Some things never change, particularly where human nature is concerned, and among the more predictable human foibles I can think of is our propensity to spread rumors, gossip, and hearsay. Now, thanks to the ever-expanding reach of the Internet, we do it faster and more efficiently than ever before.
To say we gossip more efficiently is not to say we do it any more accurately, however. The irony of the digital age is that despite the fact that we have more and better access to reliable information than at any time previously in human history, often it seems we are literally awash in misinformation. I'm occasionally asked if I have noted any improvement in that respect over time. The best answer I can give is, well, not if this past year was any indication.
Unlike 2005, in which news headlines and Net chatter alike were dominated by natural disasters and their aftermaths, 2006 was all about business as usual. Among the familiar falsehoods lingering from previous years were reports of vicious, deadly "camel spiders" threatening U.S. troops in Iraq and the tiresomely superfluous "add your cell phone to the Do Not Call Registry" alert.
Reports of "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin's death were circulating again but this time, to everyone's great surprise and remorse, they turned out to be true. And overtaking the nonexistent "Penny Brown" as the Internet's favorite missing-person poster child was the real but not at all missing Ashley Flores.
Like I said, business as usual.
Here, in ascending order of popularity as measured by overall traffic and reader interest, are the Top 10 Net Hoaxes, Rumors and Urban Legends of 2006:
10. The ATM Reverse-PIN Trick
The most-forwarded Net rumor during the final months of 2006 purported to offer a tidbit of esoteric knowledge about the workings of ATMs, namely that there is a hidden safety feature whereby users can quietly alert police of an attempted robbery by entering their PIN (personal identification number) backwards. Let's hope no one has tried it. The reverse-PIN system does exist on paper and its inventor claims it would reduce crime with widespread use, but the technology has yet to be implemented anywhere in the real world.
9. The Brown Recluse Spider Bite
Topping the "Gross & Disgusting" category this past year was a set of images purporting to document the progressive deterioration of a wound caused by the bite of the poisonous brown recluse spider. The unretouched images do depict symptoms consistent with a severe case of arachnid poisoning, but they could also be associated with gangrene or necrotizing fasciitis. Not for the squeamish!
8. Crikey, Steve Irwin's Really Dead!
An urban legend came true on September 4, 2006 when Steve Irwin, TV's famed "Crocodile Hunter," died after suffering a stingray attack while shooting an underwater documentary off the Great Barrier Reef. Having made a career of putting himself in harm's way by getting up close and personal with a variety of dangerous wild animals, Irwin was no doubt accustomed to hearing premature reports of his own death. So were we. Unfortunately, this time it was for real.
7. The (Ongoing) Attack of the Camel Spiders
The ever-popular Middle Eastern "camel spider" returns to the Top 10 this year after being bumped in 2005 by rumors circulating in the wake of the tsunami in Asia and Hurricane Katrina. It's not the close-up image of the pair of fist-sized, khaki-colored critters that arachnid experts take issue with; it's the exaggerated claims concerning the species' predatory prowess. "With a vertical leap that would make a pro basketball player weep with envy," the caption reads, "these bastards latch on and inject you with a local anesthesia so you can't feel it feeding on you. They eat flesh, not just suck out your juices like a normal spider." Uh-huh.
6. World Record Grizzly Bear
Look here for authentic photos of one of the biggest bears you'll ever see, but don't believe the tall tales accompanying them. Weighing in at a not-quite-world-record 1,000 to 1,200 pounds, the Alaskan brown bear bagged by off-duty airman Ted Winnen was undoubtedly ferocious, but not a man-eater, contrary to email reports. An additional image purporting to show the remains of one of the bear's human victims was unrelated and attached after the fact. View at your own risk.