Internet urban legends. They’ve been around since the first e-mail was sent. And of course, urban legends themselves have been with us for as long as we’ve been able to talk. There are myths and legends like Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy that we just propagate — most of the time without even knowing why. And then there are those special kinds of myths. Urban legends fall into that weird category of “lies that somebody starts….but seem so detailed (or perhaps so much fun to tell) that we just keep pushing them and pushing them.”
I think it was understandable twenty years ago to think that if you flashed your headlights lights at a car driving without their headlights on that a gang might follow you and shoot you. Or that college kids might drug you at a party and cut out your kidneys when you passed out and leave you in a tub of ice then next morning with a note. But that was before the Internet. Now there’s a seemingly endless stream of information that we can access to verify if those things that we ingest are actually fact or fiction. We collectively do millions of Google searches every day. But is anybody really searching for the truth anymore.
Close friends know me as the guy not to send spam to. If I’m on a list along with twenty other folks and there’s a big lie in the header, you’ll surely get a response with the truth. Snopes.com has become my best friend some days. All you need to do is a simple search on their site and you’ll find out whether Neil Armstrong was actually talking about his childhood neighbor when he landed on the moon. Oh, what’s that? You don’t know the legend? Well, allow me to share it with you……
According to some, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, after saying his famous “…one small step for man…” line, (which, in itself, is being disputed), he allegedly also said, “Good luck, Mr. Gorsky”. When later asked why he uttered these words and just who in the world this ‘Gorsky’ guy was, Neil explained that when he was a child, he recalls hearing his neighbors during a domestic spat. Through their bedroom window, Armstrong allegedly overheard Mrs. Gorsky say, “Oral sex? You want oral sex?!! You’ll get oral sex when the kid next door walks on the moon!”
Ah, what a sweet story of triumph, prophecy, and the American spirit. So beautiful. So charming. So…..wrong. This never happened. It’s not even kinda true. Just someone behind a keyboard thought it would be a good idea to shoot this out of a canon and people went for it. And how could you blame folks? I mean, it’s a really cute story. But the disturbing idea to me came a few years after I’d heard it. A friend of mine (who I consider to be rather tech savvy) had been one of the few that hadn’t come across this e-mail. Or maybe he had and just wanted to send it around again for nostalgia’s sake. Whatever the reason, it came my way. Being a dear friend of mine, I just wanted to send him a message with the truth. I didn’t “cc:” the world. I didn’t shout “WRONG!”. I very simply and nicely said something to the effect of, “Hey – isn’t this a cool story. I actually read this article though (insert link) that says it’s not actually true. But it’s still cool, huh? See you at lunch”. Later that day when we sat down to consume our fine afternoon cuisine, he said something which still sticks with me……
“Hey – did’ya get my e-mail.”
“Yeah – I read it. But I kinda want to believe that it was true. I’m just going to believe that it happened.”
And therein lies the problem. People want to believe the lie. There’s no fun in the joy-killing notion that Tommy Hilfiger or Ralph Lauren never went on Oprah and talked about not wanting people of color to wear their clothes. There’s no fun in knowing that they don’t actually serve rats in your favorite restaurant. Or that you won’t grow roach eggs in your mouth after licking a stamp or an envelope. The real fun is in passing around the lie. And people like me just kill the fun.
There are so many resources for checking out the truth. Snopes.com is but one. I’ve forwarded their URL to at least a hundred people who send me these lies, and I send them a Snopes address in return, asking them to “check it out first — there’s an easy way”. And do they? Of course not. They just keep passing on the lies, thinking that AOL is going to start sending them twenties in the mail. Or that Bill Gates and Nokia are gonna send them free computers. This goes on and I keep responding with the truth until they eventually start dropping my ‘pain-in-the-ass’ name from the mailing list the next time the message about “the little boy with cancer who’s trying to collect greeting cards as his last dying wish to be in the Guinness Book of World Records”. And I guess it’s just as well that they leave me off. But it definitely disturbs me that more of us don’t do the tiny bit of research that would set these things straight. The answer is literally a click away. But I guess the lie is so much more delightful. And in some cases, even painful.
This afternoon as I was sifting through e-mail, I came across about six messages — all with a similar (and very chilling) message. “Guess who died??” Immediately I thought the worst. But as I viewed the names of the net newbies on the To: line, my horrors subsided. As I read the body of each e-mail, declaring that comedian Sinbad had died, I was startled for a moment. But naturally Snopes was there to catch my fall. Of course, he wasn’t actually dead. (Part of me wonders if this wasn’t a publicity stunt put together to get his name back on the scene?) And naturally your thoughts of sadness turn to anger, as you wonder who would have the evil and wicked mind to go to the trouble of putting together a sick e-mail (that is probably still on it’s way around the globe) declaring that a man died. What if his family gets wind of the e-mail before he has a chance to tell the truth? What if a bingo buddy of his mom’s hears the news and passes it on to her? What if she is overcome with grief and has a heart attack? Of course, none of these thoughts come to our heads as we conveniently add all our ‘net buddies’ to the “To” lines and just mindlessly slam on the “Send” button.
In a strange way, I’m kinda glad this happened. It’s an honest mistake to want to pass along the news that a loved celebrity has died. But maybe….just maybe…..we’ll start to use the resources that are in front of us to evaluate that which is put before us as the truth before creating the exponential chain of lies that gets us nothing but crowded inboxes.
Instead of opening my Yahoo account to seventeen e-mails telling me that Jesus loves me (and He does — I know He does), I’d much rather someone have the courage to actually take the time to write me a message about how Jesus has affected their life. Or instead of forwarding a message about some rumored rat’s head in a chili bowl, tell me about something that actually happened to YOU. How you yourself witnessed a nasty food event. Or how you experienced something weird and newsworthy. I guess if we had to wait until these things actually happened to us, we’d be waiting awhile. Maybe in our dull, rudimentary and repetitive lives, these lies are the seasoning that makes it easier to get through the day? Or maybe we’re just too lazy to bother to do any research. Whatever the reason, hopefully the whole ‘Sinbad’ thing will make people reflect next time they’re looking through their inbox on the lie that they’re about to contribute to.
Here’s an idea! Let’s cut out the middle man. Let’s just check out Snopes.com. Just browse the topics. It’s a great place to read stories that are odd and crazy. Some are actually true. I’m hearing that a lot of the Snopes traffic comes from people who aren’t even trying to get the truth on e-mail urban legends. They come and just peruse the funny stories. I’ve done it a few times myself. There’s just so much entertainment value in reading the wild and detailed imaginations that some people have.
So, if you happen to be part of my circle — send as many e-mails to me as you want. But please — before you put your cursor over that “Send” button, make sure that they’re e-mails that are actually written by you. I want to hear from you. Not some fanciful story with a shred of ‘truthiness’ in it. In my mind, your true, yet somewhat mundane story about the lady who tripped over her dog’s leash while walking him is always more interesting than the wild, sensational, juicy and extravagant lie that some deranged mind has crafted.