millerpsych

Just another WordPress.com site

Warning: if you read this post, your hard disk will be wiped and all the sweet fluffy kittens within a two mile radius will die horribly!!!!!!

This warning was issued by Microsoft* this morning… you know the rest.

BUT we should take these warnings seriously – because they are themselves viruses which are evolving and spreading through our systems and our minds.
Another post about some kind of evolution; I’ll stop after this one.

This post is a summary of a paper presented {sometime} at {some conference or other} that I went to. I think the 1998 IRISS conference in Bristol, but I’m not sure. I don’t know who presented it either. If anyone knows, please tell me, so I can credit them properly, because it was a great presentation.

Generally, people know that paedophiles aren’t harvesting baby pictures from Facebook, or watching YouTube videos doesn’t allow Russian gangsters access to your building society account – but the dreadful warnings keep coming. Why do these memes do so well?

Generally humans, because of sophisticated but fallible information transmission systems (talking and singing), are good vehicles for meme evolution. That’s how traditional music works, after all (see last post). The world of blogs and Twitter is a competitive memeocracy, after all, but there’s some information or aesthetic gain there. What makes the useless, stupid virus warnings viable? They are alive and well out there: I glimpse one passing through my patch of the Facebook jungle about once a month.

The case presented at the conference was: they’ve got access to mechanisms for rapid multiplication and transmission, so they can quickly reproduce themselves millions of times to allow for very high fatality rates (like oceanic fish); they have very low energy needs (copy and paste or a click on ‘share’ is all they need to survive) and (and this is the bit I liked) they have a mutation mechanism to provide the variation they need for evolution. Although the lowest-energy form of reproduction is to pass them on directly, people find it difficult to do that without changing something: removing new lines, changing the spelling, adding or removing exclamation marks…..

Compare these versions of the ‘Budweiser Frogs’ virus warning:

URGENT READ IMMEDIATELY. NOT A JOKE!! READ IMMEDIATELY AND PASS ON TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW! Someone is sending out a very cute screensaver of the Budweiser Frogs. If you download it, you will lose everything! Your hard drive will crash and someone from the Internet will get your screen name and password! DO NOT DOWNLOAD IT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES! It just went into circulation yesterday. Please distribute this message. This is a new, very malicious virus and not many people know about it. This information was announced yesterday morning from Microsoft. Please share it with everyone that might access the Internet. Once again, Pass This on Please!!!!!!

Subject: READ IMMEDIATLY AND PLEASE CIRCULATE
NO JOKE…
READ AND PASS ON TO EVERYONE YOU KNOW Someone is sending out a very cute screensaver of the Budweiser Frogs.
If you download it, you will lose everything! Your hard drive will crash and someone from the Internet will get your screen name and password! DO NOT DOWNLOAD IT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!
It just went into circulation yesterday. Please distribute this message.This is a new, very malicious virus and not many people know about it. This information was announced yesterday morning from Microsoft. Please share it with everyone that might access the Internet.
Press the forward button on your email program and send this notice to EVERYONE you know.
Let’s keep our email safe for everyone

Both these examples from http://www.hoax-slayer.com/budweiser-frogs.html: thanks.

No, you may never have heard of the Budweiser frogs: it was a long time ago. But that’s the thing about these parasites; they can evolve and change their hosts. The same warning will appear linked to the Jimmy Carr sex tape, when it emerges.

It’s difficult to resist the tamper urge. I deliberately didn’t insert the missing space in the second example, but I did reformat it a bit to fit the layout of this blog. Of course. That’s what you do.

I guess/hope someone is studying these things systematically, but I couldn’t find anything in a quick search. Please let me know if you know of any research.

It’s not just the reproductive mechanism, of course: there’s information content as well, which is probably where they adapt, through random editing and evolve into currently viable forms.  These messages show who we’re afraid of: paedophiles, communists, Russian gangsters, your future employer, council snoopers – or just ’someone from the Internet’. In content, these warnings are related to urban folktales. One explanation for urban folktales is that they express our hidden fears. In this case, distrust of technology, and the uneasy feeling that people out there can reach out and fiddle with your computer without you knowing (Microsoft messes with my computer while I’m asleep: I got a warning from them this morning).

Urban folktales are very adaptable: stories like The Twopenny Lean, The Phantom Hitchhiker, The Holland Handkerchief, The Fatal Hairdo, The Rich Beggar go on from generation to generation and get changed according to social conditions and fashions. I first heard The Fatal Hairdo about a beehive hairdo (about 1960-65), but it only took that form for a few years before it moved on. If you don’t know about these, http://www.snopes.com/ is a good source, or a series of books by Jan Harold Brunvand. His homepage is at http://www.janbrunvand.com/

There must be must be some online versions by now: an email which mysteriously arrives with a request to pass it on to the sender’s mother, which turns out to have been sent (from an IP address that doesn’t exist) by someone who died just a year before, or a Facebook account which was mysteriously wiped at the exact moment the tsunami hit (yes, I know neither of these really make technical sense, but that’s not important: neither does The Fatal Hairdo). If anyone knows any of these, I’d love to hear them. I’ve heard the one about the real origin of the term ‘bug’. Snopes.com has a few examples of scams and warnings, but no real social media ones.

Of course, there’s always the one about video games rewiring our kid’s brains.

*Why never Apple? Is it because the folks at Apple are too cool to care about those kittens?

Advertisements

One response to “Warning: if you read this post, your hard disk will be wiped and all the sweet fluffy kittens within a two mile radius will die horribly!!!!!!

  1. Thom June 27, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    … which reminded me that language is a virus from outer space: http://vimeo.com/14793787

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: