99 Red Balloons (minus 89 Red Balloons)

Some of you may have heard that the Internet recently marked its fortieth anniversary. Technically this is true — the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANet) established the first link between distant computers in late 1969. It's kind of like saying that television is sixty-five million years old because that's when the dinosaurs were wiped out, but whatever. The Internet is forty. Like any proud parent, DARPA (similar to ARPA, but with a "D") celebrated with some balloons and a suitcase full of cash.

Wow, they're all, uh ... right there. Great scavenger hunt, guys.

The balloons were the centerpiece of an experiment, designed to test how accurately information spreads on the Internet. This past weekend, DARPA officials positioned ten red weather balloons at undisclosed locations around the country. The first group to correctly report the coordinates of all ten balloons would win forty thousand dollars. One person couldn't possibly stumble upon all ten balloons, so online communication would have to be the key. The winner was a team from MIT, who will presumably be using the money to pay for World of Warcraft subscriptions and prank-related liquid nitrogen.

Look, we here at Analog Nation are not here to tell DARPA how to do their jobs. (If we were, we'd be demanding more hoverponies.) But if DARPA really wanted to know whether information travels accurately via the Internet, we could have saved them forty grand and ten balloons.

Here's how it works:

    • Someone sees one of the balloons, takes photo on a cell phone, and uploads it to Facebook. • A friend sees the photo, comments on it, and adopts a duck for his farm. • The friend's friends see the comment and join the conversation. • A three-degrees-removed friend sees another balloon, but misses the Facebook conversation because her News Feed is out of order and her Live Feed is too long. • #Redballoons starts to trend on Twitter. • Wired posts a "How-To Wiki" on coordinating balloon hunts. • The BalloonFinder app goes live on iTunes. • #Redballoons tops the trend ranking on Twitter, fueled mostly by tweets like "LOL whut's redballoons?" and "#redballoons #redballoons #redballoons #redballoons." • A video of a red balloon gets half a million views on YouTube, though it's unclear whether it's one of DARPA's. • YouTube videos recording people's reactions to the balloon video get well over fifteen million combined views. • A giant red balloon appears in Second Life, and is immediately pelted with winged genitalia. • Reddit and Digg vote up balloon-related stories. Slashdot looks on from afar with sad eyes. • BalloonLocator, a competing app, gets stuck in approval hell at Apple and launches on Android Market instead. • iPhone vs. Droid flame wars overrun Wired's balloon wiki. • Omigod you guys, kitties! • Blogs start to cross-pollinate posts about the contest, creating a Möbius strip that has neither beginning nor end. • TMZ breaks a story claiming that all ten balloons have been found. • CNN begins to report the TMZ story as news. Fox and MSNBC polarize the issue and initiate a red/blue feedback loop. • The true location of the balloons is forever obscured and can never determined, as one half of the country believes one thing and the other half believes the exact opposite. • This happens. • Pale nerds at MIT hack DARPA's website and find the balloons' exact coordinates without having seen a single one, winning forty thousand dollars. • My mom forwards me the Mrs. Fields cookie recipe urban legend email from 1998.

There you go, DARPA. That's what forty years has wrought.