Apple Cider: Random Squeezings From a Mac User
Legends in Their Own Time
OK, how many people remember going to birthday parties for their friends? Who could ever forget the fun? Screaming kids, hurt feelings, and cake ground into the carpet?
No, wait, that was at my son’s birthday party last year.
When I was a kid, birthday parties were lots of fun. Lots of cake, party favors, and plenty of party games to keep the hyperactive kids entertained. One of my favorite party games—besides Pin the Tail on the Donkey—was the game of Telephone.
If you have never played it, here are the rules: all of the kids at the party are seated on the floor in a circle—or something approaching the shape of a circle. The responsible adult at the party whispers something to the birthday boy or girl, who then turns to the left and whispers the story to his or her neighbor. From there, each partygoer whispers the story to the next one in line, until the story makes it to the last child in line. At that point, the child announces out loud what the story is, and that final story is compared with the original story given by the adult.
It’s quite a simple game, but it’s incredible what happens as the story works its way around the room. It’s amazing how the phrase, “I need a quart of milk, a loaf of bread, and a jar of peanut butter,” can turn into “my cat has fleas and I need a collar,” as it goes from one person to another. It’s amazing to see how these kids pass on information which they believe to be accurate to their neighbor.
The Internet and e-mail behave in a similar manner. My first thought for this month’s Cider was to tackle everyone’s favorite topic of conversation—spam. You know what I’m talking about, right? Those pesky e-mails that tell you how to find erotic pictures of goats from Madagascar, buy Viagra at a huge discount, or offer super-secret insider trading stock tips that only you—and half a million other lucky recipients—will know about.
No, I’m going to write about a specific type of spam—the Urban Legend. Are urban legends a new invention? Hardly. Urban legends have been around for a long time. They are those stories you remember people telling you that happened to a ‘friend of a friend’ or some other anonymous authority. Many times, the reader assumes that the story is a fact (after all, who would question the authority of someone’s friend’s cousin’s neighbor who used to work for the government?).
For the record, the first Legend I remember hearing was when my younger brother—in third grade—told me that he heard from his friend’s brother that if you pressed the star key on your phone 12 times, it put you through to a super-secret war planning room at the White House.
National Security? What National Security?
What the Internet has done is quickened the pace by which these urban legends spread, and, since they arrive as text which often refers to highly-placed sources, it lends a certain amount of credibility to the claim. A perfect example of this was the time when my Mom forwarded an e-mail to my brothers and me from a National Security Organization that advised against licking the ATM deposit envelopes at your bank’s money machines. The warning explained that six people had died in Salt Lake City, Utah, after licking poisoned ATM deposit envelopes. And, with Mom being Mom, she was speeding the e-mail to us to protect us against this new menace.
While some of these legends are outrageous, others seem authentic. How can the average Internet user tell the difference?
Of course, you could always call your local media, a trusted friend, or hit the library to do some research, but the first thing I would recommend is a visit to Snopes.com. This site is awesome, and I use it at least four or five times a month at my Public Information job with the county government.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with one of the site’s two ‘Amateur Gumshoes,’ Barbara Mikkelson, who together with her husband David, have shared an interest in these urban legends for just about a decade, and maintain Snopes.com.
According to Mikkelson, Snopes is a valuable resource for people to turn to when these urban legends circulate:
We wanted to set the site up as a series of reference pages where you could come to check on the veracity of the stories you have heard. After all, when you read something, you shouldn’t automatically have to choose between believing and disbelieving what you have read. You should do some research to check out the facts for yourself.
And, can you ever research on their site. Not only do Barbara and David catalog the claims, but they also inform their visitors if the Legend is a fact, a hoax, or a statement that is undetermined or ambiguous. They also show their work, listing not only a series of footnotes to show their facts, but also linking readers to applicable Web sites at newspapers, companies, and organizations for additional research.
A look at the home page shows that the Mikkelson’s series of reference pages has grown to quite an extensive library of urban legends. Some of the topics include stories about college, sex, pregnancy, the military, Halloween, science, movies, TV, and music. Some companies, such as Disney and Coca-Cola even have their own listings outside of the main business page, due to the fact that they are lightning rods for these types of stories.
According to Mikkelson, there’s a reason why so many of these stories have been collected, and why they circulate so quickly:
On some level, there is something that these messages contain which the reader agrees with. Either a value is upheld or a lesson is taught, and that’s what appeals to the reader. Besides, we accord a lot of respect to the written word—no matter who wrote it.
Of course, one recent event which has caused quite a bit of e-mail traffic has been the tragic events of September 11th and the subsequent drama that has unfolded around the world. As with most of us, Mikkelson sat transfixed for hours in front of her TV watching the terrorist attacks in New York City, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania. Finally, as an opportunity to put her thoughts to paper, she sat at her computer to write. By the afternoon of the 11th, she had already received her first urban legend about the attacks—the Nostradamus Prophecy.
While it may seem incredible that someone would be thinking about dashing off an untruthful e-mail moments after the events unfolded, Mikkelson explained that it’s really all part of human nature:
People want to be in the know. When someone can tell their friends or neighbors about a piece of inside information that only they know, it puts them in the spotlight—it gives them a sense of power over an unnerving situation.
Since the first days after the attacks, the Rumors of War page has grown to include 73 stories—some as fanciful as a story about a firefighter who survived the collapse of the World Trade Center to a call for women to strip to their birthday suits and step outside to scare any Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorists. There’s even a link which shows that yes, indeed, the lovable Sesame Street character Bert was spotted on posters of Osama bin Laden paraded on the streets in the Middle East and Asia.
But, what’s the big deal? Come on, these things are only stories, right? What’s the danger of circulating these to a few friends?
Well, these stories can indeed be dangerous. Mikkelson points out one example—a few legends mention that customers at a few stores saw a number of Arabic-looking employees celebrating while the scenes of destruction played out. Of course, the e-mail which circulated told everyone to boycott the stores. While it may not seem like much, rumors like that are very dangerous to businesses, especially small mom-and-pop businesses which don’t have the resources of a large parent company to fall back on. It may take years for a business of any size to recover from rumors such as these—if they ever do.
Yeah, lots of people love that Telephone game at birthday parties. I think that’s why these urban legends are so interesting to people such as the Mikkelsons. Now, all someone has to figure out is how to transmit a piece of birthday cake to my iMac so I can get the full experience when I open the next urban legend that lands in my inbox.
Also in This Series
- Look How Far We’ve Come · May 2012
- A Year Apart · March 2003
- And now, the end is near… · March 2002
- Spam I Am · February 2002
- The Year of Big Changes · December 2001
- Legends in Their Own Time · November 2001
- What’s in Store? · October 2001
- Hey, I Recognize You! · September 2001
- 50 is Pretty Nifty · August 2001
- Complete Archive