The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the 28-year-old Italian blogger who casually solved one of the Web’s greatest mysteries

Webdriver Torso could have been a numbers station or an alien transmission, according to the foremost theories on the cryptic YouTube channel. It could’ve been a recruitment channel for Cicada 3301. Or a secret experiment, run by faceless scientists.

Whatever else it could’ve been, Webdriver Torso was, for almost nine months, the Web’s foremost mystery: An infuriating, infectious, impenetrable puzzle, at which computer scientists, amateur sleuths and tech reporters repeatedly hurled themselves … in vain.

Then 28-year-old blogger “Paolo B.” came along, and in a week did what thousands had failed to do before him. Webdriver Torso, he wrote on his zany self-improvement blog, wasn’t any of the sexy or mysterious things people theorized — it was just a testing channel used by Google’s Zurich office, easily traced to a group of Google Zurich employees.

“THE TRUTH ABOUT WEBDRIVER TORSO!,” proclaimed the announcement on Paolo’s blog, “Soggetto Ventuno.” (Soggetto Ventuno, or “Subject 21,” is a pseudonym, so Paolo asked we keep his last name private.) He then went on to lay out his process.

First he determined that Webdriver Torso (and a series of identical, lesser-known channels) belonged to a YouTube network called Ytuploadtestpartner_torso, and registered in Switzerland.

Then he saw that network was associated with a channel of the same name — which had posted several short videos from inside Google’s Zurich offices.

Last — but certainly not least! — Paolo managed to link the account to a number of Google Zurich employees. Webdriver Torso, he concluded, was just testing software — albeit one that tested in a mysterious, confounding way.

“If you invite me to Zurich, I will pay you and your colleagues a round of Guinness (but no more than ten pints eh!),” he wrote, in a comic appeal to the Googlers he outed. “Peace?”

Since then, of course, many other outlets have picked up on Paolo’s findings — including Engadget, which confronted Google Zurich directly. (The company did, at last, confirm that it was behind the videos.) That solves the mystery of Webdriver Torso. But it doesn’t solve the mystery of Paolo — the man who, in Engadget’s words, “deserves perhaps more credit than anyone else in solving the Webdriver Torso puzzle.”

An accidental Internet sleuth

“Normally I do not spend my free time solving puzzles and mysteries,” Paolo wrote in an e-mail to The Post. “But I enjoy watching B movies, playing my ukulele in a terrible way and writing funny articles on my blog, mostly using mathematics and sciences.”

In fact, Paolo is a pretty funny character. He’s a statistician and an Italian currently living in Brussels. He blogs about everything from penicillin and ballet to zombies and the “multiverse.” (“Nonsense,” is how he sums it all up.)

He’s also on a sincere quest to complete the writer Robert Heinlein’s list of 21 activities every person should know how to do, managing “solve equations” (he studied the hard sciences in school) and “keep the accounts” (his degree was in accounting). On May 8, he got to cross off a big one: #16, “analyze a new problem.”

“Unveiling the mystery of WebDriver Torso,” he wrote next to the task, after crossing it off.

It helps that Paolo is a pretty dedicated (some might say obsessive) guy. When he set out to conquer task #19, for instance — “cook a tasty meal” — he spent almost 12 hours and 45 euro preparing an elaborate three-course meal for a panel of friends and judges. When all was cooked and eaten, he ruled the task incomplete: The brasciola was dry. The meal was not sufficiently “tasty.”

“I am a very curious person,” Paolo explained, “and when I decide that I want to dig into something I consider interesting, my curiosity is unstoppable.”

How he solved it

So it was with Webdriver Torso. Paolo encountered the videos in May and was instantly, inexplicably entranced. He began watching more of them — little 11-second clips, over and over in quick succession. Click. Play. Click.

“You would not believe how many videos of Webdriver Torso I have seen before arriving at the solution,” he said. “Thousands and thousands of aqua.flv.”

He tried watching the videos with 3D glasses. Tallying the number of times the rectangles touched, in case that formed some kind of code. Deploying steganography software to detect — and decrypt — any hidden messages. After six days, he had essentially found nothing, much like the searchers who tried those same techniques before him. Frustrated with the mystery and ready to give it up, he compiled his non-results in a blog post, hoping someone else would see a pattern he didn’t.

But in the process of writing his post, he stumbled on the website Channelgraphs, a YouTube analytics tool. It showed a link between Webdriver Torso and another, very similar account, ytuploadtestpartner_torso.

That, it turned out, was the keystone Paolo needed. Internet sleuths had gone over Webdriver Torso a million times before, finding little besides those thousands of short videos. This new account, on the other hand, was a treasure trove of tiny hints. One video showed an unusual mountain bike filmed through Google Glass … and a Google Zurich employee had posted a picture of himself riding the same bike while wearing Glass. The account was also associated with a Facebook page that interacted with two Google Zurich employees.

That changed the tone of Paolo’s finished post. “Today, after six days of intense study over this mistery [sic], I have finally an answer,” it starts out. “I know the identity of webdriver torso.”

The truth behind Webdriver Torso

By late May, Paolo’s findings had been picked up and expanded by international media outlets. Sneaky Easter eggs began to surface on YouTube: A Webdriver Torso video that became a Rickroll halfway through; curious results when users searched the video. On June 6, Google Zurich finally admitted its involvement… by changing the words to Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up.” (This office has nothing if not a sense of humor.)

“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,” they said in a message to Engadget. “That’s why we’re always running tests like Webdriver Torso.”

Personally, Paolo still feels a little conflicted about solving the mystery. At first he rejoiced. (Partly because, as he put it, “it paid for the six days of intense research.”) Then he felt a little confused over Google’s secrecy and motives. (“I was not able to understand Google’s intentions on this.”) In the end, after Google officially claimed the account, he felt relief — and vindication.

“I am relieved that finally there is an official statement from Google on this,” he wrote. “Many thanks to all the people who have contributed with precious comments on my blog.”

Paolo still hasn’t heard back from Google, though. And the offer of free beer stands.