with the inernet, what do you propose people call it? (Wow, that sentence is way more obnoxious than it sounded in my head.) Unfortunately, I don’t quite have an answer to that question. But I’d love to discuss it, which I hope would reinforce one of my big points:

The web is different!

What I think we need is a multi-disciplinary word, since we’re dealing with multi-media. It needs to speak to the person who seriously interacts with the web, creating new things, all the way down to the person who sits back and lets the web smack them in the face. It needs to speak to more than just the traveling you’re doing from site to site, but also the things you’re doing once you’re there.

So, anyone got any ideas?

June 17, 2005