Legends of and on the Internet
With a well-defined understanding of folklore and specifically the social psychological implication of urban legend on the Internet, it seems fitting to examine specific examples of Internet legend and their individual social psychological implications. Multiple urban myths have even made an appearance on Miami University's "elitist", "fool-proof", Honor Student Listserve - tongue in cheek. Four urban legends that made an appearance on this Listserve include: the Mrs. Fields/Neiman-Marcus cookie story, the "Good Times" virus hoax, the kidney theft story, and the dying student who wants cards sent to him before his death. From each of these stories, it is shown how the Internet plays a major role in the transferal of not only facts and fears, but also rumors like the one spread purposefully for this project.
The Mrs. Fields/Neiman-Marcus cookie story is unique from most urban legends in that it contains a sense of revenge and justice. For those unfamiliar with this myth, and that is exactly what it is, a myth, the story is as follows:
A woman was having lunch at Neiman-Marcus. Following her meal the woman enjoyed a cookie and asked the waitress for the recipe. The waitress gladly gave her the recipe after an agreement to pay the two-fifty price tag. Later in the month, the woman's VISA statement from Neiman-Marcus exceeded $280. It turns out the recipe cost $250, not the assumed $2.50. Enraged, the woman calls and demands a rebate and offers to return the recipe. Explaining that once the recipe has been seen it has potentially been copied or memorized, the store declines her request. In response, the woman does copy the recipe for millions of people, free of charge, just to spite Neiman-Marcus. The recipe is made available to people all over the world via the Internet.
The validity of this urban myth is debatable, but is decidedly made-up. Still, the spirit of the myth is empowering and the revengeful justice keeps the myth alive. This myth also shows how people find security in groups, such as a cyberspace community when fighting a monopolizing individual: the Neiman-Marcus department store. If nothing else, readers may actually obtain a tasty batch of cookies with the recipe provided in the message. Anyone curious or just hungry should access this link on the World Wide Web for the recipe attached to this myth.
The "Good Times" Virus myth instigates great debate. This myth is completely false and has been spread under different titles and with varying consequences since December of 1994: the brink of the Internet Age. This legend appeared as recently as March on the Miami University Honors Listserve. Before any further discussion, it is important to emphasize that the Internet access provider, American Online, declared this virus to be a hoax. The myth is of a virus titled "Good Times" that is being spread by e-mail. Simply opening a message with this title will supposedly destroy your entire hard drive, defunct neighboring refrigerators and appliances, and demagnetize any discs, videos, or cassettes in close proximity to the computer. If there had been truth to this tale, the tragedy lies in the final line of the original message: "Forward this to all your friends", hence you will destroy all of your friend's computers and belongings too.
Common sense would make one realize that if opening this message destroyed your computer then you couldn't spread the message to "friends" since your computer would already be dead, and you would have no means to do so. However, ignoring this obvious concept, we resort to a more technical explanation. It is explained by Les Jones at hr.doe.gov/goodtime.html on the World Wide Web, that the only plausible way to even attempt spreading a virus involves many intricate, technical steps that are too advanced for most programmers to figure out. It is virtually impossible to infect a computer by reading an e-mail message since it is just a text file, and is no way executable. However, it is possible to attach a program to an e-mail, but it would be very difficult for the average user who has no intention of deliberately downloading a program to access an executable virus. Even with this understanding, the hoax of the "Good Times" virus has stumped and stalled business operations at AT&T, Citibank, NBC, Hughes Aircraft, Texas Instruments, the United States Department of Defense, the FCC, NASA, countless colleges, and hundreds of other organizations. Thus we are left to question if the "Good Times" virus is destructive, only not in the ways predicted. Again, Les Jones suggests that the hoax is in fact, "a social virus or a thought virus", not the computer virus so many have come to fear.
E-mails designed to warn users of the "Good Times" virus appear more frequently than e-mails with the actual "Good Times" title. This reality has tremendous social psychological implications that raise the following questions: How important are computers to their users? Why is there such fear in losing this tangible device that simply plugs into a wall in the same way a toaster-oven or radio does? Could users cope without their computers? The questions raised by this concept are seemingly endless. The obsession many users have with their computers appears to be in some cases an excentric perversion. This perversion drives users to protect and warn their computer from danger in a fashion more dedicated than that devoted to actual humans at risk of harm. In addition, the use of e-mail as a warning device implies a trend in the Internet community that emphasizes the rapid exchange between individuals in the Cyberspace community. these warnings imply a general concern for others, and consideration that is often lost in the real world, where people opt instead for secrecy to have a competitive advantage.
Another myth involves a gruesome story seemingly related to those circling the current drug "rohipnol".
