The average UK employee spends 57 minutes a day surfing the web while at work.
Surfing was first enjoyed by Polynesians in Tahiti and Hawaii as far back as 1500AD. The first printed recordings of surfing were made by Lieutenant James King in 1779. King took over the captaincy of the ship Discovery after Captain James Cook was killed on an expedition to Hawaii.
Since there was no written language at this time in Hawaii, King’s journal entry serves as man’s earliest written account of the Hawaiian sport.
So why, more than 200 years later, do we ‘surf’ the web? What links could there possibly be between using the internet and riding on top of a wave?
It all began with the radio
Radio scanners were introduced in the 1970s as a way of finding a good radio signal. The radio receiver would automatically tune or scan two or more discrete frequencies, stopping when it found a good working signal.
A similar method would be used, manually, with the television. In order to locate a decent television signal, you would have to twist and turn the dials until you were satisfied with the picture. This common process became known as ‘channel hopping’. In order to locate the desired signal, you would have to ‘hop’ between one channel and another until you were satisfied with the picture received.
The Beach Boys
In 1963, the Beach Boys recorded ‘Surfin’ USA‘. This was a massive hit worldwide, and vastly increased the popularity of the Hawaiian sport of surfing. The popularity of surfing in remote areas of Australia, California and Hawaii became well known and began to attract the interest of tourists.
Endless Summer
Following on from the success of Surfin’ USA – in 1966, Bruce Brown directed the most influential film of the surf-genre: Endless Summer.
Endless Summer centres around two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, on a surf trip around the world. They travel to the coasts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii. In the film, they introduce locals to the sport in an attempt to popularize surfing as fun and accessible to everyone.
The success and influence of the documentary was incredible. The popularity of surfing rose greatly, encouraging existing surfers to travel abroad, and introducing the thrill of the sport to a wider audience.
Popular Culture

Vans ~ The first time that ‘surfing’ had been applied to another activity was in April 1985 when Time magazine made reference to the culture of ‘Van surfing’. ‘Van surfing’ described the art of people who would stand on the top of Vans as they moved. The actions they were forced into, to remain on their feet, was similar to that of surfing.
Trains ~ The phrase would later be used when referring to a similar action. ‘Train surfing’ was a phrase introduced by The Wall Street Journal. ‘Train surfing’ had been seen many times in the movies, and was apparently a regular occurrence in South America as people rode on top of trains for a free ride.
Music ~ In 1989, The Toronto Globe and Mail introduced the term to the music industry. ‘Stage diving’ had become a popular tradition at concerts and festivals. The notion of someone being carried in midair by a crowd of people became known as ‘crowd surfing’ by the Toronto press.
Television ~ With the expansion of Cable and Satellite television, in 1986, The Wall Street Journal coined the phrase ‘channel surfing’. This was in direct reference to the well known ‘channel hopping’ term that had become widely popular in describing the act of scanning for a desired television channel.
The expansion of Cable and Satellite meant there were more channels, they were easier to find and more widely available. ‘Channel surfing’ described the notion of flicking through the channels with a television remote, as oppose to fiddling with the dials.
The Internet
With the creation of the internet, the term ‘internet surfing’ had occasionally been used, but not commonly.
‘Information surfing’ was a phrase used to describe the action of someone searching for information through books or papers, for example. Early internet users would search the internet for similar purposes (long before entertainment, social networking and advertising took over).
Prior to the 1990s, the internet was not widely popular and not widely accessible. However, in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee, a British engineer and computer-scientist, laid foundation to the World Wide Web. This created the internet as we know it today. The internet (the World Wide Web) increased in popularity as it became easier to use, faster to use, and most importantly, Personal Computers became widely available to the public.
‘Surfing the Web’ is a phrase we have all used, and will continue to use as the internet continues to expand.
But how did the infrequently used, unpopular term ‘internet surfing’ become the biggest world wide cliché of all?
A Librarian and a mouse pad
Jean Armour Polly was a university librarian in 1992, when she coined the phrase ‘Surfing the Internet’.
Polly was an early internet user, and wrote a series of articles, available online, on safe Internet services. In June 1992, Polly was writing a revolutionary paper about Requests and Comments and other technical writings about the Internet. On searching for a title, she describes:
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, CA, famous for inventing and appropriating 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.
‘Surfing the Internet’ was born. The paper was phenomenally successful. In 14 hours, the paper received an unprecedented 500 downloads.
This leads on to another interesting question: why were so many early internet users searching for ‘surfing’ online? They obviously had to search for the article in order to find it – but why ‘surfing’?
The surf-net connection
There are several top internet marketers today who are also top surfers. Frank Kern is a great example of this. Jason Moffat was one of the earliest internet marketers to hold such a great connection with online marketing and surfing.
Many people have compared making money online to surfing. Making a profit on the internet is not about ‘getting rich quick’; it is about taking time to get to know the market, learning to understand the users and where to find customers. Surfing is often described as hitting the wave perfectly. A top surfer will spend time getting to know the best waves, where to find them and how to hit them perfectly.
Both internet marketers and surfers have often spoken of addiction. In order to spend enough quality time learning to surf, travelling the world to find the best locations and putting your body on the line for the sake of adrenaline rushes, you have got to feel addicted to the sport. Thrill seeking and addiction have revolutionised the sport of surfing.
Very few top-internet-marketers claim to have access to a get-rich-quick scheme. (If you had access, would you tell anyone?) In order to be a successful online marketer, you have to hold this same level of addiction, and get the same thrill out of using the internet, working on the internet and spending time on the internet.
With the persistent online presence of Jason Moffat in the 1990s, surfing became a regular theme found on the internet. Moffat was one of the first users to own a variety of websites, optimizing his name wherever possible. Therefore, where ‘Jason Moffat’ could be found, so could ‘surfing’. Did this increase the popularity of surfing? Did this introduce pro surfers to the internet? Surely it must have lured pro surfers of the time to try out the internet. Online they could find like-minded surfers, share their ideas for locations and share their stories of travel-surfing.
Was this the true origin of ‘surfing the internet’? Do we now ‘surf’ the internet because surfing was so popular with early internet users?
Or maybe, by pure coincidence (or by memetics), two separate groups of people established the same terminology for the same thing, without ever even knowing it.
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