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Freaks, geeks and trainspotting - the Internet's true function

Phil Leckman

By Phil Leckman
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday Jan. 22, 2002

Quick - what's the top-earning movie of all time? That's easy - it's "Titanic," with a total domestic gross of more than $600 million. Of course, that's without inflation: In today's dollars, the top-grosser is "Gone With the Wind," which has earned the equivalent of $1.13 billion. Want more? I can tell you the all-time top-grossing movie in the world ("Titanic" again), or this week's number one flick in India (it's "Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham" - one of my personal favorites, let me tell you). What's my secret? It's simple - the magic of the Internet!

The rise of the Internet and electronic media in general has often been characterized as an "information revolution," enabling rapid access to more facts and figures than ever before. What's often overlooked, however, is that roughly nine-tenths of this "information" is almost completely useless.

When was the last time you needed to know how much money "The Lord of the Rings" grossed on Jan. 17? Or what the average temperature in Tucson was in July of 1897? It's all out there (at and, respectively), whether you need it or not.

I'm not suggesting that everything on the Internet is trivial or frivolous. Most all of this stuff is probably valuable to some specialist out there, and the Internet can be a peerless research tool, even for laymen. When my mom got sick a few years ago, my father used e-mail to contact top cancer specialists around the world, research new treatments and communicate with other patients and survivors. There's no question the "information revolution" was a great help to him.

At about the same time, however, my grandfather was enlisting my help with a "research project" of his own - he has a theory that sunspots cause whale beachings, and figured the Internet could help him finally prove it. For the record, Grandpa's not an astronomer or marine biologist, just a retired administrator with a raftload of odd ideas and an appetite for obscure facts. And with the exception of those few researchers whose jobs or livelihoods depend on having immediate access to the annual rainfall in Alabama in 1914, it's guys like Grandpa for whom the "information revolution" is best suited.

You know the type: guys who can't go to bed at night until they learn the updated daily points-per-game for each of their 10 favorite NBA players. The folks at the record store who can recite the track order for each Led Zeppelin CD, in sequence. The guy in your history class who knows the names and reigns of every king of England from the 11th century onward. In short, the cranks, the trivia buffs and the weirdos. The British call them trainspotters.

That's right, "trainspotting" refers to more than just a Scottish movie in which a future Obi-Wan Kenobi does heroin and shows off his wang. Trainspotters are people who go down to train depots with a list of the day's scheduled arrival times and record whether the trains come in late or early, just for fun.

The British Slang Dictionary at, another great reference for fans of minutiae and ephemera, defines "trainspotter" as "a usually intelligent but particularly anally retentive person (who) may be obsessed with trivia or an interest such as trainspotting (or) stamp collecting."

I have no figures (which leaves me unusually uncomfortable), but I'm betting that probably 90 percent of the people who visit or or or the archives at could be called trainspotters. The same goes for any of the other online collections of reams of trivia: at its heart, the Internet is little more than one big trainspotter playground.

And you know, that's a good thing. That's how the Internet began - as a place where scientists and other odd people could seek out obscure facts and explore their particular and sometimes peculiar interests. And despite nearly a decade of hype and e-commerce and the rise and fall of dot-coms, it still is.

Selling groceries online may not have worked out, but there's still no better way to gather ephemeral information, fast. They called the Internet boom the triumph of geekdom, but those flashy tech barons in their expensive new SUVs were never real geeks. The real geeks were too busy memorizing the capitals of Asia, or the presidents of Africa. And they're still here - trainspotters rule.


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