Webdriver Torso is a YouTube account that uploads a new video (like the one above) on to the internet every 20 seconds. And every video is more or less the same: red and blue rectangles jumping on a white screen, with a soundtrack of different test tones.
Webdriver’s YouTube channel has uploaded almost 80,000 of these videos, and no one has any real clue what they are. There are, of course, lots of theories. What follows is a timeline of the Webdriver Torso mystery.
March 7, 2013
Webdriver Torso YouTube channel is launched. There is no activity on the channel for months, until…
August 14, 2013
…the first video on Webdriver is uploaded. It is called 0.455442373793, but the video is only viewable in France, and users have to pay 2 Euro to watch it. The video is a short clip from the cartoon Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
Sept 23, 2013
Webdriver Torso starts uploading approximately 400 videos a day. Every video is an 11-second long slideshow depicting a red and a blue rectangle in random arrangements with electronic tones. At the bottom left-hand corner of the video there is a slide number from 0-9 and the text caption “aqua.flv”. (Does this have anything to do with Aqua Teen Hunger Force?)
Oct 09, 2013
Webdriver Torso uploads the only video that is different from the others. It is called 00014, and is of the Eiffel Tower lit up at night. At the end of the video whoever is holding the camera pans down to the balcony they are standing on. The viewer can briefly see what looks like a laptop open on a browser, with something like Facebook open.
Various internet people have concluded that the video must have been shot from the balcony of a hotel. This person on Reddit thinks that the video must have been shot from the Pullman Hotel. Webdriver interacts with this video on YouTube, leaving the one line comment, “Matei is highly intelligent.” Who the hell is Matei?
Feb 7, 2014
WIRED publishes an article about the art of finding obscure YouTube videos. In the process they find one of Webdriver’s videos and link to it on their website, and ask their readers to comment with any theories as to what it might be.
Three days later, Dan Lo Bianco comments on the WIRED website that he thinks Webdriver is “probably the modern equivalent of number stations - probably involved in cryptographic communication but no way to know for sure and bound to be surrounded in rumour and conspiracy theory.”
April 23, 2014
Brendan O’Connor writes an article for the Daily Dot about Webdriver called ‘Is this mysterious YouTube channel trying to contact aliens?’ O’Connor suggests that the videos might be generated using Selenium, a tool used “for automating Web applications for testing purposes, but it is certainly not limited to just that.” One of the tools Selenium offers is something called WebDriver. “WebDriver is a tool for writing automated tests of websites,” reads the WebDriver FAQ. “It aims to mimic the behavior of a real user, and as such interacts with the HTML of the application.”
However, Selenium denies having anything to do with Webdriver Torso, and state that it is more likely that the videos are trying to make contact with aliens.
April 25, 2014
Boing Boing catch on to the idea that Webdriver might be a number station. Basically, a number station is a type of shortsignal radio station that broadcasts lists of numbers or incomprehensible Morse code messages. Number stations were used during the cold war to communicate secret messages between spies.
May 2, 2014
The Guardian claims to have the solution to the Webdriver mystery, reporting that Isaul Vargas, a New York-based software tester, recognised the videos from a conference on automation that he attended 1 year earlier. “Considering the volume of videos and the fact they use YouTube, it tells me that this is a large company testing their video encoding software and measuring how Youtube compresses the videos,” Vargas told the Guardian.
This theory is quickly shut down after Vargas tracks down the people who gave the presentation at the conference, a British company called YouView. They explain that some of the videos in their presentation were similar to Webdriver’s though not identical.
That same day, the Webdriver Torso account displays some strange behaviour, Liking one of its own videos, suggesting some type of unpredictable human control over the presumably automated uploads.
May 8, 2014
Internet activity around Webdriver Torso peaks as bloggers and Redditors compile their own theories about what it is, ranging from alien contact to machine sentience.
A comprehensive blog post by an Italian blogger claims (and provides a good amount of evidence) that the Google office in Zurich is responsible for the video uploads, and that they are a part of an ongoing project looking into 3D video uploads on YouTube.
After posting this expose, his blog gets peak traffic from Switzerland. Google Zurich and YouTube refuse to comment.
May 15, 2014
When “Webdriver Torso” is typed into the search bar in YouTube, the screen is transformed into red and blue rectangles. (I tried it, and it still works). The Italian blogger takes this for corroborating evidence that his theory is true.
Although, a more likely explanation is that this redesign of the YouTube layout to imitate the Webdriver Torso aesthetic just signifies that Google are aware of the now popular channel and the theories surrounding it.
Occam’s Razor is a philosophical tool that says, “the most likely explanation is probably true.” If I were to use Occam’s Razor on Webdriver, I would probably conclude that Google (or some other big tech company) are using YouTube to test some new way of automating uploads/experimenting with data management.
But this is a deferral of the more mysterious question: What is the intention of the people who are uploading these videos? Why are they doing it? To what end?
Webdriver instinctively looks freaky, maybe sinister. But if Google is behind it, it suddenly becomes normal, easier to swallow, even though we still don’t understand what the technology is or what it’s trying to do. Postulating Google as the answer for a mysterious digital phenomenon ties up all the loose ends without actually tying up any of them.
If we don’t know why Google are making these videos, and they haven’t admitted it, then why shouldn’t I still believe that they are made by aliens?
My answer is aliens. I want it to be aliens. Or sentient computers.