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Browsing the web is a common daily task for more than a billion users, and we do not pay much attention to it. We just “browse to a place” or ask our laughing friend across the table “where she is on the Internet” since we might want to “visit the same place” having the same experience she’s having.

Even Microsoft is using this analogy as a tag line to its well-known logotype saying:

Microsoft Logo, with the strapline 'where do you want to go today?'

But technically speaking, we are still at the same place at home or at work downloading content to our browser and not really visiting a place on the Internet. The content comes to us – we’re not moving to the web server. So why do we speak as if we are?

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closed as off topic by Vitaly Mijiritsky, ChrisF, JohnGB, JonW Jan 21 '13 at 9:56

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Just want to say that I've never said "browse to". It was always "go to" or "navigate to". Frankly the first time I heard it was on stack exchange. Perhaps it's a Br. Eng. import rather than Am. Eng.? Same thing applies, I suppose. Why "go to" if you're not physically going anywhere. –  Roddy of the Frozen Peas Jan 18 '13 at 17:19
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Also Timbl used the term in his original proposal for the Web: info.cern.ch/Proposal.html –  Tom Scott Jan 18 '13 at 17:31
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Hush! If anyone realizes that all the "streamed" internet is actually downloaded, all hell will break loose and people will start asking why they can't keep what's already on their machines! –  Kerrek SB Jan 18 '13 at 22:01
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My father cancelled a subscription to a Dutch internet magazine after they wrote how Google "searches the entire internet in less than a second". –  gerrit Jan 18 '13 at 22:18
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This may be a question for English Language and Usage, but I really don't think it belongs on this site. An English-specific linguistic question about the internet isn't a UX question. –  Vitaly Mijiritsky Jan 19 '13 at 12:20

16 Answers 16

up vote 88 down vote accepted

It's called abstraction.

Greatest achievement of mankind, I think.

If we abstract things in our mind, we can use them with lesser cognitive efforts and integrate them better in our lifes and thinking-models.

For example the Internet, it's not a real place: it's a bunch of tubes...I mean servers, to which we send requests, but it is easier to handle if we just pretend it is one big place, in which we can visit different parts.

Every designer and engineer should be in pursuit of creating great abstractions like the Internet.

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As an old Internet (yes I capitalize it) user, the pedant in me hates the "logon to ..... website". No, typically you don't log on to most websites, you just connect to them, whatever, but the term has stuck even when it's not appropriate. –  Rich Homolka Jan 18 '13 at 17:06
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You don't send requests, the computer sends packets. Which are made up of bytes. Which are made up of bits. Which are (usually) represented as some sort of electrical impulses (yes, radio or light counts). Which is physics at work. And just how do you perceive the content? Photons striking the retina causing electrical signals in the optic nerve to the brain. Abstracting all that away lets us worry about the important part: why we call it "browsing somewhere on the 'net". :-) (And yes, I upvoted this answer.) –  Michael Kjörling Jan 18 '13 at 17:26
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Here's the map of that big place: internet-map.net –  user117 Jan 20 '13 at 14:36

Probably for the same reason that computers have 'files' and 'folders'. The concept of accessing information from (great) distances, like going some place or browsing things displayed at a place is easier to grasp that the technical truth.

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It's a matter of abstracting relationship and direction.

The reason why the direction for the metaphor is one from here to there is because of goal oriented perception. Or in other words, the essential and for the context of this metaphor defining idea is that:

  • information is not here, otherwise I wouldn't be needing to look for it
  • information is in other places (note that the word browse actually is a metaphor that comes from animal behaviour of scouting and picking food, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Browsing)

Thus for this action of aquiring information your goal is defining the direction the metaphor or image conveys, that is: To go where the information is or where you think you have a chance of finding it.

If you think this explanation to arbitrary or does not make sense, consider the metaphor of downloading something to your computer. With the same reasoning you'll see that the direction is opposite, because you do not want to go to where the information is, but in the case of downloading something you want the information to be transfered or come to where you are.