In this myth, an individual wakes after a strange night, only to find themself lying in a bathtub packed in ice. Next to the person is a note attached to a phone. The note instructs the person to call 911 if they want to live. The person calls, and when the rescuers take the body out of the bathtub, two incisions are noticed on the backside. The person's kidneys have been removed to be sold to someone waiting for a donation.
The story stays alive due to its shock effect. This myth is newer than others mentioned, but may prove to outlast most others due to its relevance to current medicine, "rohipnol" traumas, and because it makes an interesting oral conversation for people of all ages and races: not just computer users fearing a virus, or chefs wanting to achieve the superior taste of Neiman-Marcus cookies. This myth has also crossed over into popular culture with a film produced in 1993 called The Harvest. Before analyzing any social psychological aspects of the kidney myth, I must clarify that this too, is impossible. According to Dr. Imler, a Kidney Specialist, there would be no market for the stolen kidneys since they would "spoil" before transplantation. Apparently the window of time between when a kidney has been removed and when it needs to be transplanted into the prepped patient is extremely brief. This myth implies that the Internet community is just as twisted as the real world and finds interest and entertainment in other's misfortune and horror. Conversely, it shows care and concern for other members of the Internet Community similar to the warnings for the "Good Times" virus. This myth also shows the grim reality of the real world, in that we actually fear a sinister secret network that exploits, harvests, robs, and sells something as personal as our organs on a black-market.
The fourth myth that made an appearance on the Honors Listserve was that of Craig Shergold, a boy dying of cancer who wanted to appear in the Guinness Book of World Records for receiving the most cards. Well, Craig really does exist, but his cancer has gone into full remission, and he made it into Guinness back in 1991, and definitely doesn't need any more cards. This myth is unique in that it has a valid, identifiable source, and it is interesting because it shows the longevity of urban myths. One inspiration brought on by this myth besides the social tendency toward being helpful to people in disparity, is its evolution. When this myth appeared on the Listserve, its content varied from this original summary. The variation revives my faith by negating the thought that the Internet robs modern man of the opportunity for mythological evolution.
There are numerous other urban myths circulating on the Internet, many of which you may encounter by visiting our links page. Some of those not mentioned include: methods to make money fast through chain letters, government fees for online services, peanut butter, Rod Stewart, Richard Gere, the Newlywed Game . . . the list continues. Someday, you may encounter the urban myth, "Sex in the Library???", begun specifically for this project.
"Sex in the Library???", was sent to 307 recipients on the Miami University Honors Student Listserve on April 16, 1998. The myth read as follows:
Rumor has it that there are videotapes circulating from last Wednesday night when two people were arrested at King (Library) for getting caught fornicating (having sex) at the top of the third flight of stairs in King Library. Evidently, surveillance cameras have watched this couple be quite active for a while now, and when a head librarian saw what was going on, she called the police in to charge the individuals with Indecent Exposure, etc. . . I think this is hilarious! Does anyone know more about it? I find the entire situation to be quite ironic since it's so feasible. I'm surprised it isn't the big joke in this week's Miami Student Newspaper . . . sex always grabs the headlines."
Interestingly, this new myth spread like wildfire through oral transmission in the real
world. I believe the success of its transmission was because it has all the qualities of a
good urban legend, as defined by the AFU and Urban Legends Archive:
However, the fact that the "Sex in the Library ???" myth did not spread more extensively over the Internet is because the Miami University community is small enough that those people who would have been interested in this myth could discuss it orally. This preference of oral transmission has a strong social psychological implication: people who have the opportunity to communicate urban legends in the real world opt to do so instead of using e-mail and the Internet. This is ironic since many business people, specifically women, opt for e-mail exchange. These differences lead me to conclude that the differences in preference of media are based most on the topic at hand: "rumor" vs. Business, in addition to proximity of those communicating.
Though these urban legends and myths provide some entertainment value, they can also instigate great fear and fury. It is because of the latter, that precautions must be taken against these "hoaxes". Charles Hymes does an excellent job at warning, informing, and teaching users how to beware of and recognize hoaxes before they become victims of a scandal on his web page. One particularly interesting bit that Hymes shares with users concerns the legality of such hoaxes. Despite all this fury, many people are compelled to love urban myths since as Aristotle said, "The lover of myth is in sense a philosopher, for myth is composed of wonders."
A final point of interest involves how the Internet spreads these urban legends so
rapidly and extensively. Further exploration into this topic will show that e-mail is the
main reason for the success of urban legends on the Internet. To find out more information
on why electronic mail is the Internet society's fastest form of urban legend
transmission, click on the e-mail icon below.
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