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Bearing in mind that the Internet had barely lost its virginity in 1996, the fact that Jennicam’s daily mundane activities received over 100 million visitors weekly made Internet history for the seven years (!) it was activevia

A guide to ‘breaking’ the internet

Jog on, Kim – you’re not the first to have sent the WWW into overdrive, accidentally or otherwise

Last week saw a historic showdown of astronomical proportions play out on our screens. A close encounter for the post-internet age, it simultaneously demonstrated the most technologically advanced and most basically-Photoshopped of man’s achievements to date. Both, respectively, broke the Internet. As Rossetta mission scientists made history by landing a probe on a comet for the first time, back on earth Kim Kardashian posed nude on a pedestal for Paper magazine. To the delight of sapient beings everywhere, the comet landing garnered more tweets – but just about everybody was googling the hell out of “Kim Kardashian” in the aftermath.

But what does #CometLanding vs. #BreakTheInternet tell us about what it takes to “break the Internet”? 2014’s favourite idiom, the phrase has come to mean anything from Obama wearing an ill-colored suit to Solange wearing an awesome one. But, in the early days of the web, whether it could break was a legitimate fear; in 2014, fears over its rapid, untenable expansion are bringing those fears back to the forefront. The autocomplete suggestions for “could the Internet” offer an insight into this deep-seated anxiety of the human race: “could the internet be turned off”, “could the internet explode”, even “could the internet become conscious.” 

To “break the internet”, then, forms an everyday part of virality vocabulary as well as the kind of function-drive fear that usually accompanies something as huge and unknown as the online world tends to be (see also: the ocean, the afterlife). In recent times, moreover, and as these technologies become more part of everyday life, the phrase has been bandied about as a reaction to the increasingly meta memetics of our time: the kinds of self-referential holes-in-holes-in-holes that capture the communal imagination to the greatest extent. With a definition for this slippery phrase nearly pinned down, then, here’s our guide – and short history therein – to totally breaking the internet.


In 1970, on an Oregon beach, highway engineers could only come up with one answer to the problem of removing a 45-foot long, deceased beached whale from the shore: blowing it up. This is the kind of “urban legend” you might have heard in the local bars and playgrounds for 20-odd years after the event. The viral hit that occurred when viral hits weren’t really possible, television footage of the legendary event eventually emerged, initially being VHS-taped and sent across America before being picked up by the earliest video-sharing sites online. With dead whales also prone to spontaneously combusting due to their own gases, the spectacle has endured to become one of the most enduring – and literal – phenomenons to frequently “explode” the Internet.


Jennicam was the personal website of college student Jennifer Ringley. So far, so late-90s. The clues in the ‘cam’: allowing viewers to watch her daily activities, her website was a live webcam that transmitted static shots at three minute intervals. Bearing in mind that the Internet had barely lost its virginity in 1996, the fact that Jenni’s daily mundane activities received over 100 million visitors weekly made internet history for the seven years (!) it was active. As she reveals in a This American Life interview in June 1997, one male visitor to her room caused the server to crash altogether. Conceptual artist, cyborg subject or normal college student, Jennifer Ringley – we salute you.


Where were you the day that Wikipedia went dark? On 18th January 2012, the world’s sixth most popular website joined a blackout protest in protest of the US Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) being debated by congress at the time. The acts, they said, could have fatally damaged the free and open internet. Before the world exploded with frustration at losing its second brain, however, savvy browsers found plenty of simple ways to bypass the shutdown.


No doubt about it, Taylor Swift is smashing it lately – and, light years apart from a One Directioner who, say, accidentally favourites a porn star’s tweet – she’s got social media wrapped around her neatly-manicured finger. Going meta-interwebs at the height of her new album promotion, Swift brought a well–loved Tumblr meme to life when she not only wore a ‘no its becky’ t-shirt, but posted it on her own Tumblr page.  See also: Ryan Gosling/MacaulayCulkinception.


Remember Y2K? The millennials amongst you might be hazy, so, in brief: Y2K was a global anxiety around what would happen when computers interpreted 00, a year marked with only two digits, as 1900 rather than 2000. But plenty of other date bugs have made people nervous going into the digitised age. For nervous neeks everywhere, 9/9/99 presented a similar problem – 9999, a number used to mark the end of a file, could mean that files everywhere abruptly stopped processing on that date. Nothing happened, by the by.


SETI at Home didn’t exactly set out to break the internet, but it did seek to transcend the network’s design for a (much) higher purpose. Set up in 1999, SETI at Home was (and still is, by all accounts), an online public volunteering project that used distributed computing to analyse radio signals and search for signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence. The largest Internet project ever realised, it caught the attention of Dazed and Confused – we interviewed its founder, Dan Werthimer, for our All Saints fronted issue (yep). We wonder if he tweeted about the Komet or the Kardashian?


Uh, so Twitter just went big. A little blue bird told us that the company has just made every single public tweet findable. That means that your first tweet, previously hard to source, is now incredibly easy to find – along with any other 140-character cringeworthy broadcast.  Here’s how they did it, and here’s how you do it. It hasn’t broken the internet, yet, but it might just make you break down.


There are some mysteries you just don’t want to be solved. Twitter account @Horse_ebooks was one of those: the random, bot-like account that just happened to tweet meaningful nonsense, and nonsensical meaning, out of the floating digital ephemera it assimilated. The big reveal came about a year ago, when Horse_ebooks was revealed to be part of a larger art project by artist Jacob Bikkila. As the twitter account did once say: “Don t worry if you are not computer.” Cue broken cyber hearts.


Contrary to popular belief, the Internet isn’t in the Cloud(s). Companies like Google, who use underwater fibre optic cables to carry internet traffic around the world, have recently come up against a foe more terrifying than European data protection regulation: confused sharks. Cables have suffered a series of shark bites of late, and nobody can figure out why – some have suggested the great whites confuse the electrical signals for fast-moving fish.


For true life tales of how to really break the internet, look no further than the world’s most notorious cybercriminals. Forming a neat meta-moment that perfectly sums up the acutely self-referential layers that really connote ‘breaking the internet’, though, is an unreleased film about said Hackers. Not the Jonny Lee-Miller/Angelina Jolie cult classic, but rather a documentary starring infamous real-life hacker Adrian Lamo and other controversial figures. Narrated by Kevin Spacey, Hackers Wanted (2009) failed to get a conventional release and was later leaked onto BitTorrent. Did Lamo leak it? No, but he certainly got the irony: “A film about overcoming barriers, about new technologies, about thinking differently, had to come to the public eye by being hacked out of the hands of people who, after making a film about the free flow of information, tried to lock away that information forever.” Go figure.