The University Record, March 19, 1996

Computer age lends itself to urban legends, folklore

By Joseph M. Saul
Information Technology Division

Have you ever received e-mail warning you about a "new computer virus engineered by a user of America Online that is unparalleled in its destructive capability?" Did the message say that this virus is particularly terrifying because "no program needs to be exchanged for a new computer to be infected," that it "can be spread through the existing e-mail systems of the Internet" via a message with the words "Good Times" in the subject line? Were you warne d to immediately delete any messages with a "Good Times" subject line without reading them and to inform everyone you know about this heinous threat?

If so, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you have experienced the full fury of the Good Times virus-the warning message itself. There is no Good Times virus. There never has been. There probably never will be. The warning message, howeve r, has wasted bandwidth and time across the world for over a year. In fact, the hoax is so well known that it has its own World-Wide Web site: http://www.tcp.co.uk/tcp/good-times/index.html. There, you will find a frequently-asked-questions (FAQ) file, examples of all the observed variants of the warning message and explanations of why the warning was unlikely to be true in the first place.

Although the Good Times warning itself is tied in with recent technology, it is an example of a type of compelling but false story that predates the widespread use of computers. Such tales have circulated for years by word of mouth, photocopy or fax. They are called "urban legends," a term popularized by Jan Harold Brunvand, a professor at the University of Utah, in his book The Vanishing Hitchhiker and its sequels.

Popular urban myths include stories of people putting their pets into microwave ovens to dry them off, people spending so long in tanning beds that their internal organs cook, fire fighters running over recently rescued cats with their trucks on t he way back to the station, and so on. Universities are particularly fertile ground for such myths.

Believable, compelling stories spread extremely fast in any community. They spread so rapidly on the Internet that one high-traffic Usenet newsgroup, alt.folklore.urban, is devoted to the study and debunking of urban legends. Members of the group maintain a FAQ file with terse, one- or two-line descriptions of several hundred of the most popular myths by category al ong with a code to indicate whether they are true. (Remarkably, some of them are.)

One myth that has nothing to do with computers, but frequently turns up in e-mail and on newsgroups, is the story of the $250 cookie recipe. Supposedly, someone was shopping at either Neiman-Marcus or Mrs. Fields' Cookies (there are at least two versions of the myth), asked a clerk how much it would cost to get the recipe for their chocolate-chip cookies, and was told "two-fifty." Thinking the clerk meant $2.50, the shopper brought out a credit card, only later dis covering-you guessed it-that the price was actually $250.

The outraged shopper, according to the story, decided to exact revenge by giving the recipe out to as many people as possible. Readers are urged, in turn, to spread the recipe widelyand they have, through the Internet, even though Neiman-Marcus d oes not sell chocolate-chip cookies, and Mrs. Fields' Cookies does not sell its recipes.

Another story, already going strong before e-mail became popular but given a tremendous boost by it, is that of Craig Shergold, a 7-year-old English boy dying of cancer. According to the story, Shergold very badly wants to collect enough postcard s to get into the Guinness Book of Records. The usual message includes Shergold's address and a plea to send postcards.

This story turns out to be essentially true-but out of date. Craig Shergold exists, was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and actually earned the postcard record back in 1989. In the process, he attracted the attention of an American billionaire, was flown to the United States for treatment, and survived (the tumor was benign).

Shergold is now in his teens, but the postcards keep flowing in, much to the consternation of the British Postal Ser vice and the hospital at which he was treated.

Most urban myths are, by their very nature, at least superficially believable. There are a few suspicious signs you can look for, but they are by no means universal:

The story originates with someone close enough to the teller to appear reliable but removed enough to be difficult to contact, and he or she is not specifically identified (for example, a friend of a friend, an old college roommate's brother). The organization that supposedly originated the message is not one you would expect to be involved in such things. The story s ounds familiar, as if you have heard a version of it before in another context (this is the best give-away).

If the story is a virus warning, or one related to computer security, you can always check it with a known authoritative source-such as the virus experts here at the U-M (send e-mail to virus.busters@umich. edu). They have posted information on the Web at the URL: http://www.umich.edu/~wwwitd/virus-busters/. For information on other suspicious stories, you might check the alt. folklore.urban FA Q posted periodically in the newsgroup and available on the Web at the URL: http://www.cathouse.org/UrbanLegends/AFUFAQ.html.

In general, you should think twice before forwarding or replying to suspicious messages. Forwarded e-mail can take on a life of its own. Some messages have an urgency about them that compels otherwise reasonable people to pass them on to everyon e they know. In some cases, this includes mailing lists containing hundreds, or even thousands, of people.

In summary, use care. Most people consider unwanted e-mail messages to be a very real intrusion on their personal boundaries. As members of a vital and fast-growing community, all of us need to respect those boundaries as we explore the benefits and pitfalls of electronic communication.