It's time to look back on 2005 an eventful twelve months by any measure and revisit the Top 10 Net Hoaxes and Urban Legends of the year.
As in 2004, contenders were ranked according to reader interest and longevity as gauged by email submissions, page views and search queries from January through December. Predictably, a number of the most popular email forwards were "golden oldies" from previous years, so a modest amount of subjective culling was required to make room for both old and new.
It was a year marked by catastrophic natural disasters and their aftermaths, two of which in particular 2004's Christmas tsunami in the Indian Ocean and the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina dominated news coverage and fueled the engines of rumor and hearsay worldwide. So pervasive was the social impact of these events that related Netlore of all kinds desperate pleas for help both sincere and insincere, gut-wrenching images both real and unreal, and accounts of human deeds both noble and ignoble continued to circulate for many months afterward.
In other respects it was business as usual in that quirky parallel dimension referred to as contemporary folklore. There was rampant speculation, for example, concerning a particular female pop star's "true" gender. Thousands upon thousands of people spammed their friends with a message promising big bucks from Bill Gates for helping him test his "email tracking" program. And, for the fourth year running, a nonexistent little girl named Penny Brown went missing in Texas or was it Ottawa? Zimbabwe? Ohio?
Correct answer: all of the above.
You get the idea. Without further ado, here, in ascending order of popularity, are the Top 10 Net Hoaxes and Urban Legends of 2005:
Never, to my knowledge, has a cute little fluffy bunny been so cruelly or profitably used. Condemned to the stewpot unless his anonymous keepers received at least $50,000 in online "donations" by June 30, 2004, Toby the rabbit became an instant cause celebre, even though the Web site erected in his name showed every indication of being a hoax. Was anyone truly surprised when the geniuses holding Toby for ransom postponed the date of his demise to benefit their book deal? Can "Save Toby: The Movie" be far behind?
9. A Tsunami Orphan's Plea for Help
Sadly, the story of Sophia Michl, a 10-year-old girl orphaned in Phuket, Thailand by the December 26, 2004 tsunami, turned out not to be a hoax. After her photo was posted on the Phuket Hospital Web site it found its way to inboxes all over the world, eventually catching the attention of an acquaintance. Though she was quickly reunited with surviving family members in Europe, Sophia's picture continues to circulate via email to this day.
8. Penny Brown Is Missing ... Still!
"Missing" since 2001, 9-year-old Penny Brown may well be the most famous little girl who never existed. Four years later, the fictional plea on her behalf still exhorts readers to send news of her whereabouts to an equally fictional email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. Will this chain letter ever die? Regrettablly, it seems there'a about as much chance of that as there is of Penny Brown being found.
7. New Orleans Croc(k)
Authorities predicted alligator sightings in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but photographs of an (allegedly) 21-foot-long monster crocodile (allegedly) captured in the flooded streets of New Orleans exceeded everyone's wildest expectations. Oddly enough, it also looked exactly like the monster crocodile captured and photographed in the Republic of the Congo one year before. Coincidence?
6. Pulled Over by a Fake Cop? Dial *677 for the Real Thing!
Nothing beats a horror story for staying power, and this one, despite the odd revision or two, is still frightening people into clicking their Forward buttons three years after it was first written up as an email. Not that the tale of "Lauren," a college student who cleverly used her mobile phone to escape the clutches of a rapist impersonating a police officer, is necessarily false it could well be true, or at least partially true. But you can't expect a special emergency number set aside for citizens of Ontario, Canada to work if you live in, say, Virginia, can you?