Opinion

Surfcave Destroys the Illusion of Online Privacy

Surfcave screencapture (image courtesy Kyle Chayka/Hyperallergic)

What if every image that ever passed through your web browser was published for all to see? Artists Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano have just launched Surfcave, a new Chrome browser plugin and website that turns surfing the internet into a relentlessly public, voyeuristic, and hypnotic activity.

To participate in Surfcave, users must first decide if they’re willing to take the leap: You can’t view the site without first installing the plugin that shares your images. We all have sites that we don’t particularly need others to know we visit. Can you bear having all of your browsing habits exposed and assigned to your specific username? The trade-off for that risky decision is that you get to peer into the online lives of everyone else using the site and play voyeur as well as exhibitionist.

As soon as you make the decision to confirm the plugin, a stream of images fills the screen. The onslaught comes seemingly at random — one second, the page will be filled with small Twitter avatars, the next it’s a bunch of hardcore pornography (I didn’t click to find out who was doing the surfing there), and then a bunch of technology graphics. It doesn’t kick in for a second that these are the atom trails of actual people doing actual surfing in real time.

Surfcave screencapture (image courtesy Kyle Chayka/Hyperallergic)

Until the rise of social networks, web browsing was a fairly solitary activity, and it remains a very solitary physical one. With Surfcave, we’re confronted with the inescapable, though usually hidden, fact that at this very second millions of other people are doing the same thing in the same cyberspace we are, we just couldn’t see what they’re doing. Until now, at least.

Vingiano described the project as, “born out of conversations around privacy and identity online” in an email to Hyperallergic. Beyond exploring the limits of personal space online, Surfcave also elevates the status of single images, as is particularly the case with disparate avatar pictures, business logos, and ad boxes that show up on the site. “In their place of origin they may be buried or just simply not of note,” Vingiano wrote. But on Surfcave, they take on a new, larger significance.

The other facet of the experience is that watching Surfcave is incredibly addictive. Following the non-sequitur flow of images feels like having a fragmented, surreal dream; it takes the logical flow of image-based social networks like Tumblr and Instagram and instead embraces the chaos of the open internet. Still, Surfcave has a clearer infrastructure and is easier to use than Blind Mist, a similar, earlier project from Troemel and Vingiano that explored the web’s aggregation of images. Its greater sense of purpose makes Surfcave have more of an impact on its users, who will never look at a web browser the same way again.

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