I’ve celebrated my 29th birthday for several years in a row now, and I’m tired.
I’ve been on the internet since the early 90s. I remember staring for far too long at amber or green letters on a black screen, chatting for the first time with someone I’d never met (and would never meet). I remember Netscape. I know too well the Eternal September of AOL. I remember the grand flowering of political blogging on all sides of any aisle you can name in the early years of the last decade. I’ve seen more than my share of crappy Geocities web sites (complete with ear-mauling automated midi files). I’m not an expert, but I am at least a reasonably well-traveled (so to speak) citizen of the internet. I have been wrong on the internet. I have also been right.
Most importantly, I remember the Nieman-Marcus cookie recipe.
Yes, this Nieman-Marcus Cookie Recipe. It’s a classic urban legend, and it was a regular sight on the internet in the 90s (and, sadly, beyond). It is one of many blatantly false things that the internet makes ever more common. These sorts of stories have always existed, of course — folklorists make a living because of them, and never run out of new material. The internet did not create them — it merely made it easier for them to propagate at higher speeds over larger distances. The old chain letter (which should have died out) got new life on the internet as people started forwarding crap to each other at speeds the postal service could never match. The water cooler conversations became ocean conversations. The rumor mill became a staggeringly large rumor processing facility, tapped often and always at peak production.
I am tired of people spreading this crap around.
No, let’s be accurate: I am tired of a broader information culture in which many of the active participants are entirely irresponsible about information (especially sourcing/attribution).
Facebook has, in a way, become the new Eternal September (that time when the n00bs hit the internet and keep trying to reinvent the wheel instead of just slowing down and reading the blessed FAQ first). Unlike the old days, though, this stuff isn’t happening in a cranky Usenet group where the old-timers can correct the mistake (sometimes with fire). Now, the stuff that used to get forwarded in mass emails to relatives who’d rather not read it is posted in status updates, often with graphics. It gets posted for social purposes, for emotional purposes, for political purposes, for any purpose you can name. Most of the people posting these things are not malicious. They see a cause they support, or a sentiment with which they agree, and they share. It’s not an irrational behavior. It makes perfect sense.
It is, just the same, irresponsible. Why? Because so much of what is posted is, essentially, the Nieman-Marcus Cookie Recipe. It’s bullshit, and no effort seems to have been made by the poster to determine this fact before posting. It may be well-meant bullshit (depending on how one feels about the material, I suppose), but it’s still 100% Grade-A bullshit, and it is readily identifiable as such if only one takes a few minutes to use that Miracle of Teh Intarwebz known as Google (or any other damn search engine, really).
There are true things on the internet, too, you see. You can find them. You can read them. You can know. There are resources (like the venerable Snopes.com) devoted to making it possible for you to weed out the true from the false. There are whole, huge archives of actual documents (as opposed to poorly attributed quotation aggregator pages) wherein you may find the words of that famous person whose opinion you believe so well matches your own. There are archives of news articles. Whole freakin’ books are out there for free, thanks to Project Gutenberg (and many others), and you can totally read them instead of taking the word of some random jerk on the internet about their contents. Wikipedia, occasionally crazy, occasionally unreliable, at least does this much: it requires source documentation, and that makes it possible for you to actually check those sources (which should be the first thing you do before you rely on Wikipedia). So does Snopes, so check their references yourself (and take off that tinfoil hat, because it makes you look ridiculous).
All you have to do is look before you decide to share.
JUST. FUCKING. LOOK.
Please. I am begging you. There’s no excuse now. Just do it.
I am tired.