Life In Cyberspace

COMPUTERS IN THE '90s

Running the Legends to Ground

Newsday, 30 May 1995

By Evan Morris. SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

If you work in an office, chances are that sometime recently you've seen something similar to the following warning, in the form of a grainy fax, posted on a bulletin board or near the coffee machine: "Drug Alert! A form of tattoo called `Blue Star' is being sold to schoolchildren in our communities. It is a sheet of paper containing small blue stars. Each star is soaked with LSD. The paper may also be printed with pictures of Mickey Mouse, Bart Simpson, or other cartoon characters. If you or your children see these tattoos, call the police at once!"

The fax seems convincing, full of details about the effects of LSD, and typically carries the name of one or more hospitals or police agencies.

But how can you be sure it's true?

If you have access to Usenet newsgroups on the Internet, you can find out -- just check in with the folks in the alt.folklore.urban newsgroup.

In fact, the "Blue Star Tattoo Warning" is just one of hundreds of topics regularly explored in alt.folklore.urban (otherwise known as AFU), one of the most active newsgroups on the Internet. AFU was created to provide a forum for discussion of just this sort of question -- the "urban legends" that have taken the place of traditional folklore.

Have you heard the story about the small child kidnaped at a mall and discovered shortly thereafter in a store rest room, dressed in different clothes, her blond hair already cut and dyed brown? Or how about the gang initiation rite that involves cruising around at night without headlights and then shooting the first driver who helpfully flashes his own headlights? Have you ever been asked to collect pull-tabs from soda cans to help raise money for a kidney dialysis machine? Or been implored to send get-well cards to a terminally ill boy in England so he can be in the Guinness Book of Records?

Urban legends, one and all, and AFU does its best to lay them to rest.

Inspired by the work of Professor Jan Harold Brunvand of the University of Utah, author of such classic urban legend collections as "The Vanishing Hitchhiker," AFU's dedicated debunkers leave no stone unturned in running urban legends to ground.

Some "urban legends" turn out to be least partly true (the English boy, Craig Shergold, not only made it into the Guinness Book but recovered from his ailment -- several years ago, so don't mail that card), but the vast majority are as baseless as the classic rumor of alligators in the New York City sewers.

The typical urban legend (called a "UL" in AFU) combines elements of the classic proverb ("watch your children in public") with fear of social breakdown and disorder ("child molesters are everywhere"). The narrow escape, the unwary innocent doomed by good intentions (as in the "headlights" story) and the transgressor punished in surprising ways are all staples of the classic urban legend.

In fact, some "modern" legends are actually hundreds of years old. One story making the rounds concerns a young man seduced by a strange woman, only to awake alone the next morning, a horrifying note scrawled in lipstick on the motel room mirror -- "Welcome to the world of AIDS."

The story crops up in various forms -- often the victim is a woman -- but they can all be traced back to a similar anecdote recounted in Daniel Defoe's "Journal of the Plague Year," published in 1722. The disease may have changed, but the moral's the same.

In recent years, AFU has broadened its scope to include discussion of nearly any sort of theory, rumor or manifestation of public silliness, from the chemical composition of Twinkies (don't ask) to the propriety of cow-tipping (just what it sounds like -- tipping over sleeping cows). AFU boasts more than a few working scientists among its regular contributors, which comes in handy when settling questions such as whether glass is really a liquid that flows very slowly over long periods of time, making old windows thicker at the bottom.

One of the most heavilytrafficked discussion groups on the Internet, AFU averages more than 100 posts a day. Unfortunately, the group's theme sometimes seems in danger of being drowned out by the sheer volume of questionable contributions.

Consequently, AFU veterans (known as "Old Hats") take a dim view of clueless newbies who fail to study the AFU frequently asked questions, or FAQ, files (periodically posted in the group, or available via anonymous FTP from rtfm.mit.edu) before posting questions. Newbies wishing more information on a well-worn topic are often referred to AFU's extensive archives at ftp.cathouse.org.

Still, while a typical day's catch in AFU may not contain a great deal that is particularly new, the verbal interplay between the Old Hats of the group while trying to fend off yet another discussion of the 100 (or 1,000, or 10,000) Eskimo words for "snow" is often deliriously funny.

For those interested in the subject of urban legends but with a low tolerance for the silliness and noise of AFU, there is an alternative -- another newsgroup founded last year called alt.folklore.suburban. AFS (the "suburban" in its name connotes a subsidiary relationship to AFU, not a concern with lawn furniture) is a moderated newsgroup, meaning that posts to the group are filtered through the sensibilities of a moderator who decides which posts will see the light of day.

Such editorial control does make for a more focused, serious discussion of urban legends, but also raises the question of whether such gravity is really necessary in exploring the inherently silly question of whether the Air Force tests its planes by firing live chickens at them (which, incidentally, it does). While alt.folklore.suburban is probably closer to the sober spirit of Jan Harold Brunvand's studies than AFU, AFU beats AFS by a mile on the Laugh-O-Meter.

By the way, the alt.folklore.urban FAQ file rates the flowing glass theory as an F, meaning it's 100 percent falsehood. Old windowpanes are sometimes thicker at the bottom because old-windowpane-making technology resulted in uneven panes, which were probably then installed thick-edge-down for stability.

And the "Blue Star Tattoo Warning"? It's a hoax that has been making the rounds of office fax machines for almost 10 years.


Evan Morris publishes `The Word Detective,' a bimonthly newsletter which can be sampled via the World Wide Web at http://www.escape.com/?words1/. If you'd like to share your experiences in cyberspace, or have a theme you'd like to explore, please mail your idea to Health & Discovery Section, Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville Rd., N.Y. 11747-4250, Att. Liz Bass.

Copyright © 1996, Newsday Inc.




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