Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Internet Story: a lesson in evaluating information on the web.

Internet Story is becoming quite the viral hit. My daughter came home and told me about the murder of a man in Wales who was following clues to what was supposed to be a substantial cash prize. She was totally creeped out after she heard about it, and her friends had been following the clues and looking at the presumedly murdered man's YouTube account. Cay came home and said "I had hoped this was some sort of War of the Worlds thing (referring to the famous radio broadcast that panicked a nation), but it's REAL."

It all starts on the website Al1's Nine Grand Quest. On that page is a story-board, and just in case you never relate this all to Chaucer's tale, at the bottom of the page is the little disclaimer, "If it's all too hard, then pardon me."

Like many internet stories, this one has been well believed. After all, look at all the evidence! There is a YouTube account with home videos of a man following the clues. There is a website with the clues, and it's pretty obviously designed like many of the websites of it's time: Black background, large yellow letters. It's a pretty typical old Angelfire site.

the YouTube Channel of the presumedly dead man

Al 1's page on Angelfire:  Al1's Nine Grand Quest

Now the odd thing about this story is that it has all the hallmarks of an urban legend. So much so, that when Cay came home and told me the story, I laughed. And the very first thing I found trying to Google it (because I was typing "Al one" instead of Al1", perhaps) was an IMDB page, which totally ruined the fun for me:

IMdB page for Internet Story

In the last few days, this story has exploded across the internet with reviews on CBS News Tech Talk and other credible pages. The story itself is far from novel, but the way it's presented is pure genius. In the past we've seen different shows use the internet to lend credibility to the story being told. For example the TV series Heroes had webpages for the businesses the characters worked for, including the government front, Primatech Paper Company which "employed" Noah Bennett, the mysterious man with the horn rimmed glasses.

And while everyone is heralding Adam Butcher, the man behind Internet Story, as somewhat of a genius, I'm more than a little disappointed in how the backstory was presented and how flimsy it all was.

Now it takes very little investigation to find that the story is fiction. And while people might notice the date of the YouTube uploads or that the name of the YouTube channel owner is xxxxFortressxxxx and not Fortress, some viewers explained that away by saying that this was a mirror of an older site, and that the videos had been reposted.

comments on Fortress's YouTube Channel

The problem here is obvious: Not everything on the web is real or true, and most people lack the skills to get at the truth.  Recently I found this graphic being reposted on FB:

The availability of the internet and the amount of revision that information goes through by totally unqualified sources is amazing, but the whole internet isn't one vast Wikipedia.  In some cases, there are  quick and reasonable ways to check the authenticity of something.

While a number of kids struggled with the story and wound their way through the clues, noticing things like that the shovel that buried the money was the same shovel that Fortress used on his quest (as evidenced by certain markings on the shovel) and that there were disparities in the dates of the video uploads... then those who spent long periods of time researching murders in July of 2005 in Wales... A much better start would have been to research the source of the video, Adam Butcher himself, a film-maker who, until now, was of little note.

Even then, I suppose, the argument could be made that Mr Butcher was reenacting a true tale, and using true footage from the Fortress's YouTube Channel.

Until you take the 3 seconds it takes to scan the source code on Al1's Nine Grand Quest page on Angelfire.  First off, Kudos to Mr Butcher for using Angelfire, which was one of the free web-building sites so commonly used before 2005, and one of the few popular ones that remains.  But he would have done better to go in with the HTML editor and change some code in the document properties if he really wanted to make it more difficult, because he pretty much gives all the answers away right there:

Screen shot of some of the source code on Al1's Angelfire page

The real story of Internet Story isn't the tale of a man who goes out to meet death, but the story of how we need to relearn how to evaluate information.   It's ironic that a technique used since 1938 should continue to take in so many people.  Fool me once, shame on your.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  Fool me over and over again for 70 years?  Well, it's time we start teaching our young people how to evaluate information.