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Urban Myths

"The net combines the immediacy of the telephone with the persistence of print"

Peter H. Lewis, New York Times

    Urban myths have been around about as long as mankind has been able to communicate. When the first caveman told the second caveman a "true" story who in turn told a third who told a fourth and so on until the story achieved a widespread belief, the urban myth was born. This primitive beginning bears implications on the impact that folklore has had on our human race. From the Native Americans of the New World to the lore of Beowulf and perhaps even organized religions, the methods and content of these myths has affected us in most profound ways. Now as technology advances into the "Information Revolution" the Urban myth has changed again. The past has always altered the structure, spreadablility and intent behind the myths, but never to the effect of the Internet. Is this new technology really such a great phenomenon? How has it changed these storiesí meanings and layout? How have stories transferred and transformed from pre-internet to post-internet adaptations? And what are the implications to the answers? Urban myths are a powerful and important piece of our past and future. From observing the changes in the myth as they pass from a more oral tradition to a new digital database, social effects and implications can be discovered with a little insight.

When that first caveman told the second caveman his story our species was at the dawn of creation. What were these exchanges like and how have they progressed to the present day? The first and enduring medium for exchange of myths was oral storytelling. Writing wasnít invented for several hundred thousands years so the oral tradition dominated as one story was passed down to offspring as clearly as any inheritance. An Elder would tell the story to the children who in their time would tell it to the younger generation and the cycle would continue. This type of transfer is particularly enthralling because as the speaker, the storyteller may add his or her own little turn or addition to the story to fit their image of the myth. Because of this capability, the stories evolve and the myths spread unevenly and quickly by word of mouth, developing their own personalities amongst each community, as the myths grow more concrete in their form. The social implications of oral storytelling are great. When a story is told in this format it takes on a different persona because it involves an actual living being telling the story. Physical presence is a powerful thing especially concerning the use of body language as well as spoken language in a studentís narrative. This adds much to the myth that very few other forms of communication can. Another important fact concerning physical presence is the necessity of social interaction when stories are passed by mouth. Peopleís impressions of these myths are different thus their expressions and focus are different when the stories are passed on.

As literacy became more widespread, urban myths changed in several ways. First of all it was possible to make a record of the stories that were being passed along and this led to a new trend of contraction of ideas. As a physical text became available, people could then pass on the "true" story without changing it, which is bound to happen. This took away a lot of the ideas and modifications that the oral history had to offer. The second affect of written text was the mass spreading of the stories. Suddenly millions of people could be affected, good, or, bad simply by its publication. The social implications are huge as these small mistruths which once deceived one person, while these new means of hoaxes places false ideas in the minds of many. What this new medium did for the myth ass impressive. It transformed its possibilities and technique to a new format that puts urban myths in a new direction. All myths needed now was a way to push them into every home and mailbox. The way to do this was simple. It just took till the late 20th century to find the answer, the Internet.

Many important consequences have arisen as a result of the new innovations that have destroyed the boundaries of time and distance. Thus the energy needed to pass on a story has been dropped considerably which accounts for the new influx of messages encircling the globe. The Internet has changed the transmission of urban myths a lot by making their way through e-mail forwards, homepages and Usenet bulletin boards. But with the advent of this new technology changes have occurred in the storiesí format and content. The first thing that I would like to investigate is the sheer speed that urban myths can travel in the information age. In previous times, stories were bounded by the physical presence and time of the teller and his willingness to spin the tale. The teller was also limited to the geographic area that most closely surrounded him. There was no financially feasible way for a person in Europe to talk to someone in America for the sole purpose of spreading a story. Sure someone could fly all the way there, or spend expensive hours on the phone, but not realistically. With the growth of the Internet distance and speed become almost irrelevant. E-mail takes only seconds to deliver and is basically free. Another important consequence of the Internet on folklore is the ability to send the exact copy that you received. In this respect the original documents and ideas are preserved and merle shared rather than modified. One potential problem that I see with the transferal of urban-lore through the Internet is that once read they appear passé, and are not modified to take on new forms. The exact replication of myths could stunt their "living or fluid structure and thus reduce them to only reference materials rather than dynamic pieces of work. As a result of this, a story has a death time where once it has been read; it is not changed into a different form that could be seen as a different story later. A second effect of recording urban myths is that they may become more credible being documented rather than simply word of mouth. This opens up another large topic of debate dealing with the trust installed in oral verses written text.

To further investigate the phenomenon of online myths I did three things: I examined the same urban myth on the Internet, collected in books and as an oral story. I conducted the oral story test by telling the myth to my friend in my own words and then asked him how it compared to the other two mediums. He said that it was a lot different in that I emphasized different details than the written stories did, and by hearing my tone of voice and body language it was also more dramatic. The difference between the written collection and the Internet versions werenít as striking. The main difference that I found was the sheer numbers of the same myth on the Internet. Furthermore, versions were exactly the same, evidently a function of the cut and paste technology of the word processor. ( Click here to see the examples). Overall, I found that the storytelling versions were more entertaining and variable, while the Internet versions were identical, but more numerous and widespread. This has social implications as our society moves more towards Internet communication. Myths may become more numerous, but also at the same time perhaps less creative or diverse. This may have an impact on the effect of urban myths, that by losing their originality they lose the constant reshaping that makes them a living and fluid form of communication.

Urban myths are a form of folklore that is always changing and being modified. With the advent of the Internet, a new medium has been formed which has pushed myths from the oral tradition into a new form of communication. Social implications abound with the speed and geographic ease of electronic communication and the content of Internet myths. By analyzing this transformation it is possible to see how the Internet and computer mediated communication will affect us all in the years to come.

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This document was last changed, updated, modified, and/or tweaked Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 17:34:41 and has been accessed 1 times since 5/1/98.
This project was produced for Psy380, Social Psychology of Cyberspace, Spring 1998, at Miami University. Send comments and suggestions to: shermarc@miamioh.edu