When I first ventured online in the late ’90s, my in-box was constantly flooded with email forwards. Friends and co-workers alike tossed around lists of jokes, hoaxes and cautionary urban legends, pleas about a dying child in Idaho that needed your prayers or horror stories about human fingers discovered in fast food hamburgers. Today it seems that there are fewer circulating. But while many people have stopped forwarding emails because of complaints from recipients, it seems they’re not so much dwindling as changing with the times.

Social media, with its instant connection to wide networks of people, seems tailor-made for the same sort of rumor mongering, and email forwards are evolving into new types of hoaxes and rumors via sites like Facebook and Digg.

Why Forward?

There was just something novel about email in the late days of the 90s — it was suddenly possible to reconnect with old friends and long-lost relatives and send messages around the globe for next to nothing. (Although it wouldn’t be accurate to say that the “forward” was born with email, because the form has a rich pre-Internet history in Xeroxlore.)

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Hogzilla or hoax? This photo of a razorback has been circulating since 2007

But it was often the case when you reconnect with old friends that there’s only so much that you have to say. And eventually you began to feel guilty that you hadn’t talked to most of the names in your address book in a while. After all, what excuse do you have not to write when delivery is instantaneous and free?

The email forward was a perfect way to let your friends know that you were still thinking of them, without ever actually having to say anything substantive.

But now that the novelty of email has worn off, forwards have stopped being amusing. I long ago took to instantly deleting anything that pops into my in-box with the title “Fwd: Funny!”

If email forwards are so universally reviled, how do they keep going? They spread virally, like urban legends — and, in fact, some of the most popular email forwards are rehashes of pre-existing legends once spread by word of mouth. Slacktivist blogger Fred Clark posited a theory that the people passing along one venerable forward — an urban legend that Proctor & Gamble donated money to the Church of Satan — might suspect the story to be false but enjoyed the feeling of accomplishment that they got from supposedly helping to “blow the whistle.” That might explain the tenacity of some hoax forwards.

Viral marketing scientist Dan Zarella offers a number of alternative theories for the spread of urban legends that can also apply to other sorts of forwards: a desire to warn friends of unknown dangers, a need to fit in, or simply as a form of recreation.

Zarella conducted an extensive survey of Viral Content Sharing motivations, finding that only approximately 9.5% of 420 respondents forwarded to stay in contact (what he termed “relationship building”). By far the most popular reason for forwards was “personal relevance” — the sense that the recipient would somehow enjoy or benefit from the forward.

Are Forwards dying?

If people really are only forwarding when they genuinely think it’s something you’d want to read, that may explain why we seem to receive fewer forwards these days. I conducted my own informal survey of my contacts on Facebook, MySpace, and LiveJournal to see if my sense was accurate.

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This photoshopped picture of Sarah Palin was a popular email forward last year

Younger Internet users tend to view forwards uniformly as an annoyance, while older users were more divided depending on the forward’s content — they enjoyed humor forwards as entertaining diversions, but grimaced at chain letters and obviously fraudulent warnings. In general, everyone reported getting fewer forwards — but mostly because they’d learned to keep a tight rein on who had access to their email addresses. The only people from whom they still received forwards were those they couldn’t delete from their email lists — relatives.

It’s probably too optimistic to think that email forwards are a thing of the past. Websites like My Right Wing Dad, which exists to catalog pushy political forwards, indicate that forwards are still circulating. But even while Net-savvy email users have learned to discourage them, 2008 was a particularly fruitful year for forwards, as the U.S. presidential election provided ample fodder for jokes, rumors, and hoaxes.

My friends reported receiving frequent email forwards questioning the eligibility of both candidates, claiming that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii before it became a state and that John McCain was excluded from running for president because he was born in Panama. Other forwards didn’t even bother with text, simply deciding that a picture was worth a thousand words — like a widely circulated photo that purported to depict a bikini-clad Sarah Palin toting a rifle.

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David Emery

In Zarella’s survey, even frequent bloggers, Twitterers, and Facebook users preferred email as their primary method of passing along stories and information.

“If you consider that rumor-mongering, by definition, is the act of spreading unsubstantiated information — and urban legends are more or less rumors in story form — it’s not surprising that they haven’t gotten that much traction in the social networking world,” said David Emery, Urban Legends writer for About.com. “Email, on the other hand, is the perfect medium for these activities. It’s more discursive, it allows for mass-forwarding, and unlike posting notes on your Facebook page it can be a relatively anonymous and an impersonal means of communication.”

Urban Legends in Web 2.0

Those urban legends we’re used to seeing in email forwards have had a new life via social media. Respondents in my own survey told me that the forward-style message still exists in the Web 2.0 world — it’s just evolved to slip neatly into conversations between users. So while you won’t find long warnings posted to Facebook, it’s not uncommon to find users leaving links to stories of, say, Burundanga business cards in their comments. Luckily, the public conversation of social media can also make it easier to “kill” such memes by responding with an equally public link to Snopes.com to debunk the warning.

