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Previously in Web Citations:

The Addiction Addiction

The perennial hoo-ha over "Internet addiction." By Howard Rheingold

Mirror, Mirror

The Blair Witch Project and the Net's latest exercise in self-flattery. By Josh Ozersky

The Net's Next Vice

Online gambling is set to take off. Enter (who else?) the United States government. By Katie Bacon

The Great Divide

The Silicon Valley rich are very different from you and me. By Wen Stephenson

Sim City

The virtual partition of Jerusalem is a fait accompli. By Eric Manch

Politics Made Simple

A new political site aims for the GenX mind -- and shows us what the world does not need now. By Nicholas Confessore

Front Runners

Presidential campaigns are starting earlier and earlier. Here's how the field is shaping up for 2024. By Toby Lester

Menace to Society

The hype isn't the most annoying thing about the new Star Wars release. By Gina Hahn

See the complete Web Citations Index.

Heard It Through the Grapevine
October 7, 1999

Toxin du jour
   From the Urban Legends
Reference Pages

Last April, I received an e-mail from a good friend whom I will call Jane. It related the tale of Jane's friend, who shall remain nameless. This friend of Jane's had recently gone out swing dancing and met a guy. They exchanged e-mail addresses instead of phone numbers. When said guy asked her out, via e-mail, she responded (being busy the proposed weekend) by asking him to tell her more about himself. His response, forwarded by Jane's friend to Jane, and from Jane to me and a few others, began as follows:
I am at a stage in my life where I'm looking seriously and systematically for someone I can share my life with... You seem like a nice person, and I don't mean this as baldly as it might sound, but I don't have time for twenty questions by e-mail. I met five girls Saturday night, have already booked a first coffee with three of them, and meet more every time I go dancing ... and I go dancing at least three times a week. I immediately rule out women who put up too many barriers. I don't do this because I think there's anything wrong with them, nor do I do it because I'm arrogant. I do this simply to economize on time.
Bemused, I forwarded the full e-mail to a few more people -- and so became, unwittingly, a part of chain-letter history. Two days later, I received a phone call at work from someone I had never met, never spoken to, and never heard of. Shelley of Atlanta, who had gotten my number from my e-mail signature, was looking to get in touch with one Bryan Winter, author of the above-quoted e-mail, subject of profiles soon to be published in Salon and The Washington Post, and the jerk who would launch a thousand forwards.

Is this a true story?

Cokelore A venerable cliché of the information age is that, thanks to technologies like e-mail, it has never been easier to communicate with so many other people. It is also true, of course, that never in history has it been so easy to fabricate a tale and disseminate it, virus-like, into the ether. E-mail has revolutionized -- among other things -- that peculiarly modern variant of folklore, the urban legend. "Urban legends used to spread by word of mouth, moving from city to city mostly with travelers," Paul Wallich writes in Scientific American, "but now they can leap from one continent to the next in a few minutes." Forget Windows, or even Linux. The urban legend chain e-mail may be the defining artifact of the Information Age.

Heard the one about the leukemia-stricken child trying to get a million e-mails before he/she dies? Free clothes from The Gap? The man who woke up in a bathtub full of ice, minus one kidney? Billions of pieces of information pass through networks every day, but much of what you might find on, say, Yahoo! -- perhaps most of it -- is either outdated, incomplete, or flat wrong. So look instead to sites like Dave's Web of Lies and the Urban Legends Reference Pages -- indexes not of information but of misinformation. (Yahoo! has its own informative index of misinformation indexes.) Like old-fashioned folklore, urban legends fall neatly into various archetypes, which the ULRP uses to categorize dozens of myths; sections include "Toxin Du Jour," "Questionable Quotes," and "Medical School Grotesqueries," where we learn that while rat urine is not naturally toxic to humans and Mountain Dew does not, in fact, shrink one's testicles and lower one's sperm count, the drug clomipramine can indeed cause orgasms in yawning patients.

Still, there's a reason the ULRP color codes its entries (red for false, green for true, and yellow for a statement of "undetermined veracity"). Urban myths often begin as true stories, as the folklorist Jan Brunvand points out. Perhaps this explains, at least in part, why we send them along -- after all, if Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine (true), then is it really so far-fetched that Coca-Cola combined with aspirin will get you high (false)? Urban legend sites are less collections of inanities than compilations of banality, reflections of the daily fears, hopes, complications, and aspirations of American life at the turn of the twenty-first century. "Proctor & Gamble is not run by the Church of Satan," reads the perfunctory debunking on one site. "There was no racism confession on Oprah. Anti-perspirant is not a known cause of cancer. Your pet is safe when Febreeze is used as directed."

As for Bryan Winter -- he's real. The Bryan Winter Story, which seems so obviously apocryphal, is actually true. Really.

--Nicholas Confessore

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Nicholas Confessore is a staff writer at The American Prospect.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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