Please Pass This Notice On

“As many of you know, each year the Internet must be shut down for 24 hours for cleaning. The process, which eliminates dead e-mail and inactive ftp, www and gopher sites, will make for a faster, more efficient Internet. This year, the cleaning process will take place from 12:01 a.m. GMT on April 7 until 12:01 a.m. GMT on April 8. During that 24-hour period, five very powerful, Japanese-built, multilingual Internet-crawling robots (Toshiba ML-2274’s) situated around the world will search the Internet and delete any erroneous data that they find.”

It‘s true. Every last word of it. I know, because I read it in an e-mail. It arrived in my inbox with a list of precautions to take to protect my valuable data from deletion. As well as refraining from accessing the Net during the 24-hour period, I was asked to avoid placing microwave ovens or toasters near my computer modems and to quit wearing nylon undergarments because of the “possibility of electrical discharge.”

As ridiculous as it sounds now, this missive impressed hundreds of people as real enough to post on message boards and forward in bulk e-mails. It’s an example of the expanding phenomenon of “Netlore,” Net-specific folklore that is fast supplanting urban legends as the Zeitgeist-o-meter of our age. That savage rumor mill we call the Internet has become a breeding ground for myths, folktales and hoaxes about computers, the Net and technology in general.

The term “folklore” was first used to define the body of traditional customs, tales and sayings preserved orally as a means to pass down the cultural history of a society from one generation to the next. It‘s since come to embody the collective fears and concerns of a culture, especially those for which there aren’t always obvious explanations. Most Netlore preys on users‘ innate fear and mistrust of technology, and our ever-increasing dependence upon it. For the online community, the giants, goblins and murderous hitchhikers of traditional folklore have been replaced by those mythic ghouls of cyberspace: the computer hackers, crackers and malicious coders. Stories of hackers’ evil stratagems and computer viruses circulate in mass scare alerts that far outstrip the reach of regular urban legends (although legends have their own Web sites).

While trying to locate and verify the “source” of a piece of Netlore can be impossible in an environment where one click transfers a story to hundreds of users at a time, Rob Rosenberger of the Computer Virus Myths home page (www.kumite.com myths) believes that it‘s not just juvenile pranksters who orchestrate these hoaxes. “At least one company has done it as a marketing stunt. Which backfired,” he notes. U.K. publishing company Penguin Books was exposed as the originator of the “Irina” virus hoax, created in 1996 as a publicity stunt for an interactive book of the same name. When fears about the virus reached hysterical proportions, Guy Gadney, the former head of electronic publishing at the company, was forced into an embarrassing damage-control operation.

Whatever the origin of the hoaxes, it’s the misguided users who, thinking they‘re providing a service to the online community, pass these warnings around, enabling the hoax to infect the Net in much the same way as the viruses they’re purportedly warning against. Bruce Sterling, sci-fi don and author of The Hacker Crackdown (www.lysator.liu.seetextshacker), believes “a lot of both virus and anti-virus rhetoric is seriously overblown. Virus hype makes computers seem far more dangerous and intimidating than [they] actually are. Virus hype helps to keep the computer-illiterate intimidated and in their place.”

That there is a kernel of fact in these warnings -- viruses do exist, they can inflict damage and spread via the Internet -- a has generated worldwide paranoia and cemented the place of the computer virus in contemporary folklore. The truth is, a virus can only infect a computer hard drive if the user executes an infected program, opens an infected e-mail or e-mail attachment, or boots from an infected diskette. The mere act of downloading a program from the Net is harmless, and viruses can‘t be picked up just because one is logged on to the Net or accepts Web cookies. Claims that some viruses can do the technologically impossible prey upon the fears and ignorance of users in much the same way that wizards and fairies in traditional folklore did with their claims of magical or malevolent powers. The reality is that the chance of contracting a virus of such apocalyptic proportions is approximately that of being struck by lightning.

Bruce Hughes, anti-virus lab manager at the International Computer Security Association (www.ICSA.net), believes that virus hoaxes can cause more damage than the real thing. “I get calls all the time from large corporations’ I.T. departments that have wasted all day trying to find out if a hoax is real,” he says. In some cases, entire company e-mail systems have collapsed after dozens of users forwarded a false alert to every user in the network.

“Some of the other hoaxes are very popular too,” says Hughes, referring to the many “e-mail tracking” chain letters currently circling the Net. Each one promises amazing free gifts, anything from Honda cars to clothes from the Gap or money from Microsoft, just for passing the message on. These hoaxes “cause the companies‘ PR departments nightmares,” he notes. At the peak of the “recycling sneakers” e-mail hoax, sports manufacturer Nike was receiving 100 pairs of ratty old sneakers a day from stunt victims, each fully expecting to be sent a brand-new pair of Nikes in exchange. “I weekly receive hoaxes that have been forwarded to more than 500 people,” continues Hughes. “That means 500 people thought it was real enough to forward on to their friends and family.”

However, as Rosenberger observes, “Those same people, if they received a regular letter, would not fire out 55 letters at 33 cents a stamp.” The ease and low cost of e-mail, coupled with the inherent authority that computers and the Net seem to hold for many users, means that hoaxes and Net legends never quite disappear. They just get revised and recycled. With each new user who logs on for the first time comes a new victim only too ready to suspend disbelief and “pass this notice on.”

Consider the story of a Dell customer who called the help desk to say that he couldn’t get his computer to fax anything. After 40 minutes of trouble-shooting, the technician discovered the man was try-ing to fax a piece of paper by holding it in front of the monitor screen and hitting the send key. Then there‘s the rumor that Compaq is considering changing the command “press any key” to “press return key” because of the flood of calls asking where the “any” key is.

And it can only get worse. As the Internet continues to percolate in every corner of our culture, Netlore will grow with it. And for anyone who thinks they’re too smart or too computer-savvy to ever get taken in by something as absurd as the “Cleaning the Internet” hoax, I present Netlore Exhibit No. 1: Y2K -- the Empire State Building of technology hoaxes.

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