The question is in the title. Simply put, I see no reason why "surfing" in particular was chosen to describe…whatever it is we are doing when partaking in this gigantic network. I can't see any good analogues in this activity to surfing terms either. I see no surfboards (except maybe ipads and similar flat devices), I see no high tides, and there is a distinct lack of surfing terms such as "gnarly", "goofy", "hang loose" and "grommet" in the current usage of Internet lingo (although we have many other Internet-only terms instead to cope with this severely limiting shortage of vocabulary :) ).

So why do we call it "surfing the web"?

  • 4
    You don't have a surfboard with you on the Internet? How do you navigate?! Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 23:11
  • 2
    @JanusBahsJacquet …Umm…I…I don't know…uh-oh…Whoa-* sploosh *…
    – MonadBoy
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 23:26
  • You Find All Sorts Of Oddities On The Internet.
    – David
    Commented Oct 3, 2019 at 17:27

2 Answers 2


The use of surfing appears to refers to previous usages related to radio or TV:

The use of a remote control to switch channels on a TV set is quite different from the versions above as it it doesn't physically mimic surfboarding. It is surfing only in a figurative sense in that it alludes to the moving easily and smoothly from one place to another.

This has led the way to the various forms of surfing that are applied to the Internet. Like any phrase or saying that has been coined since the World Wide Web was invented (around November 1990) and the Internet became widely used, these can be dated almost to the second. The first of these surfing terms was simply 'surfing the internet'. This is recorded in the archives of the Usenet newsgroup alt.gopher in a posting headed 'Re: Size Limits for Text Files?', 25th February 1992:

"There is a lot to be said for surfing the internet with gopher from anywhere that you can find a phone jack."

The Phrase Finder

  • 4
    Of course, that leaves one to wonder how "channel surfing" ever came to be a term. I doubt that The Wall Street Journal invented it. (And I think you meant "surfing", not "serving" in your first line.)
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Aug 31, 2016 at 23:29
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    @HotLicks Maybe channel surfing is akin to looking for the perfect wave, i.e., to looking for a show that's actually worth watching? BTW, I have a surfer friend who introduced me to a term that I've found apropos on many occasions: impact zone. When you're in the impact zone, you can't go in, you can't go out, and you can't stay where you are. You're totally screwed. Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 5:45
  • Channel surfing is an activity for couch potatoes. Its use is ironic.
    – user205876
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 20:51

Here is a usage of "net-surfing" from 1991 by Brendan Kehoe of the Widener CS Dept:

Here's a question: how do other people deal with users that they think are doing no-nos around the net? One of our users had the habit of occasionally going net-surfing and doing the hit-and-run type of attempts (trying 'guest' usually), but I didn't have any real proof--only through other people. (He tended to come on about 2 hours before I'd get up to go to work.)

After a lil chat with him, he calmed down. (He's since dropped out. )

What do other places do?


Source: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!original/comp.admin.policy/A-JUIeKlPUw/RyMspUG7dkwJ

Originally found on https://thehistoryoftheweb.com/the-importance-of-being-on-usenet/

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