The video of Gabriel Medina is 42 seconds long and has logged more than 1.2 million views. The first 9 seconds of footage show the maneuver in real time. Medina paddles into a small wave at Off The Wall, races down the line, and then completes a frontside backflip. During the remaining 33 seconds the maneuver is looped once in slow motion to highlight the mechanics of the air, then replayed again at full speed to offer the viewer a final look.
The video was posted on November 19, 2012. Five days earlier, a similar clip of Medina had surfaced on the Internet: another flip, also completed at Off The Wall in stiff tradewinds. The differences between the first and second flips are relative; the second is slightly larger, faster, cleaner, and more committed. But even if the results aren't entirely quantifiable to the naked eye, they are in the 1.1 million page views that separate the two clips on YouTube.
It took Flynn Novak nearly eight years to dial in his first backflip. Medina clearly learned faster, improving in front of anyone with broadband—and he wasn't alone. On January 5, 2013, a 16-year-old surfer named Yago Dora stuck his own backflip at Rocky Point, then uploaded the footage to the Internet. When the clip was reposted on Surfermag.com, the headline read: "Another Brazilian, Another Backflip."
Chris Anderson describes this phenomenon as "evolution in Internet time." As Wired Magazine's former Editor-in-Chief, a curator for the TED series of online lectures, and the author of a several articles, books, and reviews about crowdsourcing, Anderson has devoted a large portion of his career to analyzing the effects of technology on human progress. Recognizing the Internet's ability to amplify a learning curve, he labeled one aspect of this trend, "Crowd Accelerated Innovation."
In January 2011, he wrote a feature for Wired called "Film School," which outlines how free online video was fueling unprecedented innovation in thousands of divergent fields—within sports, the arts, the science community, among big business CEOs, the TED speakers themselves, and beyond.
He argued that while learning from observation and collaboration is by no means a 21st century development, the connectivity of the Internet has accelerated the rate at which we progress—and our exposure to innovation—almost exponentially. "Crowd Accelerated Innovation isn't new," Anderson wrote. "In one sense, it's the only kind of innovation there's ever been. What is new is that the Internet—and specifically online video—has cranked it up to a spectacular degree."
In nearly every arena that can benefit from learning through observation, Anderson went on to explain, there are now more eyes watching for innovation than ever before, which not only deepens the talent pool of potential innovators, but also forces established innovators to continually raise the bar in order to remain relevant.
Unsurprisingly, this is exactly what's happening within modern surfing. "I pretty much watch everything that drops," says Taj Burrow, "especially anything from my favorite guys, or anything that looks interesting and action-packed. And yeah, it has a huge influence on me, and probably anyone who watches it. There's just such a fast progression of maneuvers online. Everything is accessible, and it feels like anything extreme that gets made is posted immediately. Then the whole world knows about it, and everyone is out there trying to do the same thing, or go bigger, or go harder."
"You just have to look at the quality of the videos that Dane [Reynolds] posts," says Dion Agius. "You can see the progression, even in his surfing alone—and that's just pushing the rest of the world."
THE ETHER OF THE INTERNET
The best technical surfers can now routinely link maneuvers, combinations, and grab permutations that would have only seemed possible on a PlayStation a few years ago. And while "traditional" video has always been a huge multiplier in terms of how quickly surfing has progressed, even modern filmmakers can remember a time when the rate of evolution seemed—at least slightly—more comprehensible.
"One thing that jumps out is definitely a trip we did for Modern Collective," says Kai Neville. Neville is discussing the relationship between video and innovation, and his mind skips back to his generation-defining film from late 2009. The footage he's referencing appears roughly 38 minutes into the edit, and features Mitch Coleborn, Craig Anderson, and Jordy Smith.
Surfing a windy right-hander near a harbor mouth, Smith in particular goes berserk, first attempting, then landing huge no-grab reverses, alley-oops, and straight-air-to-roundhouse combos that punctuate the segment. "We were posted up on that one wave for a week," says Neville. "It was the same section over and over, so we really got to spend time watching the footage, and once we had one move locked in, the guys knew they could try something else, or try that move bigger. They really had a few moves in their minds that they wanted to pull off, and I wanted the film to build toward a climax, and the footage felt like something that was going to stand the test of time."
