Thursday, May 5, 2011

Really? I never mentioned Snopes?

Well that obviously needs fixed.

On the off chance that you haven't heard of it,, more formally the Urban Legends Reference Pages, is the first place to go whenever someone forwards you a forward of a forward of ... a forward of an email containing some compelling factoid or tale.

All things considered, the signal/noise ratio of the web is surprisingly high.  Some sites, like Wikipedia, improve that ratio by (in aggregate) adding useful information.  Snopes does this as well, but also helps filter out the noise.  Given that it's a two-person operation (Barbara and David Mikkelson, who met during the days of alt.folklore.urban), one could make a strong case that Snopes accounts for more signal/noise improvement per person than any other site, if "signal/noise improvement per person" weren't such a geekily silly measure I'm not sure even I can use it with a straight face.

Crucially, Snopes does not set out specifically to debunk legends, though it may seem that way since only a small minority end up confirmed as true.  Rather, it sets out simply to document the known facts, track down how the various legends and rumors have circulated and if possible where they may have started, calling police departments and local officials to actually ask if something happened, and generally doing the journalistic legwork that too often gets bypassed in pursuit of a good story.

The Mikkelsons manage to do all this in evenhanded good faith and with a well-pitched sense of humor. Think of it as MythBusters for the web, albeit without Jamie's epic mustache.

Postscript: It occurs to me that studying the proliferation of urban legends ought to be a potent vaccine against taking the notion of "the wisdom of crowds" too far.

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