Why did I spend my time at Snopes.com?

Sometimes I get lost online for hours at a time (no, not on facebook, myspace, IMMing or gaming). Thus, was the fate of many hours this past Saturday. It all began innocently enough with me just checking my e-mail and then reading some news stories. One story was about a streaming web-cam feed that captured a horrible tragedy, and left me saddened that someone could get so lost in the world.

From there, I somehow linked to an article on Snopes.com about a similar incident that had been web-cast years ago. This is where I got pulled into hours of mindless online wandering. For those of you who have never heard of Snopes, it is a site dedicated to proving or disproving various “urban” legends. According to the Wikipedia entry, it began years ago as a Usenet Newsgroup (alt.folklore.urban), where people posted questions and got answers about the many claims that have become modern folklore such as, “were there ever really alligators in the NYC sewer system”? (The answer is no).

I discovered this site years ago, when there were fewer entries, and was surprised to see how much it had grown. As I went from article to article, a little voice inside my head kept telling me that there were more important things to do, but I could not turn away. Soon after, I came up with a rationalization about what I was doing at Snopes. I realized how many of the new entries dealt with pictures, videos and stories  that had originated on the internet and spread around the world like wildfire.

Gone are the days when stories about something happening to a friend of a friend are told. Instead, we can now connect, read or write, upload or view pictures and videos that provide “proof” that what we are talking about actually happened. And that is where the team at Snopes comes in. Much like their television counterparts on MythBusters, the staff at Snopes is dedicated to doing the research necessary to validate or invalidate the claims made on the internet.

What I found most interesting was the increase in two types of “myths” that are becoming more common. The first kind of new myth is enabled by the ever advancing technology that allows for photo manipulation. No longer is the old adage, “I’ll believe it when I see it” good enough. Today, sites like Worth1000 host contests where they ask people to digitally manipulate photos to create a new picture, some of which end up becoming urban legends. (Like the photo of the tourist on top of the World Trade Center oblivious to the approaching plane.)

The second type of “myth” deals with incorrectly attributing the details of a picture or video to some event not connected with the graphics. This too, has become a nuisance on the internet as anyone can grab media from anywhere and post it to their own blog or site to create a new background story for the pics or videos. (Such as stories of a 21 foot crocodile found walking the streets of New Orleans after Katrina – real pictures, fake story).

At the end of many hours, I was still left asking myself, “what does any of this have to do with learning or education”? How could I justify spending all that time reading and clicking and linking through the pages of Snopes? The truth is that I was kept there by my own curiosity. My own desire to know truth from fiction, even in the trivial sense. As a sixth grader, I did a report on the Loch Ness Monster that ended with me saying that the evidence was inconclusive. I read every book I could get from our local branch of the Queens Public Library, photocopied the grainy pictures and created a poster that outlined the many Pros and Cons to the argument. Today’s students have access to infinitely more resources than I ever had, but the same technology that makes it possible to connect to this information, also makes it possible to manipulate the truth. More than ever, we need to educate our students that they should approach everything with a critic’s mind and a skeptic’s eyes, lest they be fooled into believing something untrue or even worse dangerous.

At the end of it all, I didn’t regret spending those few hours there. It reminded me of the importance of curiosity and wonder. It reminded me of how crazy and complex the world really is. It left me renewed with a respect for both nature’s beauty and our own creative responses to the world around us.

Snopes.com may not be the kind of site you would ordinarily consider for a class, but it is a keyhole into the stories that fill the imaginations of today’s younger people, and a reminder of how much confusing and often contradictory information there in the connected world.  

Thank you for stopping by and have a great Sunday!

© 2008 henry toromoreno

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About htwilson

born in brooklyn, raised in queens, massachusetts, that's where I be.
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