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Question: What’s surfing got to do with it?

Question: What’s surfing got to do with it? Andree Hollander <[email protected]> asks, "People continually talk about ‘surfing the Internet.’ Where does the word ‘surf’ come from? I didn’t think that the word ‘net’ would be something with which the word ‘surfing’ would be connected."

We happen to know the person who’s credited with the first use of the term "surfing the Internet" – Jean Armour Polly <[email protected]>, author of The Internet Kids & Family Yellow Pages, 2nd Edition, and publisher of Net-mom News, a weekly 2,000 word email newsletter that focuses on issues surrounding kids on the Internet. For sample issues and free subscriptions, check it out at the URL below.


Rather than answer this question ourselves, we asked Jean to tell us the story.

Answer: Yes, Nexis credits me with the first published use of the term surfing in relation to the Internet, back in 1992. [Nexis-Lexis is a popular pay-per-use newspaper and magazine searchable archive, for which journalists have a fondness. -Glenn] You can read that original article and hear the tale, entitled Birth of a Metaphor on my Web site.


This is has become a cause celebre in surfing circles, who equate the phrase with mindless "channel surfing." I certainly intended no harm; in fact I meant to compare navigating the Internet respectfully to a sport that takes great skill and ability. Back in the early 1990s, you needed great skill if you wanted to use the Internet for anything besides email.

Remember that in 1991 and 1992, the Internet was not as we know it today. It was much harder to use, there were no search engines or Web catalogs as we have now, and you had to memorize lots of arcane commands. It was an art, not a science. Today we navigate the oceans using the Global Positioning System (GPS); in those days navigating the Net was more like ancient Polynesian wayfinding: memorizing star pairs at each horizon, reading patterns of phosphorescence in the waves, and knowing the habits of pelagic birds.

All this is in the article referenced above, but here’s a brief excerpt: "In casting about for a title for the article , I weighed many possible metaphors. I wanted something that expressed the fun I had using the Internet, as well as hit on the skill, and yes, endurance necessary to use it well. I also needed something that would evoke a sense of randomness, chaos, and even danger. I wanted something fishy, net-like, nautical.

"At that time I was using a mousepad from the recently defunct Apple Library in Cupertino, CA, famous for inventing and appropriating pithy sayings and printing them on sportswear and mousepads (e.g. ‘A month in the Lab can save you an hour in the Library.’) The one I had pictured a surfer on a big wave. "Information Surfer" it said. ‘Eureka,’ I said, and had my metaphor."

I should mention that the closest I have come to surfing is as follows: I’ve wandered into a surf shop once, I have watched people surf on TV, and I paid homage to the Duke (considered the Father of modern surfing) statue on Waikiki the last time I was there.



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