I knew the web surfing contest was going to be hard as soon as Dragan Espenschied, a digital conservator and artist, explained the premise. Race across the internet from point A to B using only a one-button mouse: no keyboard, no search, no URL bar, no back button. It sounded almost impossible, even for someone who spends all day online, and that was before I found out my competitors had been training.
"I practiced a bit," said John Urquhart, one of three BuzzFeed employees present, with a studied nonchalance that said, we wrote a playbook, we have code words. "My keyboard is missing so many buttons, I’ve been training for years," said one competitor. "Click to kill," joked another.
Contestants gathered at the Rockaway Surf Club, a cabana bar at New York’s Rockaway Beach. Most had found out about the contest through its host, Rhizome, the internet-oriented arts organization run out of New York’s New Museum, or through Cory Arcangel, a conceptual artist best known for his work in video games and photoshop. That should give you a sense of the demographic. Though there was someone from the Coast Guard there, and a metal fabricator, and a few others who heard about the contest on Twitter and thought it sounded fun, the crowd skewed toward people who spend a lot of time on the internet professionally, either in media or art, thinking about the way the web works. Many knew each other from Twitter. It was a crowd to whom the idea of spending a sunny Sunday afternoon at the beach in a competitive clicking contest sounded too weird and exciting to pass up. "It's funny that it took the internet to finally get me to the beach," said the artist Martha Hipley.
Espenschied, a conservator at Rhizome, put on the first surfing contest with the net artist Olia Lialina four years ago in Germany. In that race, competitors had to surf their way from Amazon.com to Pirate Bay. The choice of sites was deliberate, an attempt to learn about the powers that shape the internet: in addition to obvious barriers like logins and passwords, the contours of the internet are formed by usually invisible boundaries, self-referential sites whose links turn back to themselves and deflect you from competitors. Facebook doesn’t make it easy to get to Twitter, for example. It’s very hard to get from Amazon to Pirate Bay, Espenchied told me earlier, but surprisingly easy to go from 4Chan to FBI.gov. When you can only click the links a site gives you, you’re constantly bumping up against these barriers in search of a hidden passageway.
"If you can’t type a search request into Google or Amazon, you have to explore more, and you start to understand the structures of what these huge companies think is the world, of whose existence they acknowledge," Espenschied explained.
This time, Espenchied added a preliminary round: an Amazon shopping spree. Contestants had four minutes to find three items on a list.
I stepped forward to get my list. The music got louder, pounding electronica from DJ Smart & Outgoing. My palms began to sweat. Sitting across from me, John looked in the zone. "Shoppers, open your lists!" shouted Espenchied.
I unfolded my list, and despaired.
- Neon facepaint
- Sex furniture
- 3D glasses
Have you ever really looked at the Amazon homepage? Apparently I’ve been subconsciously blocking out everything surrounding the search bar, which makes sense: you learn to ignore banner ads, and Amazon's homepage looks like it was cobbled together from them. It consists entirely of boxy, garish links for the Fire Phone, The Wire DVDs, jeans, and portable hard drives. Except I couldn’t ignore them, because they were all I had to work with.
I decided to start with the face paint. I figured Amazon would bury sex furniture deep, and plus I wasn’t totally sure I knew what "sex furniture" was.
"It’s an industrial internet, full of islands."
I clicked the "beauty" tab on the search bar, but without a keyboard, I couldn’t enter anything into the search field. I scrolled down. At the bottom there was an ad for colored pencils. Maybe, I reasoned desperately, people who bought colored pencils also bought neon face paint, because they really like colors. It wasn’t much but it was all I had.
There is an endless bounty of colored pencils on Amazon, and apparently people who buy colored pencils just buy more colored pencils.
Wait, the reviews! Maybe a pencil reviewer also reviewed face paint. I scrolled and scrolled. Someone reviewed a wig. Wigs are in the beauty section. Black wigs. Brown wigs. Wavy wigs. Human hair wigs. Cosplay wigs. Neon cosplay wigs.
Amazon is a limitless emporium of neon cosplay wigs, and the more of them you click, the more it shows you. At no point does Amazon chime in and say, "Hey, maybe you should give the wigs a rest and check out some face paint," which makes sense, because you just clicked through a dozen pages of wigs so clearly you know what you want. The browser had no back button. I was digging myself deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit of neon cosplay wigs.
Martha Hipley won, thanks to a fortuitously generic shopping list and deft use of the default menu options. John lost.
"What’s a Tabasco holster?" he asked.
"I mean, sex furniture?" I commiserated.
Though it defeated me, that round was just warm-up for the true competition: the surf contest.
"The previous rounds were a combination of luck and skill, but this one is really all about skill," said Zachary Kaplan, a community manager at Rhizome. "Can you surf?"
