June 8, 1996 in Nation/World

Net Legends Spread Like Wildfire Computers Accelerating Urban Myths To Speed Of Light

Tim Grobaty Knight-Ridder Newspapers
 
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A while back, you might’ve heard, there was a forest fire near some town up north a bit and after it was put out they found the charred remains of a scuba diver, still wearing all that diving equipment.

What the heck was a scuba diver doing in a forest? Well, turns out he was swimming in the ocean when one of those water-scooping firefighting planes came by and … you see where this is going?

It’s a bit of weirdly interesting news that’s been zapping around in chat groups on the Internet of late.

Interesting, but not true. It’s called an urban legend, and you’ve heard a million of ‘em:

Firefighters rescue old lady’s cat from tree, grateful lady serves firefighters tea, friendly firemen wave bye-bye to lady as their truck runs over freshly rescued cat.

High-speed motorcyclist dies when he hits a housefly that goes into his brain through his eyeball.

Poodle in microwave.

Every town’s got one of its own. They’re spread widely because they’re funny however gruesomely, at times wonderfully ironic, and too good to not be true. People want desperately to believe them.

Generally, too, somewhere along the way, they pick up a stamp of credibility as the storyteller notes that the old cat-loving lady was his aunt or that he saw the scuba-diver story in the newspaper, as one chatter on the Internet declared.

Back in the old days, the stories spread by word of mouth, which, as most people know, is lightning fast. Now, with the popularity and saturation of personal computers and the Internet, you can fire up a yarn this morning, launch it from Long Beach to London, Lebanon and Latvia, and by supper it’s a legend.

In fact, there are several groups and sites on the Internet that collect, verify and discuss all manner of urban legends and folklore. The Usenet newsgroup “alt.folklore.urban” posts a collection of frequently asked questions within its own group as well as on the World Wide Web, along with an astonishing compendium of hundreds of such legends.

Some well-meaning legends also have popped up for decades, most notably the one in which people are urged to collect and turn in the poptop tabs from aluminum soft-drink and beer cans to help pay for kidney dialysis machines.

That one’s been a recurring bit of misinformation since the 1950s, and before that was the more wickedly ironic misinformation that urged smokers to turn in cigarette wrappers to buy time for people who needed iron lungs. (There are, it should be noted, real programs that are similar to the bogus ones. Campbell’s Soup, for instance, really does trade school supplies for soup labels collected by students and families.)

The Internet itself became the subject of a recent urban legend warning of an e-mail virus that, if a computer user opened an e-mail with the words “Good Times” in the subject header, would destroy the data on the user’s hard drive.

One Web site on the Internet is devoted solely to urging people to think twice or more before spreading alarming legends.

Psychology student Charles Hymes, who’s writing a paper on the Good Times hoax, notes on his Web site that “right now, the (urban legend) messages are only an annoyance, but with the explosive growth of the Internet it’s only a matter of time before someone’s reputation, career or bank account is ruined.”

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