Virtual Urban Legends: Investigating the Ecology of the World Wide Web
This paper traces the evolution of several ecological phenomena connected with the spread of replicating messages on the World Wide Web (web) and Internet (net). The paper begins by discussing some basic ecological and evolutionary concepts and then turns to analysing common features of replicating messages which have adapted them to survive in these particular 'ecologies'. Specifically, replicating messages survive best when they take advantage of the altruistic and 'information sharing' ethos of the virtual world, when they deal with issues of universal interest (most commonly the maintenance of the web and net themselves), when there is a steady influx of non immunised transmitters, and when it is difficult to falsify the content of the message definitively. (Certain very successful replicating messages share features of urban legends as suggested by Woolgar and Russell in their analysis of computer virus stories. In particular, a strong belief that some of these stories 'ought' to be true dramatically decreases the effectiveness of resources like hoax warning web pages.) These features can be illustrated by specific reference to the developments of the replicator known variously as xxx-1, Join the Crew, Win a Holiday or Good News. Good News is interesting because it is the warning and not the (probably) fictitious virus which constitutes the replicator. The paper concludes by drawing out the more general implications of studies of replicating messages. Firstly, the dialogues about these messages which occur on newsgroups are a very interesting source of secondary data about the transmission process which can be considered from the perspective of Conversation Analysis and Social Construction. Secondly, it may be appropriate to consider web phenomena like replicating messages from an 'ecological' perspective. Thirdly, the web serves as an extremely useful research tool for the study of replicators. (It may help to operationalise research on the spread of the memes suggested by Dawkins.) The paper concludes with some thoughts on the design and ethics of a 'tracer' or replicator deliberately released for research purposes.