Folklore, both oral and written, has served a social psychological function throughout much of man's history, and it clearly continues to predominate today with the number of urban myths still circulating through the public. Some folklorists have argued that technology tends to eliminate certain types of folklore, but computers and the Internet in general have also proved to be a fertile ground for the spread and development of folklore. Computer mediated channels, such as Web pages and electronic mail have aided in the rapid transmission of specific types of folklore, especially urban myths (also called urban legends or contemporary legends by some folklorists) and chain letters. In some cases, the computer and Internet itself have themselves provided the stuff of which folklore is made.
To begin our exploration of folklore on the Internet, we should first define the specific types of folklore with which we are dealing. Folklore in a broad, academic sense is a "traditional" shared story which possesses two qualities: it has been repeated by individuals and has undergone variations over time (Dundes, Pagter, 1987). Other characteristics such as the manner of transmission with some scholars leaning towards folklore as a primarily orally transmitted phenomenon (Dundes, Pagter, 1992) and the changing definition of who exactly the "folk" are, limit the likelihood of a universally accepted definition of folklore among academics. For our purposes, folklore will be defined as a shared story which has been repeated and has undergone variations through its existence. The "folk" who compose and share these stories will be defined in the same manner Dundes and Pagter identify "folk," that is, "any group whatsoever that shares at least one common factor" (1992).
There are three generally accepted ways to approach and analyze a piece of folklore among scholars and teachers, according to Danzer and Newman (1992). The first manner takes a literary perspective and deals mainly with the content and structure of the story. The second has an anthropological approach where the socioeconomic, historical, geographical and/or societal contexts in which the stories lay are taken into consideration. The third approach, the behavioral or group psychological approach, concentrates on the purpose of the source in creating or spreading folklore while looking at the group and individual's behavior in relation to that purpose (Danzer and Newman, 1992).
Folklore serves various psychological functions. From the psychoanalytical perspectives pioneered by Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung to the structuralist standpoint taken by Stith Thompson, there are nearly as many ways to approach folklore as there are tales. Feminist scholars, socialist scholars, critical theorists and others all can take vastly different interpretations about the psychological meaning of the same piece of folklore. From fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella to a story about legions of albino alligators inhabiting the New York City sewers, each reflects in some small portion, the nuances of the cultures they came from.
Ranging from the "tall tales" about legendary characters such as Pecos Bill, John Henry and Paul Bunyan set in the American frontier to Indian legends to tales told around a campfire to scare children, folklore deals with a wide spectrum of topics. Some types of traditional folklore, write Dundes and Pagter in 1987, "may be on the wane, but technology...creates a folklore of its own." A particular genre of folklore, the "urban myth" or "urban legend" definitely isn't on the wane, even in this day and age of instant news and advanced media technology. Those stories, described as "kissing cousins of myths, fairy tales and rumors" (Wolkomir, 1992) are around to stay as long as there are people to believe them.
Folklore and urban myths can take a serious tone and tap into some deep seeded fears and apprehensions people have about the world and teach lessons about those shared fears and dangers (Brunvand, 1990). Moreover, they "fulfill a need people have to tell each other stories, to know what's going on and are usually "stories of the mostly educated, white middle class" (Sanoff, 1986). Cases exist where urban legends have become more than campfire tales with tidy, humorous and/or somewhat macabre conclusions. Davis (1990) witnessed the creation of urban legend firsthand in a Texas town when two unexplained and brutal murders occurred. In reaction to the presence of the still-at-large killer and the uncertainty, stress and powerlessness they felt, women of varying sorts told stories to each other about their own or their friends' close encounters with mysterious strangers. Once the killer was captured, the stories took different tones and died out altogether having fulfilled their coping function. Urban legends and folklore aren't necessarily true, but the "story feels true" as was the case in Dallas when an "urban legend gone wild" (Bird, 1996) about a woman deliberately and vengefully infecting men with the HIV virus made the rounds among local and national media, including a story on the nationally carried news show Primetime Live.
Much like a rumor (and the daily news, according to Bird 1990), urban folklore becomes a "cultural fabric which people can employ to weave collectively shared explanations for anxiety-provoking and duly understood situations" (Victor, 1990). Victor (1990) explains the pervasiveness of urban myths by citing symbolic interaction theory, where people share particular symbolic cultural meanings. Occasionally, these symbols are latched onto by people for a variety of reasons and become a rumor: boredom, expressing personal worries, obtaining attention and interest from peers, harming someone or some group, the desire to play a prank or just to make small talk (Victor 1990) are some of the causes for rumor. Rumors, in turn, become folklore if developed and spread by others to the point that multiple stories and variation crop up (Victor, 1990).
One of the more widely accepted traits of any urban folklore is its reflection of what
are considered to be social or individual problems. Dundes and Pagter deal with
"urban folklore from the paperwork empire" made up of cartoons, chain letters,
forms and any other material copied and spread among the working masses via photocopier,
fax or other electronic method which, as a collective whole "represents part of the
human response to some of the ills of urban life" (1987). Humorous in varying
degrees, the folklore from the paperwork empire represents part of the office worker's
attempts to break the monotony of life in the office (Dundes, Pagter, 1987). As Dundes and
Pagter wrote in 1992, urban folklore provides both a sense of individuality (defying the
cubicle police as Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, would put it) and also of group
identification. With the rapidly evolving cultural milieu known as the Internet and the
prodigious growth rate of its population who are linked through the Internet through
e-mail, the World-Wide-Web, newsgroups and chat rooms, the ingredients described by Dundes
and Pagter as conducive for the development of folklore exist. What's more is that there
are already a number of examples of folklore on the Internet, especially urban myths.
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