Stop Surfing!

Published on Author Christopher Fahey6 Comments
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Not me.

I’ve had enough of the term “surfing” when talking about “what we do when we use the web”. It was a terrible metaphor when it was first invented, and it’s only gotten worse. This morning on the radio I heard a journalist describe a terrorist using a computer to view terror videos with the word “surfing”.

Surfing implies a kind of un-seriousness to using the web, as if it was just playing around. But in my experience at least half of my web usage is pretty serious, not goofing off at all. Like many people over the age of 18, I use my computer for work-related activities like research, productivity. It’s hardly surfing when I am posting a wireframe deck to my company extranet. It’s not surfing when I am checking my web-based email, researching a content management system, or searching via Google. It’s not even surfing when I’m blogging, as I am doing right now.

Surfing also implies moving around from place to place quickly, but much of my web usage consists of spending a long time on a single page (reading or entering information), or interacting with web-based applications.

What would be a suitable replacement for the term? “Browsing” doesn’t cut it — browsing implies a particular kind of action, such as using a directory to find a book on amazon.com. “Using”?

Do we even need a cute jargony term for this? Can’t we just use the specific term for what we’re actually doing with the web browser? You know, reading, writing, researching, reporting, shopping, viewing, playing. But please, no more surfing.

6 Responses to Stop Surfing!

  1. “obviously, you’re not a golfer.”
    surfing is about going with the flow… surfing the web is just that; cruising naturally from one site to another in response to your what’s around you. Doing research, writing, or working is not surfing— but the term has become part of our culture (just like ‘channel surfing’) -it’s the fun reactive part of our web activity. when i describe the serious part of -internet activity- i just say that i’m working.

    -love the site… i found it surfing the web last week. seriously, i was cruising from site to site hoping to find something sweet.

  2. @chauncey: It’s true that sometimes I do, indeed, “surf” the web in a pretty accurate reflection of the metaphor’s purpose: randomly bouncing from site to site, going with the flow. And in that sense, the term is accurate.

    But most of the time I am doing something, and that’s the context in which the continued use of the term irks me. The origin of the metaphor comes from a time when most Web use was indeed pretty casual (especially for the kind of person who comes up with cute metaphors like “surfing”), but nowadays for many people the web is predominantly a mission-critical tool.

    It’s like referring to all travel by automobile as “joyriding”, calling all conversations “chatter”, and calling all reading “skimming”.

    Of course, you raise a good point: Even the productivity-related web tasks I do have an air of fun to them sometimes, and of course I’m always a bookmark click away from lapsing right back into surfing again.

  3. I think the term surfing is quite appropriate for what it means. One of the definitions over at dictionary.com reads:

    Informal To look at a variety of things casually, especially while browsing the Internet or television channels.”

    So the term itself is quite apt, it’s just that some people don’t bother to differentiate properly. Shame on them, not the term.

  4. Well, the networked aspect of online computing is new, so we tend to focus on that which is novel, even if distracts us from that which is more essential. Over time, as Microsoft’s worst nightmare comes to fruition and the distinction between the operating system and the network fades away, we’ll stop talking about networked computer usage and non-networked computer usage as if they were essentially different.

    Assigning only one specific verb (“browsing”, “surfing”, etc.) to browser usage implies that there’s only one narrow way to use a browser. It’s as if we tried to describe kissing, speaking, singing, and eating with one word because they all involved your mouth.

  5. i agree that ‘surfing’ is not quite the right term. my impression of using the internet (i’m a researcher, so i use it for work too), is navigating a series of dimensionless spaces via a system of trajectories … i’d opt for something related, at least conceptually, to this strange spatial-but-not-quite-spatial experience. maybe like ‘traverse’?

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