No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet

No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet

No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet

No Way of Knowing: Crime, Urban Legends, and the Internet

Synopsis

This book examines both 'old media' treatment of crime legends: news reports, fictional film and television depictions, as well as 'new media' interactive discussions of them: versions and discussions circulating in Internet newsgroups and via electronic mail lists. It examines rumors in the electronic age, with an eye towards a social context vastly changed from the height of rumor research in the mid-twentieth century.

Excerpt

Rumors seem like the sort of thing sociologists should have a lot to say about. This has unfortunately been far from the case. Psychology and social psychology have contributed most to the very limited social science canon on the subject; but, with the exception of a spate of research related to wartime rumor during World War II, the subject has continued to languish. Perhaps this is because there is no perfect method for studying rumor. One could stand around and wait for someone to pass one along, and write field notes about the interaction between the promulgator and his or her listeners. Or, as French polling agencies sometimes do, one might survey telephone respondents about their level of knowledge about particular rumors. Finally, there’s the tried-and-true practice of pitching an existing rumor into a university class and seeing what the students make of it. Each of these approaches has its benefits and costs, as does the one that I developed that sought to take advantage of the Internet as a research tool.

I began this study in 1996, at a time when Internet usage began to grow exponentially. Despite the social changes wrought by the use of this new medium, social science also seemed to have very little to say about it. Only a few books and articles had been published at that time that reflected the understanding that cyberspace was an important place for social interaction. By and large, journalists did a much better job of observation and prediction of social changes related to new media than academicians did. I more or less developed my own methodology for investigating my slippery subject on the internet: modern rumors about crime or “crime legends. ” Few models for systematic qualitative research were available; the emergence of commercial search engines that accessed Usenet archives were a godsend. The Boolean search protocols attached to these engines enabled some level of rudimentary quantification and standardized selection of materials. Digital archiving enabled rumor research that was simply impossible on a wide scale before: watching the development and social interpretation of rumors unfold in more or less “real time” in the context of conversation.

I had been an early user of Usenet news groups, having had university access in the early 1990s. This time period converged with my interest in the contours of fear about crime, and the question that I began to ask myself was: why, in an age of instant and plentiful digital and media gratification, did the ancient genre of folklore and more specifically, rumor . . .

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