Monday, July 20, 2009
Mikey Died Of Pop Rocks!
I love Urban Legends and I love Snopes.com...use it all the time. It's amazing how many sensible intelligent people believe in the silliest things. Even a couple weeks ago I was talking to my girlfriend in Toronto and a silly concept came up. I said "oh my god, thats as funny as people believing the water goes down the drain differently on either side of the equator." She says..."Oh it does, even ______and his father tested it when they went to Africa" I said, "well then he and his father got ripped off by a con artist"
Well, my poor girlfriend who is usually quite sensible had to have me send her a link from Snopes about the water going down the drain wrongly confusing Coroilis Force.
Urban Legend are often... "bad science" (see previous post)
Here is a cute article about how Snopes got started and how they research...awesomeness!
What began in 1995 as a hobby for a pair of amateur folklorists has grown into one of the Internet's most trusted authorities—and a full-time profession for the Mikkelsons. Each month, 6.2 million people visit Snopes, according to Quantcast, which tracks Internet traffic. The New York Times recently put Snopes on its short list of essentials that every computer user must know about. President Barack Obama's campaign launched a copycat version last fall to battle rumors of its own (for the record, Michelle Obama didn't gorge on room-service caviar and lobster at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). And even the word Snopes, a name David borrowed from a family in a William Faulkner novel, has gone viral—as in, "Why didn't you Snopes that junk before forwarding it to your entire e-mail list?" Richard Roeper, the movie critic who sidelines as an author of myth-busting books like Debunked!, says, "Snopes is like having your own army of fact-checkers sniffing out a million wacko leads."
An army of two, that is. Snopes's world headquarters is actually just Barbara and David sitting around their modest double-wide on a shady hillside outside Los Angeles. Their two home offices are stacked to the ceiling with their trusty research tools: dictionaries, almanacs, VHS tapes, Disneyana, encyclopedias, atlases, and hundreds of books like UFO's: A Scientific Debate and Organ Theft Legends. Oh, and there are cats: Buster, Sterling, Irene, Ashes, and Memphis. "David and I work at opposite ends of the house," Barbara says, flinging a cat's crinkle toy. "I once attempted to send him a note by sticking a Post-it on the side of one of the cats."
Cat couriers? Sounds like a case for Snopes. Strange rumors about animals are among the website's most popular cases. That widely circulated photograph of Hercules, a 282-pound mastiff with "paws the size of softballs," is one example.
"About a year ago, people started sending us photos from the Internet of a freakishly large dog walking alongside two people and a horse, and it made me go, 'Wait a minute,'" David says. A self-proclaimed computer nerd with a mop of brown hair, David was undoubtedly the kid whose notes everyone copied. "We investigated, and the picture turned out to be a digital manipulation-what we call fauxtography."
Another Snopesism is glurge, a "true story" so sugary sweet, it could make a baby unicorn cringe. One such tale making the rounds online is about Stevie, a young man with Down syndrome who receives donations from compassionate truckers at the restaurant where he works. (Snopes, which cites its sources in detailed footnotes at the bottom of each entry, uncovered the magazine where it was first published-as fiction.) Then there's the sad, cautionary poem reputedly penned in jail by a teenage meth addict shortly before her death by overdose. It is forwarded in an e-mail thousands of times every day. Again Snopes tracked down the original author: an Oklahoma mom with a seventh-grade daughter, neither of whom ever used methamphetamines.
"Most of what we deal with exists outside traditional media," David says, staring at an inbox with 21,144 unopened e-mails. Among the subject headings: "Video of one-winged airplane landing. For real?" and "Fisher-Price talking doll says 'Islam Is the Light!'" David glances at his muted TV set, where Law & Order is playing with closed-captioning. "These stories and half-truths are handy forms of expressing fears or concerns or ways of looking at life," he says. "But it's not easy to find out if these things are true or not, so people turn to us."
A passion for nosing around is what brought the Mikkelsons together, and it's still their prime motivation. The couple met in 1994 on an Internet newsgroup devoted to urban legends like the one about Walt Disney's body being cryogenically frozen after his death. Faster than you could say, "Mikey died of Pop Rocks," Barbara was flying from her hometown outside Ottawa to Los Angeles to meet David, then a computer programmer for an HMO. "Our first date was me taking Barbara to the library at UCLA to go through old magazines," David says, laughing. The couple now earn a "very healthy" income, David says, from advertising on the site.
Though the Mikkelsons are established figures on the Web, they still prefer old-fashioned research—scouring vintage catalogs, thumbing through four newspapers a day—over finding quick answers online. "I might use Google or Wikipedia as a starting point," David says. "But that's not research." For fun, the Mikkelsons go to places like the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta and the Library of Congress.