Are blogs the end of the urban legend?
Twenty years ago, urban legends were commonplace — among them, the Mrs. Fields and/or "the department store" cookie recipe story, Kentucky Fried Rat and the little boy dying of cancer who collected postcards/stamps/pins etc etc. These stories spread in a societal version of the game Telephone. Some (the little boy) actually had basis in fact, but he had recovered from his illness long before the solicitations for help stopped coming. Others were out and out fable. They spread through viral networks, aided by the telephone, the early online services (CompuServe and BBSs), the photocopy machine and real bulletin boards in offices, schools and grocery stores.
A story becomes an urban legend when it spreads quickly and broadly without an easy method to verify the facts. The Internet has certainly changed the shape and nature of urban legends. For as long as it has been a mass medium, there have been Web sites devoted to debunking urban legends, and before that you could find the truth in Usenet news… if you knew where to look. But, the Internet — e-mail — also contributes to the spread of the stories.
In the end, while traditional Web sites, a one to many channel, and e-mail, a one-to-one channel, can both spread and debunk the stories, they just can’t do it fast enough to prevent the legend from getting started.
I think blogs can. I don’t believe the urban legend is dead… yet. But today, I read some blog traffic that indicates that blogs may have created a profound change in the urban legend dynamic. The blogging phenomenon lets people communicate, and converse, quickly. Information can be spread among regular people and experts as fast as we can type. Yes blogs can spread a story — true or not — quickly, but just as quickly, we can get to the TRUTH. Before the legend really begins.
Witness this example:
Over Thanksgiving weekend, a number of blog reports surfaced about Target selling marijuana and other unusual products on their Web site. You can find examples of bloggers that initially believed the report as well as others that clearly understood it to be some sort of prank or technical error (see Boing-Boing). In the end, it turned out to be related to the fact that Amazon provides the back end to Target (Boing-Boing post, News.com story).
There are a lot of things you can discuss around this example — just search on the topic in the blogosphere and you’ll find plenty of discussion on everything from the intelligence of bloggers to Target’s PR strategy.
But, what really interests me about the whole thing is that a wild story that in the old days would have been perfect fodder for an urban legend was dead in one week.
Whatever else they turn out to be when they grow up, blogs may signal the end of the urban legend.