Starfish Have No Brains

Deb and Jen operate a website devoted to trivial pursuits.

November/December 1998

Reading time min

Starfish Have No Brains

Tom Garrett

When Stanford first wired campus residences into the World Wide Web in the early ’90s, administrators imagined a powerful educational tool. Students would be able to search library catalogs from their home computers, hand in assignments via e-mail and register for classes online.

University officials never expected Deb and Jen. Now seniors, Deb Henigson and Jen Godwin launched a website three years ago devoted to trivia that is, at times, obscure and absurd: starfish have no brains, turnips turn green when sunburned, the horn of a rhinoceros is made of compacted hair. Their site, Deb and Jen’s Land O’ Useless Facts, sits on a Stanford megacomputer. Since 1995, more than a million visitors have clicked on their page, and the pair has gained national media attention and even an international cult following. “Yes, it’s totally useless,” an Orlando Sun Sentinel columnist proclaimed last year, “and yet I love this site.”

Classmates at University High School in Los Angeles, Godwin and Henigson first exchanged useless facts in high school calculus. At Stanford, where all students are given space on the University server for personal web pages, the women posted their collection -- then 40 entries -- online. At first the site drew little traffic. That changed in April 1996 when the web directory Yahoo! featured them as a “site of the week.” Visitors flooded the page. Many have been eager to e-mail more trivial facts to supplement the original collection, like “Alfred Hitchcock didn’t have a belly button” and “Donald’s Duck’s middle name is Fauntleroy.”

These days, the site, which has more than a thousand entries and is arranged as a long list, logs about 700 hits and 50 fact submissions daily. About a quarter of the outside suggestions make it onto the page. The rest are either repeats -- everyone seems to know that Maine is the toothpick capital of the world -- or don’t pass the women’s informal and highly unscientific truth test.

Why do people send in useless facts? Chris Hulley of Sydney, Australia (submitted fact: “invisibility” has one vowel that occurs five times), says he was inspired by “a brief desire for notoriety, and by the desire to thank [Henigson and Godwin] by contributing something to their effort.”

The effort is demanding. Henigson, a 21-year-old senior double-majoring in art history and visual literature, tries to correspond with everyone who e-mails the site. Godwin, also 21, is responsible for maintaining the technical side of the useless facts page. A senior English major, she runs four websites, including two pages on her family history and one on L.A. culture. That works out to a lot of computer time, especially during finals week “when I’m procrastinating.”

One decision the pair can’t put off much longer: what to do with the site next year, when Stanford will no longer provide server space. They hope to get a slot on a commercial server, where advertising could pay for any technical costs. Friends have long encouraged them to turn the Land O’ Useless Facts into a business, but neither student has been much interested in transforming her hobby into a job.

That may be changing. Henigson now says she is mulling a career as a web designer. All that work on useless facts could prove useful after all.

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