Folklore and Urban Legends Essay

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new media & society
Copyright © 2003 SAGE Publications London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi Vol5(1):29–45 [1461–4448(200305)5:1,29–45;030902]

ARTICLE

Legends on the net: an examination of computermediated communication as a locus of oral culture
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JAN FERNBACK Temple University
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Abstract
Building upon work that suggests an oral cultural dimension to cyberspace within real-time chat modes, this article supports that contention by examining traditional oral folklore as it exists within the textual context of the online environment. Specifically, this study is a formal analysis of online discussion groups devoted to the perpetuation and analysis of a particular type of oral folklore – urban legends – and the cultural significance of their existence in the online realm. As mediated human communication becomes more and more non-linear, decentralized, and rooted in multimedia, the distinction between orality and literacy becomes less evident and less important. The proliferation of urban legends online demonstrates the idea that cyberspace can serve as a locus for a primary oral culture and its attendant humanity and sociability in a simultaneously textual environment.

Key words cyberspace • folklore • orality • urban legends

‘Warning! Congress is about to legalize long-distance charges for Internet access.’ ‘A Texas woman contracted HIV from a hypodermic needle planted in her movie theater seat.’ ‘A businessman awoke to find
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New Media & Society 5(1)

himself packed in ice in the bathtub of his New Orleans hotel room. On the mirror someone had written ‘Call 911.’ Whoever had written the message had also stolen his kidneys.’ These familiar anecdotes adorn TechTV’s column (Urban Legends on the Net, 1999) on internet urban legends, a website dedicated to the documentation of a phenomenon of oral culture known as the urban legend. The presence of these legends online is evidence of the growth of internet culture; terms such as flaming, spamming, and dot com have become part of our cultural lexicon. In the wake of this burgeoning cultural product, the potential of the internet as an medium of orality is worthy of scholarly reflection. In an era when the threat of computer viruses routinely scares members of the technoculture, the power of this oral culture is experienced by anyone noticing the proliferation of false virus alerts through email. Claims that the advent of new technologies fosters profound social change are once again resurfacing as the hype surrounding computer-mediated communication (CMC) technology grips the public imagination. Theorists from Ong (1982) and McLuhan (1962, 1964) to Postman (1985) have claimed that the widespread use of print (and later electronic media) technologies has vastly altered human thought and interaction. Some of these same claims are being resurrected in light of the increasing popularity of online technology. But assessing the communicative impact of CMC requires more nuance than simply typifying online discourse in terms of either oral or literate culture. Clearly, CMC displays elements of oral as well as textual communication. Building upon work that suggests an oral cultural dimension to cyberspace within real-time chat modes (see Reid, 1994 and Ross,…