Legends of the Web
Amazing But Untrue


Special to ABCNEWS.com



For years, promoters of the Internet have been heralding the arrival of the
World Wide Web as our greatest-ever entertainment and enlightenment medium.
Someday, the hypesters say, a wired nation will turn its back on tired old
televisions and books, choosing instead to log on and take in all manner of
glorious new multimedia fictions. 
     I'm not sure exactly why artists and storytellers would magically be
made more creative by the computer than they were by the pencil, brush, stage
or camera, but conventional vision has it that it will be so. 
     And whatever the future may hold for Internet-delivered fiction, the
Net-connected computer has proven a tremendous boon to present-day
storytellers. One has only to drop by the New World Order Intelligence
Update, the Human Cyberslaves site, or the proof that Keanu Reeves is the
Antichrist to find cornucopian offerings of amazing tales and chilling
reinterpretations of contemporary life. 
     The Web also is positively flooded these days with fiction that is
disseminated, read, copied and improved by interactive readers so rapidly and
cleverly that one wonders why Netevangelists aren't proclaiming that the
golden age of interactive fiction has already arrived. 

The Vonnegut Speech
The best—and best-known—recent example, of course, is the "wear sunscreen"
column by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune that was transmogrified in the
ether into an MIT commencement speech delivered by novelist Kurt Vonnegut.
Circulated through e-mail, the "speech" had been read and thoroughly enjoyed
by millions—including Vonnegut's wife—before Vonnegut himself issued a
denial, and the truth (except for the anonymous author of the hoax) came out.

     E-mail is the most fertile medium so far for these "fictions," which
most often take the form of chain letters, hoaxes or whoppers. The principal
plot line of most chain letters is simple: if you forward the letter to X
number of friends, an institution or corporation somewhere will donate money
or items to the pertinent cause. Thus: 



LITTLE JESSICA MYDEK IS SEVEN YEARS OLD AND IS SUFFERING FROM AN ACUTE AND
VERY RARE CASE OF CEREBRAL CARCINOMA. ... 
     AS PART OF HER DYING WISH, SHE WANTED TO START A CHAIN LETTER TO INFORM
PEOPLE OF THIS CONDITION AND TO SEND PEOPLE THE MESSAGE TO LIVE LIFE TO THE
FULLEST AND ENJOY EVERY MOMENT, A CHANCE THAT SHE WILL NEVER HAVE.
FURTHERMORE, THE AMERICAN CANCER SOCIETY AND SEVERAL CORPORATE SPONSORS HAVE
AGREED TO DONATE THREE CENTS TOWARD CONTINUING CANCER RESEARCH FOR EVERY NEW
PERSON THAT GETS FORWARDED THIS MESSAGE. PLEASE GIVE JESSICA AND ALL CANCER
VICTIMS A CHANCE.... 

What I find most enchanting about these letters—which self-styled Net
sophisticates dismiss as annoying garbage—is how quickly and widely they are
disseminated, and how often otherwise intelligent people believe them and
pass them on. I have received these messages from highly educated friends,
acquaintances and colleagues who would never for a moment entertain the
thought that such things were to be taken seriously if they received them
through any other medium. 
     "Give the gift of literacy," wrote a colleague with a Ph.D. from
Stanford University, as she forwarded to her co-workers the following
message: "The Houghton-Mifflin publishing co. is giving books to children's
hospitals; how many books they give depends on how many emails they receive
from people around the world. for every 25 emails they receive, they give one
book—it seems like a great way to help a good cause. all you have to do is
email: share@hmco.com. hope you can spare the seconds...and let your friends
know. so far they only have 3, 400 messages … last year they reached 23,000."


Easily Hoodwinked
Like any fiction in any other medium, these stories serve a didactic function
of sorts, as they tell us something about the state of our society and our
minds. But mostly they serve as powerful commentary on the relationship
between people and the Internet itself. For some reason, the Net in its
current form seems to transmit a powerful credulity virus that makes people
believe the unbelievable. One thinks of Pierre Salinger waving his printout
of the Internet-delivered claim that the U.S. government had shot down TWA
Flight 800. If someone told Salinger that lie over the telephone, would he
have gone running to the world's TV news stations? 
     What is it with the Net, anyway, that it turns people into such fools? 
     Among Internet fictions that have attained a kind of hall of fame status
are the stolen kidneys letter , the Neiman-Marcus cookie recipe story ,
and—most mysterious of all—the computer virus hoax. The amazing thing about
all of these fictions is the lack of profit they bring to their author—all
are written, as far as I can tell, for no money, and bring their creators no
satisfaction other than the vague sense that they are distracting millions of
otherwise intelligent people from more serious pursuits. But the
computer-virus hoaxes, in which a warning is disseminated to millions
throughout the Internet warning them not to read mail containing certain
words or phrases on their subject line, are beyond mystifying. 
     "There is a new horrible virus on the loose!" begins one typical work in
this genre. "Researchers are stunned … they say it is probably the most
destructive virus ever created." The payoff, apparently, comes when some
institution somewhere is moved to issue a warning about the warning. "Please
ignore any messages regarding this supposed 'virus' and do not pass on any
messages regarding it," wrote the good people at Symantec. "Passing on
messages about this hoax serves only to further propagate it." 
     Oops. 






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