This is the component Espenchied is most excited about. As an internet archivist, he thinks a lot about the different forms the web has taken and the behaviors each iteration demands. Surfing had its heydey in the ’90s and early 2000s, when crude search engines like Alta Vista required a final stretch of random clicking and guesswork to get to your destination — clicking that often took you on serendipitous detours. Personal pages on GeoCities, which Espenchied is researching, were chaotic and unindexed. It wasn’t a very useful internet, but it was vibrant, eclectic, and weird.
Then Google indexed the web, weighing links and basically doing the surfing for you. With Google Now it has tried to make search vanish entirely. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest created closed systems populated by formal templates. "Surfing became more and more difficult because the web is becoming isolated," Espenchied told me earlier. "It’s an industrial internet, full of islands."
"Twitter has a lot of links, but does it have the right links?" Espenchied taunted
I couldn’t keep track of the paths everyone took in the first race, from Callahead Portable Toilets to the Frieze New York art fair. As I recall, Martha got out first, going from Callahead’s Facebook page to a Chinese art museum to to a glassblowers’ organization, but then she clicked the wrong link and ended up at some local glazier’s personal homepage. "I opened that tab and knew I was lost," she later told me.
Meanwhile someone had ended up on the CDC’s ebola page and someone else was scrolling through tweets about the Perseid meteor shower. A Gawker writer got stuck on Spin.com but pivoted nicely to St. Vincent’s Twitter feed and then to Celebrate Brooklyn.
"Twitter has a lot of links, but does it have the right links?" Espenchied taunted.
In the end, no one made it to Frieze, but some got close. Considering they started at an outhouse site, getting to a St. Petersburg Times story about MOCA seemed like an accomplishment.
Next up: Sega.com to badsonicfanart.tumblr.com.
Everyone went to the forums immediately. Smart move, Espenchied told me. Sega won’t link to this stuff, but the fans will. Alas, while everyone else clicked through mashups of Sonic and My Little Pony, Sonic and Luigi, and in one case, what appeared to be a female Sonic and Adolph Hitler, team BuzzFeed was implementing its secret strategy.
Joe Puglisi, who had tapped in when John got defeated by the Tabasco holster, wasn’t surfing anywhere. He was on Twitter, methodically clicking through page after page of names. Bad Wolf, Bad Times, Bad News — apparently Twitter has a phonebook-style directory with every profile on earth indexed in alphabetical order — Bad Son, Bad Stork, Bad Sonic Fan Art. Team BuzzFeed cheered.
"We didn’t know Twitter had a directory either," Joe said. He and his coworkers in BuzzFeed's sponsored content division had been discussing strategies for a week when John stumbled upon the directory. Their plan was to go straight for it every time. Any entity they're searching for will have a Twitter profile linking to its homepage. "You just have to be good at the alphabet."
The same strategy won them the race from Airbnb to The Rent is Too Damn High. Espenchied had been expecting people to go through YouTube comments of Airbnb ads, where people have been posting clips of Jimmy McMillan’s mayoral campaign. Martha got stuck on The New York Times site, bouncing between Thomas Friedman columns and luxury real estate listings until she hit the paywall.
"The Times doesn’t even link to itself!" she said.
For the final round, it was Martha versus Joe. The course: Facebook to MySpace. Someone in the crowd gasped.
Joe went immediately for Twitter, but Facebook didn’t make it easy. Two minutes in and he was still trapped in Facebook, running up against requests to log in.
Martha, meanwhile, had found a Facebook directory and was paging through the ‘M’s.
Joe found Facebook’s page for the Instagram app, but no Twitter yet.
Martha clicked on Miley Cyrus, whose page looks a lot like a MySpace page, but was not in fact on MySpace.Joe got to Twitter through the support button on the app page and was paging through the directory.
Martha was trapped on Miley's page, where Miley sat naked in a director’s chair with "Twitter" written on the back, looking over her shoulder.
"if we’d all done that we never would’ve gotten Sonic and Hitler. That was the best."
Joe clicked the MySpace profile and stood up, took a drink of water, clicked through to the homepage, and pumped his fist. Everyone cheered. "I am a BuzzFeed employee," Joe declared. "BuzzFeed won this competition."
Joe got an Arcangel drawing, though he said he already had one. Martha got some Arcangel "surfware" — clothes for surfing the internet— which was what she said she came for.
Outside they broke down their strategy. The BuzzFeed team had spent the week talking about what site would be the "Grand Central Station" of links. Then, Saturday, John found the Twitter directory. Wikipedia apparently has one too. They’re cumbersome, clunky pages; they feel like vestiges of another era, even if they aren’t. I have no idea why they exist, but if you can’t use search, a primitive alphabetical index becomes a powerful tool.
"Hell yeah, this was fun — I could see this becoming popular," Joe said of the competition, though he thinks they would probably take away the directory loophole.
Martha had been going for style. "I wanted to find My Chemical Romance or Fall Out Boy, some trashy artist who would take me to MySpace," she said. "I thought about the directory, but it’s just so boring. If we’d all done that we never would’ve gotten Sonic and Hitler. That was the best."