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Of hoaxes, scares, urban legends, and my Uncle DJ

May 7, 2002 (Updated May 7, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:The ultimate rumor-buster


The Bottom Line: The best source of the real dope on all those rumors, scares, scams, hoaxes, and general junksam and netsam that's clogging your bandwidth

Remember the girl who died when she was bitten by the black widow spider that had taken up residence in her frequently hair-sprayed but rarely washed beehive hairdo?

How about the guy who found a condom in his Jack-in-the-Box hamburger?

And don’t forget the woman who tried to jump-start her husband’s car by driving around the block and roaring into his rear bumper at 65 mph.

All these things, tragic and comic, happened to the husband of the cousin of the next-door-neighbor of the person who told me about it. Thank God for prepositions or these stories would never have made it around town.

The advent of the Internet did nothing to stanch the flow of absurdities. In fact, it made it that much easier to circulate them. And once begun, they take on a life of their own and no matter how many times they are proven to be distortions or outright fabrications, they can’t be stopped.

My Uncle DJ is 92. He got a computer about five years ago and since then, has raved about how is memory has improved and he’s learned all sorts of new things. I bet he has, because he forwards to me everything he gets, including the dirty jokes (the source of his nickname) and rumors and hoaxes and assorted junk that floats through cyberspace. His intentions are golden, but not one single thing he has ever sent me has turned out to be true. Not one. They're all about some poor kid in England who’s terminally ill and wants to make the Guinness Book for having the most get-well cards; or some gang initiation rite whereby if you flash your lights at someone driving at night without headlights, they will make a U-turn and come after you; or a virus that will devour your entire hard drive and send nasty messages to your e-mail address book; or the fact that Osama bin Ladin owns Citibank and is using your deposits to finance his acts of terrorism; or pending legislation that will defund the NEA and kill off Big Bird, or impose a five cent tax for each e-mail; or how, if you forward this message to everyone you know, Bill Gates or the Gap or Coke or someone will track your messages and pay you enormous sums and give you a free pair of jeans...

You get the idea. (And let me tell you how weird it is to get dirty jokes from your 92-year-old bachelor uncle!)

At first I was amused by these messages, but they proliferated to the extent that I began to get irritated. Especially the virus warnings. It’s very hard for a technoboob like myself to know what is possible and what isn’t, so I found myself initially taken in by all those warnings.

Until I learned how to Google, and started compiling a list of virus hoax warning sites. One of them, the site for the San Fernando Valley Folklore Society, included not only virus hoax warnings but a myriad of other categories as well. So after my first visit to www.snopes.com, I was hooked.

The site is run by Barbara Mikkelson, who must spend more than full-time on it. Her purpose in life is to explode all the rumors, hoaxes, and false warnings that proliferate on the ‘net. A lot of the stuff she deals with falls under the heading of Urban Legends, but there’s lots more, some of it frivolous, some of it quite serious.

During the years that I’ve been using Snopes (no, I have no idea where the name comes from,) it has grown enormously, and how includes these categories of rumors and hoaxes:

• Automobiles
• Business
• Cokelore
• College
• Computers
• Critter Country
• Disney
• Food
• Glurge Gallery (“inspirational” tales that fabricate or distort fact)
• History
• Holidays
• Horrors
• Humor
• Inboxer Rebellion (hoaxes, missing/sick adults/kids, moral outrage, pending legislation, petitions, scams, something for nothing, trivia)
• Language
• Legal Affairs
• Lost Legends
• Love
• Luck
• Medical
• Military
• Movies
• Music
• Photos
• Pregnancy
• Questionable Quotes
• Racial Rumors
• Radio and TV
• Religion
• Science
• Sex
• Sports
• Titanic
• Toxin du Jour
• Travel
• Weddings
• Wooden Spoons (urban legends, old wives tales)

Each item is preceded by a colored dot:
green means that the item is true
red means that it isn’t
gray means that the item is of undetermined origin, and
yellow means that it’s of ambiguous or undetermined veracity.

Each item is discussed in considerable detail. I’ve cut and pasted a number of them onto return e-mails, and they often take more than a page when printed. Ms. Mikkelson does exhaustive research into the origins of each item, its similarities to other items, the sources of each, and a discussion of the meaning of the item. The result is a fascinating picture of the culture of rumor.

There’s a helpful search function on the home page, that allows you to enter a word or two and takes you to a list of all the items that might relate to that word. So you don’t even have to search the categories by hand to find a specific item. But then you miss half the fun.

To my surprise, some of the more outrageous-sounding stuff turn out to have some truth to them, and some of the not-entirely-unreasonable ones are complete dupes. Ya never know...

There's also a message board for discussions of various issues of interest. You have to register to use it, and the registration process is a little weird, but you can read even if you're not registered; you just can't participate.

So these days, when Uncle DJ sends me an item about a little boy who stabilized the heartbeat of his seriously distressed unborn baby sister by singing to her, or the one about the cockroach eggs that are found in the glue of envelopes and get into the microscopic cuts in your tongue when you lick the envelope (puh-leeeeze! I automatically go to Snopes and check it out. And I know that whatever information I find there will be as close to the truth as any available.

Thank you, San Fernando Valley Folklore Society; and thank you, Barbara Mikkelson; and Uncle DJ, I’m sorry to spoil your fun!

Recommend this product? Yes

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