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For Mike MacDonald, an interest in ungulate mammals was less important than everlasting glory. During a 2009 San Diego radio broadcast, the 29-year-old Web developer had a tattoo artist ink three giraffes onto his left shoulder, thereby setting a world record for Most Giraffe Tattoos on a Shoulder. While MacDonald had successfully beaten the record set by Australian Daniel Fowler, his triumph was fleeting. Beaten but not cowed, Fowler struck back 3½ months later, adding three tattoos on his shoulder—thereby setting a new new world record, of four giraffe tattoos on a shoulder. "As long as I am the man with the most giraffe tattoos on a shoulder," Fowler says, "I will die a happy man."
Guinness World Records does not a have a category for most giraffe tattoos on a shoulder. Instead, MacDonald and Fowler battled for the title through a website that's threatening to usurp the London-based behemoth's 56-year hegemony of the world-record industry: the Universal Record Database (urdb.org), the superlative compendium of the Information Age. "Our spirit is pure democracy," says Dan Rollman, 37, the Canadian-born, Brooklyn-dwelling co-founder of the site. "We take the power of the Internet, democratize world records, and create an online space where anybody can set a new world record."
Rollman has record-breaking in his biology. At 6 feet, 7 inches, his all-time-favorite Guinness superstar is the late Robert Pershing Wadlow (1918-40) who, at 8 feet, 11.1, set the record for the tallest man to ever live. After coming up with the concept for an antiestablishment online record-keeper in preparation for the 2004 Burning Man festival—the annual drug-infused cultural orgy held in Nevada's Black Rock Desert—Rollman has held multiple titles, including Longest Hand Coo (24.64 seconds), Most Bananas Fit Inside a Pair of Pants While Wearing Them (60), and Most Times Whistling Happy Birthday in One Minute (16). Although his feats have long since been eclipsed, the world-record mogul appreciates the ambition of his peers. "Everybody wants to feel they have something new to bring to the table," he says.
Since officially launching URDB on a shoestring budget in 2008, Rollman and his co-founder, Corey Henderson, have built the company into a 12-employee operation based in lower Manhattan. URDB now has 10,000 registered users—many with little patience for traditional world-record bureaucracy. "It's opened up the playing field," says Matt Kelly, a 23-year-old social media consultant from Brisbane, who co-holds the world record for Longest High Five. (Kelly and a partner covered a distance of 4.2 kilometers with their hands in the air before consummating the high five). "The everyday Australian can go out there and break a record right now. It's extremely difficult to do that with Guinness." Rollman says he has raised between $500,000 and $1 million and is in a second round of seeking seed money.
URDB's greatest success so far, however, is in generating buzz from ridiculous marketing stunts. A company event—replete with live music and the setting of new records—drew nearly 1,000 spectators earlier this month at the SXSW festival in Austin, Tex. Later in March, Toyota will hold a live-streamed, record-setting palooza in Los Angeles called Prius Records, where hybrid enthusiasts can challenge 200 world titles. (Jet Blue (JBLU) and Saucony have also paid URDB to stage similar publicity-generating events.) Rollman has already appeared six times on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon after being discovered by segment producer Jim Juvonen, the former world record holder for the Longest Suspension of Tape Measure While Standing on One Foot. Rollman parlayed the appearances into a game show pilot for NBC, and this fall Workman will publish the first of two URDB record compilations. "We're seeing significant revenue from brand partnerships and media deals," says Rollman. "We anticipate being profitable within 12 months."
Despite the complicated records it tracks, much of the site's success lies in its simplicity. Let's say you're a 66-year-old man living in Nova Scotia with preternatural strength, excellent balance, snowshoes, and a 40-pound Buddha lawn ornament. Perhaps you want to set a world record. All you need to do is get the camera rolling, strap on your snowshoes, lift the Buddha over your head, and walk 100 yards posthaste. Then you finish the stunt in 1:51.81 minutes, submit the clip to urdb.org, and wait a few days as Rollman's team compares it with the 6,000-odd records in its database and those listed on various Internet sites. If everything checks out then—ta-da—a new world record is set for Fastest Time to Carry a 40-Pound Buddha 100 Yards on Snowshoes.
This is precisely what Doug McManaman accomplished earlier this month. URDB recently verified the Nova Scotian's latest world record—his 64th. Like many other record mongers, McManaman turned to URDB after growing frustrated with the competition. "I was dealing with Guinness World Records for over a year, and I found them very hard to get information from and very slow," he says. "So I was looking on the computer and I ran into URDB."
Despite his many accomplishments, McManaman isn't the most prolific URDB record holder. That world record belongs to professional juggler Brian Pankey of Springfield, Ill. At last count, the 34-year-old held 707 world records, including Longest Time to Balance a Loveseat on Chin (an impressive 6.1 seconds). One of Pankey's recent record-setting attempts—Most URDB Notifications (88)—is a rather meta-ambition that refers to the number of comments posted on his URDB profile. "I was always the last kid to get picked in gym class," says Pankey. "Now [I'm] considered the most prolific record holder in history."
Such record-breaking prowess hasn't gone unnoticed. In 2009, Guinness managing director Alistair Richards and Rollman sat down together in New York for the record-breaking industry's equivalent of Yalta. "There was fierce mutual respect on both sides," says Rollman. "They felt we were the most interesting world-records organization to come along and were really interested in the ways we were interacting in the New Media space." Although Rollman says both sides discussed a potential collaboration, Guinness bought a site in February 2010 called Bragster, which allows users to share videos of each other's dares. The acquisition came to fruition, Rollman claims, "soon after we let them know we were not in a space to think about any long-term partnerships." Guinness is currently using the site's platform to build Guinness World Records Challengers— which will allow Web users to compete with each other online for world records.
Yet Guinness downplays any potential world-records cold war. "Folks like URDB keep you on your toes," says Katie Forde, director of digital operations, who also points out that Guinness devotees have been able to submit challenges on the company's website since 2001. "I wouldn't say it was a direct response. It was more of a natural progression." Jamie Panas, a Guinness spokesperson, describes URDB's relative standing in similarly pointed terms: "We're happy for folks like URDB to take an interest in the world of superlatives."
Still, URDB continues to expand its base. The site is planning to add a feature that allows some members—in a Wikipedia-lite sort of way—to track records themselves. It's a useful tool if, say, you're looking to reclaim the world record for Most Giraffe Tattoos on a Shoulder. Finances and the approval of his fiancée willing, Mike MacDonald still plans to wrest back his record from his arch nemesis, Daniel Fowler. "The universe remains out of balance while Daniel holds this record," says MacDonald. "It is my duty to regain the title. Mark my words: It will happen."