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You can ask a similar question to NFS video game fan that why does he feel that he is driving an actual car when he is simply pressing buttons on the keyboard.

Even if you are sitting in front of your system only while using internet, your browser still has to send a request to the server. So in a way, you are still visiting the server virtually.

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Think about what is said in reference to older forms of document:

  • "Turn to page 7"
  • "Flip to the index"
  • "Find the full citation in the references section"
  • "Go to chapter 4"
  • "I got to page 80 before getting bored"

Some of these are phrases meaning moving yourself to a place, used metaphorically to mean placing your attention at a particular point within the document.

Those are the phrases that continue to make sense when the form of document changes away from being bound-up paper. Others no longer make sense because they are about the physicality of paper.

So we leave "turn" and "flip" behind but continue to use the "go to" positional-attention metaphor when we talk about placing our attention in the web.

Or as a Zen master would put it, "It is MIND that moves".

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+1: I totally agree with the broader answers that others have given: that it's an abstraction and a metaphor of what we're perceiving. However, I would disagree that the metaphor was completely intentionally constructed; I think you're spot-on that it formed out of prior English language usage. I swear there's a broader spoken/written language concept that covers describing a receiving activity in an active participating nature, but I can't think of the term. –  Slipp D. Thompson Jan 18 '13 at 23:37

It's not only abstraction, but metaphor. We use metaphor to simplify communication and to simplify thinking about concepts which are themselves abstract.

Teenie Matlock http://www-psych.stanford.edu/~tmatlock/pubs.html has a bunch of papers about this from about 10-15 years ago; e.g., "Metaphors We Surf By": http://www.ischool.utexas.edu/~i385e/readings/Maglio1998.pdf

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Browse: Noun, to casually look or read.

So, when you are going through different sites/pages on the internet, you are, literally, browsing. And as Andreas notes, we co-opt terms to represent new concepts. The definition of "surfing" is literally, to be carried to shore on waves while on a surfboard. Yet it has been a common term to "surf the web" for quite some time.

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As a note, I can "browse" to the webpage by hitting cache. I may not even connect to your website. To be 100% accurate, we'd have to eliminate any connnect or network terminology

Remember that the web was born at CERN, a research institution. The original design and intent of the web was to have physics research papers converted to hypertext and interconnected. As you went to this (very alien to us) web, you were just reading, browsing and reading these physics research documents. The browsing metaphor is of being in a physics research library, being able to find the docs referenced in the Footnotes automagically.

Only later did we have more actions available. There were no images in the first versions of HTML (the Internet without cat pics? how did we survive then...) So now you can buy, which doesn't fit browse as well. Now you can make phone calls, or do email, which don't fit browse that much either.

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Dude you know one of those physicists had to have converted an image to ascii art so they could post their cat doing something stupid in like the first 5 minutes. –  Erik Reppen Jan 19 '13 at 3:29

It's just the language that evolves creating new meanings for words in order to express concepts that didn't exist before.

For example in Italian you would never use the word per word translation of "go to the home page" or "where do you want to go today" to express the same concept, because the italian language evolved in a different way.

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If you started with the internet a long time ago you were rather encouraged to think of the web as being some vast cosmic information resource by the fact that:-

a/ You used Netscape Navigator to do it with

and

b/ For a while, Navigator used a logo of an old fashioned ship's wheel set infront of a background of stars in the sky with lines of 'the web' across the sky:

http://blogs.cornell.edu/newmedia11cc522/2011/02/09/netscape-navigator-old-school-style-week-3/

There was actually something quite magical (initially) at being able to hook up to a computer in another country.

