“You just have to know where to go when.”
—William Finnegan, Barbarian Days
In 1992, a librarian named Jean Armour Polly was asked to write about the internet for the Wilson Library Bulletin.
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 mouse pad from the Apple Library in Cupertino, California, famous for inventing pithy sayings and printing them on sportswear and mouse pads (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.”
She named the article “Surfing The Internet,” and the rest is history. (What’s interesting to me, re-reading the article, is that it also contains another metaphor: mining. “Tunneling through the network matrix in search of gems and ore is not far from fact. Sometimes it is hard work, and a lot of it is working in the dark.”)
I thought a lot about the surfing metaphor last year when I read William Finnegan’s surf memoir, Barbarian Days. I was completely new to surfing when I picked up that book, and I quickly learned how the sport isn’t really about “going with the flow,” it’s about finding waves. You catch waves when you surf, but you don’t take just any garbage water that splashes up on the shore. You seek out just the right one to ride.
How much better off we’d be online, I thought, if we went back to truly emulating surfers: leaving the crowded beaches, seeking waves in obscure locations, etc. Social media has “streams” (you can’t surf a stream) or worse, “feeds” (like pigs at a trough). I want the sea, man. I want to surf again!