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by Jan Harold Brunvand
July 25, 2001
The past months, nay, year of my life has been bustling and disorienting. The "new, Internet economy" has turned out to be a pipe dream, and thousands of hapless professionals have been left holding the check. No wonder, then, that nothing that the Internet misinformation mill has brought surprises me.
In this column, I'll address some of the more notable of online misinformation in summary notes.
This one's so old, been around since 1995. Still makes appearances, along with the "Women in Afghanistan" petition and other calls to overreaction. Online petitions are relatively useless, as the signatures can be faked. The earliest version of this petition (1995) was initiated by two students at the University of Northern Colorado to protest congressional budget cuts to public television. Later it was anonymously edited to "Save Sesame Street!," though the show was never in danger of being cancelled. In 1998 it reappeared with broadcaster Nina Totenberg's name attached. Neither PBS nor UNC invited this petition, and they'd both like you to DELETE the petition without forwarding it any more.
MSN will now charge for their Messenger service. America Online (AOL) is going to charge for IMs. AOL will do away with IMs entirely. Balderdash, all of it! These perennial favorite hoaxes have been circulating for years, usually accompanied by the idiotic claim that simply forwarding the message (via e-mail, via IM, via ICQ) will effect to some kind of preventative protest.
Wouldn't you like to be able to feed the hungry for FREE?
According to several similar chain e-mails in 1999, charity site The Hunger Site offered users a way to generate charitable contributions from sponsors by clicking on their web site. Kind of like you sponsor a runner in a charity marathon race, pledging 10¢ for each mile. Here, corporate sponsors would pledge some money for each visitor who clicked the site. Programmer John Breen started the non-profit site as a way to generate donations to United Nations' World Food Program.
I didn't like the idea, for the same reason that I hate the central idea behind all the Jessica Mydek hoaxes. What if NOBODY forwards the e-mail? "Sorry kid, no cup of rice for you today. Not enough Internet users clicked our web site...." Despite my cynicism, The Hunger Site was pretty darn successful, attracting as many as two million visitors a month, and winning a People's Voice Award at the 2000 Webby Awards.
Breen's idea was better than that of the company in Seattle that he sold the site to in February, 2000. The new parent company, shopping portal GreaterGood.com, arranged donations based on purchases made on their site and those of their partners. GreaterGood launched The Breast Cancer Site, The Rain Forest Site, and several others upon the same notion. A chain e-mail for the Breast Cancer Site in 2001 claimed that one click is all it took to give a needy woman a free mammogram, but this was inaccurate; it took about 45,000 clicks for each exam. As before, you could click as many times as you liked, but only once per day. And oh, by the way, the GreaterGood sites were not non-profit. GreaterGood.com sold ad space on the site, and donated about 75% of the ad revenue to the National Breast Cancer Foundation.
The party couldn't last forever, though. After GreaterGood.com acquired TheHungerSite.com, traffic to the site dropped. Alas, the whole dream came to an ugly end in July, 2001, when GreaterGood.com ran out of funding, and hadn't found a way to pay their own bills. For the past week, all of the charity web sites featured a simple page stating they're "undergoing routine maintenance" and will be back soon. Uh-huh.