Emery agreed that social media was conducive to a different breed of urban legend than was email:

The kind of stuff that does go around on social networking sites tends to be brief and in the vein of virus alerts and safety warnings — especially ones pertinent to the sites themselves — as well as missing child alerts. For one example, I’ve seen several variations of a warning to the effect that one should not respond to messages or friend requests from a MySpace user named XYZ because he is (in one version) a hacker who will steal your profile info or (in another version) a serial killer trolling for victims online. (These are based on an email warning that has circulated for the better part of a decade.)

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Libby Tucker

Libby Tucker, an associate professor of English at Binghamton University who specializes in folklore and fantasy, has studied how legends spread in new media. One of her recent essays explored how websites dedicated to missing women like Natalee Holloway often reflect cautionary “killer in the back seat of the car” urban legends about women in peril.

“These days there are many semi-humorous email chain letters that contain legend-like plots or characters,” she said via email. “Young people are text-messaging some of these chain letters to each other, and the chain letters are also appearing on YouTube. In many cases, the appeal of the story makes the narrative adaptable to different media, and variations develop over time. Facebook, MySpace and YouTube offer many opportunities for legend transmission.”

Tucker said that chain letters, once ubiquitous in email, have also popped up in YouTube comments — the Latualatuka chain letter being a notable example.

Some legends begin as real events exaggerated into legend by retelling. Tucker pointed to a new Facebook group titled Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom, which might contain the seeds of a new legend. She said:

[The site is] already populated by a large number of people who held purple tickets for Obama’s inauguration and got stuck in a tunnel, where they couldn’t see or hear anything related to the inauguration (except, perhaps, for what they could see/hear on their own electronic devices). This Facebook group’s name mirrors the names of legends like ‘The Big Tunnel’ in southern Indiana, as well as movie names like ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.’ Playful and entertaining!

Some urban legends popular on social media sites begin as creepypasta, which is short horror fiction (sometimes themselves based on pre-existing urban legends) written by Internet users for a good scare. Of course, once these stories become separated from their authors’ names, they tend to spread in much the same way as traditional campfire stories — and, like campfire stories, are sometimes repeated as fact. One particular creepypasta legend briefly popular on Digg, that of the cursed Mereana Mordegard Glesgorv video, is supplemented by an actual YouTube video, adding to its supposed authenticity. According to this legend:

There is a video on YouTube named Mereana mordegard glesgorv. If you search this, you will find nothing. The few times you find something, all you will see is a 20 second video of a man staring intently at you, expressionless, then grinning for the last 2 seconds. The background is undefined. This is only part of the actual video.

The full video lasts 2 minutes, and was removed by YouTube after 153 people who viewed the video gouged out their eyes and mailed them to YouTube’s main office in San Bruno. Said people had also committed suicide in various ways. It is not yet known how they managed to mail their eyes after gouging them out. And the cryptic inscription they carve on their forearms has not yet been deciphered.

You may recognize the story from its pre-Internet incarnations — the idea of the cursed video was explored most recently in the “Ringu” films and most famously in Robert Chambers’ 1895 story cycle “The King in Yellow” (which is actually about a cursed play, but the principle is the same). The video’s origin, like most components of urban legends, isn’t entirely clear, but Wikipedia credits it to a YouTube prankster caled Brokeanddrive who was inspired to upload it after reading the original creepypasta story. Brokeanddrive confirmed the story.

“During the first few days I watched with astonishment as the number of views grew and grew,” said Brokeanddrive, “I think it was the second day my video popped up on others’ YouTubes. One, two, then four then twelve, and that heralded the endless parodies. I particularly liked the one with the lampshade on his head that ended with the terrifying countenance of Michael Jackson. I received several messages about it; I mostly replied with “No, I didn’t put that video up there, what’re you talking about?” Y’know, trying to keep the whole fireside ghost story element rolling.”

Most folklorists agree that part of the reason urban legends like this spread is because they’re fun. Scary stories of the hookman or sewer alligators inspire delightful chills — so it shouldn’t be surprising to see their online counterparts flourishing. And at least these new multimedia stories have a creative flair lacking in most email forwards.

And some things about urban legends never change, no matter the medium. Just like kids are always vaguely disappointed when the murderous spirit of Bloody Mary fails to materialize after chanting her name into a mirror, naive YouTubers were disappointed to find that viewing the entire Mereana mordegard glesgorv video did not, in fact, cause their eyes to fall out.

What do you think? Do you still get email forwards? Or are they getting replaced by social media? And what jokes, hoaxes, and urban legends do you see passing through Web 2.0?

Mike Rosen-Molina is a Northern California freelance reporter and an associate editor for MediaShift. A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley schools of journalism and law, he has worked as an editor for the Fairfield Daily Republic and as a managing editor for JURIST legal news services.