A little more than three years later, the results are still baffling—but as Neville considers how the Internet and online video have affected the technical aspects of surfing since, he can't help but point out how quickly certain areas have progressed. "For example," he says, "when we were shooting for Lost Atlas, a lot of the guys were trying stalefish-air-reverses in the initial filming of the project. And at the time, we thought, 'This is awesome. This is groundbreaking. The guys are killing it.' But by the end of the project, everyone was doing them, and I think that ties into what happens online. When people see what's happening, and see other guys making moves, it gives them the confidence to say, 'It's makeable. If they can make it, I can make it.'"
For most of surfing's modern age, this type of Crowd Accelerated Innovation was mainly confined to the monthly and yearly cycles of magazine publishers and film producers. (It's easy to forget that YouTube was still in beta testing as recently as 2005.) Occasionally, equipment, place, and proximity allowed for brief, Renaissance-like moments—such as the North Shore winter of 1975—but before free online video became ubiquitous, surfing didn't have a forum where the state-of-the-art was defined in real time.
"For most of my career," says Taj Burrow, "you'd hear about something, some wild maneuver that someone did on some trip, but you wouldn't see it until it was out on a video. And that was the case for almost every crazy maneuver you heard about. Now it's done and you see it and everyone is out to better it immediately, so shit is getting wild fast." "Whenever you go on a video trip," says Dion Agius, "you're constantly aware of not only what other people are doing on the trip, but what's happening in the world at the same time, which pushes you really hard. You're competing against the entire world. It's crazy the extent you have to go to get an impressive clip."
This type of proliferation leads to a hyper-vigilance—and urgency—that only intensifies the results. "Whenever you go on a video trip," says Dion Agius, "you're constantly aware of not only what other people are doing on the trip, but what's happening in the world at the same time, which pushes you really hard. You're competing against the entire world. It's crazy the extent you have to go to get an impressive clip."
For Neville, the good part about this acceleration trend is its clear influence on the progression of the sport. "I think everyone wants to try to do something that hasn't been done before," he says. "That's one of the main reasons we run around the world filming: to push progression." But from a filmmaker's perspective, he also sees a downside in the increasing focus on online film, and how it's affecting the way we frame performance. Because of the nature of his work, Neville obviously has an interest in preventing his A+ clips from leaking, but he says the athletes are often torn about whether they should upload or not, and sometimes that can diminish the significance of their accomplishments.
"Everyone has so much pressure to get something out there as soon as it happens," he says. "Everyone is really nervous that someone is going to beat them to it, that someone else is going to land the same maneuver. So it's just a shame to see someone do, like, a backflip and it's a YouTube clip. In the old days, that would have been the last wave of a movie, and I think that's the way it should be. It should be something that's celebrated and watched at premieres, and watched over and over again, instead of seeing how many hits you can get. I just think that's going to be pointless in the future. A lot of stuff is going to get lost in the ether of the Internet."
DIGITAL RESOLUTIONS FOR POSTERITY IN THE ONLINE AGE
Evolution has always been a messy process—and like time, it ultimately flows forward. The fact that progressive surfing has moved beyond certain confines, like traditional film, is a testament to the chaotic and uncontrollable nature of progress. But Neville brings up an interesting point: How do we contextualize progression, and celebrate it, when even the most dynamic clips can disappear into digital obscurity? How do we ensure a clip remains on the record to be viewed, not in real time, but as a piece of history?
The solution, most likely, is a digital product that's designed to capture innovation and stand the test of time. "I think over the next few years," says Dion Agius, "we'll see a huge focus back on quality. The Internet has become such an amazing platform for people to showcase their work, but shitty clips don't impress anymore. I think we'll see a lot of people slowing down and working on really polished parts, and then using the Internet to release these to the public."
To a large extent, this process has already begun. Neville has refocused some of his energy into producing projects that are specifically shot, edited, and packaged for online consumption, while other filmmakers have also released an array of movies as digital exclusives. In June, for example, Agius starred in Electric Blue Heaven, a digital short that was shot in a wave pool in the United Arab Emirates.
Directed by Joe G and funded by Globe, the film won its category at SURFER Poll in December. Compared to Medina's backflip, it didn't resonate across the Internet in quite the same way, but in terms of delivery and production value, there's no comparison. Running at almost seven minutes, the psychedelically hypnotic footage features Agius stomping airs in an oasis of manmade waves, while Russian models in bikinis frolic in the foreground. Interwoven between the action clips, a yellow Lamborghini tears across a deserted freeway, sand blows from the dunes of the Rub' Al-Khali, and a woman in a black burka emerges from the Arabian Desert. Side-by-side, both are representative of the state of modern surfing, but its likely only one of these films will qualify as something to be re-watched in the future, after the march of progress leaves the maneuvers in the dust.