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+1 for the trip down memory lane. Those where the innocent days, where everything was possible. –  Benny MCSA Office365 Jan 19 '13 at 10:47
    
Browse was used as the word before Navigator - it is used in the original proposal –  Mark Jan 20 '13 at 1:05
    
Ah yes, a trip down the ol' information superhighway –  David John Smith Jan 20 '13 at 12:55
    
No, in the innocent early days of the internet you 'surfed' not 'browsed' - as the internet was a cool thing you could do (very, very slowly) on your Apple Mac ! –  PhillipW Jan 20 '13 at 23:15

I would like to add on the answers of others (obviously it's an abstraction and a metaphor).

The prior prior usage of "browsing" was a reference to certain animals' eating behaviour and, in particular, was in contrast to the behaviour of "grazing".

A HCI lecturer at university told me that the use of the term browsing (of a book, a shop, and later the Internet) was meant to imply a more active process of being presented with options (at or above head height) and being selective to eat the best, low-hanging (i.e. accessible) options.

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+1 for this valuable lesson! –  Benny MCSA Office365 Jan 20 '13 at 7:09
  • Download files (HTML, css, images ...) into the browser is a developer's vision.

  • Going to a site is the user's vision.

As UX practitioners we use techniques to visualize it (whatever it is) with the user's eyes, from the user's standpoint.
Bad UI experiences frequently stem from publishing the implementation model, a design sin perpetrated by programmers (I'm one).
The great success of the Internet is in part due to how it abstracts the HTTP files thing, showing the user a UI made of pages.
No technical elements are visible, like when one drives a modern car needs not be aware of the quirks of internal combustion motors and thermodynamics rules.

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We say "browsing the Internet" because the verb browse implies taking a fleeting look at something or glancing at or through something or grazing... in this case the Interwebs. Having said that, I have never heard "browsing to a site", always browsing thru a site or browsing the Internet.

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Well we use something called a 'web browser' which does what it's name implies, allows us to browse web pages on web sites. One could consider the term "browser" an abstraction, but technically, browsing is a word that well describes what it allows us to do; "To look through or over (something) casually".

But regardless of that, I would argue that the piece of Microsoft marketing that you rendered in your post is a completely separate idea.

Microsoft ostensibly devised that slogan and depiction because if your mind considers the text on the bottom first "Where do you want to go today?" it could then consider the text on the top to be the answer to the question "Microsoft".

Most effective marketing has to do with leveraging the perception of the subconscious mind in order to manipulate consumer attitudes on a non-rational level. It wouldn't be effective if they phrased it, "What technology do you want to use today?" or even more ridiculous, "what product do you want to spend money on today?" because both those questions are too concrete; your rational mind comprehends them as asking specific things. Whereas "where do you want to go today?" is intentionally unclear, preventing your rational mind from considering rational thoughts like, "I don't have any intention of spending money on technology today." or "I think I'm going to use a lot of Linux today because I need to get Bacula working on the new machines I switched on last week." Your subconscious mind can theoretically be persuaded by this kind of textual content. The question "where" doesn't mean to have anything to do with the web. If anything it means to refer to your technology usage and purchasing considerations.

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when somebody asks have you finished entire book for exam? you might answer "Just browsed through pages". Same applies here. Browsing or surfing etc. are just words coined by commeners for their understanding. As long as you understand these (without going technically into them) that would be fine.

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Actually, your basic premise is wrong. Sure, the web server sends you content, but only after you have gone to it and asked for it. If you didn't go to it, then it wouldn't know where to send the page to.

If you are still puzzled, just remember that the unit of mouse measurement is called a Mickey. Once you know that, you will realise that there is little point worrying about any of the other terms you meet in I.T, or indeed, life.

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That doesn't answer the question about why people use the term 'browse'. –  JonW Jan 19 '13 at 21:04
    
The poser of the question implies that their problem is that they aren't visiting sites, but that the data is coming to them, so why is it called browsing? I pointed out that they do in fact visit the sites, albeit electronically, in order to tell the sites to send them the data. –  Facebook Answers Jan 20 '13 at 0:05

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