We're Happy to Report That Webdriver Torso Is Not A Viral Advertisement
Monday, June 09, 2014 - 01:13 PM
For months, the internet has been intrigued by the mystery of a YouTube channel called Webdriver Torso, which has been uploading thousands of videos that just consist of colors and tones. The TLDR crew stood by with idle curiosity, watching it all unfold and wondering what it could be, but loathe to go after it after the last time we got burned by a mysterious YouTube channel. Well, the secret is out, and we're happy to report that it's not a viral ad for a sci-fi property or a stupid art project!
Webdriver Torso started eight months ago, uploading videos that are exactly 11 seconds long and feature inscrutable titles like "tmpUK8 Em." They consist of Red and blue rectangles and seemingly random tones. They look and sound like this:
Viewers concocted theories both mundane and fantastical: that it would eventually turn into an Alternate Reality Game, that it was being procedurally generated by a robot, that it was coded messages to spies, that kind of thing.
For all the attention the channel got from mainstream media outlets like The BBC, The Guardian, and The Washington Post, it took an Italian blogger called "Soggetto Ventuno" to actually solve the mystery. He found that Webdriver Torso was just one of a number of YouTube channels that were doing the same thing, and they were also attached to (since deleted) Facebook and Twitter accounts. The Facebook account was associated with the name of a Google employee in Zurich.
And then, last week, the Webdriver Torso creators embedded an Easter egg in one of their videos, the silhouette of Rick Astley dancing from the "Never Gonna Give You Up" video.
After months of wondering, Engadget's James Trew approached Google's Zurich office and received a statement that essentially explains the entire mystery (and contains a healthy amount of RickRolling)
"We're never gonna give you uploading that's slow or loses video quality, and we're never gonna let you down by playing YouTube in poor video quality. That's why we're always running tests like Webdriver Torso."
It turns out that the videos are tests that Google runs continuously to test YouTube video upload quality. These short videos are uploaded to YouTube's servers, and then compared to the quality to the original video.
Watching these internet mysteries unfold is rarely satisfying, but for some reason, this one really worked for me. This was just a couple of guys at YouTube doing their job, automatically uploading thousands of meaningless videos a day, videos that somehow managed to transfix the internet. When they realized they were being watched, rather than come clean with a potentially disappointing explanation, they took steps to preserve the mystery a little bit and play to their audience. For once it wasn't someone trying to get us to buy something or pull one over on us. It was a happy accident that both sides were playing to make it just a little more interesting. Good work, internet.