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Snoping Around the Internet

Monday, August 11, 2003

David Mikkelson, one of the authors of the Snopes.com Urban Legends Reference Pages, was interviewed recently by the Online Journalism Review. David and his wife Barbara have been debunking and, in some cases, proving urban legends on their Web site since 1995. He says that all it takes to disprove an urban legend is good old fashion research.

The information on the site isn't just the usual "ingredients of coke" kind of rumors that were circling around before the Internet. The Urban Legends Reference Pages (ULRP) have been debunking one Internet legend after another almost as quickly as they seem to appear. As such, the site should be required reading for anyone getting on the Internet for the first time (and some of us who have been on for some time).

For instance, for every real virus roaming around the Internet in search of a host, there seem to be 10 hoaxes in search of a do-gooder. The Virus Hoaxes & Realities page is a good place to check before forwarding all those various sundry warnings to everyone in your address book. What is that saying about good intentions?

Similarly, before signing your name (and providing your e-mail address) to an online petition for an ostensibly good cause, you may want to check the "Petitions" page of the ULRP. There you'll find a petition protesting just about everything, but very few worth their weight in, well, kilobytes.

No, Bill Gates is not going to send us money for every chain letter we forward. No, there's no one in Nigeria who needs our help getting money out of the country. Yes, telemarketers are getting around the national "Do-Not-Call" registry with free coupons. It's a crazy world.

Of course, what's better than finding out a story is hoax is finding out a story is true. And even the hoaxes make for a good read. For, as this "Humor" page notes, "the urban legend and the joke are often separated by a fine line."

So, read the interview to find out what goes into the URLP. Read the URLP to find out what goes into the making of good urban legend. Maybe you'll learn something you didn't know, or rather, unlearn something you thought you knew.

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