September 21, 2002

A Column by Byron McAllister


The internet may be the "information superhighway," but it's so cluttered with billboards that finding your way when you drive there is a constant battle. Moreover, the best routes aren't marked plainly at all, and what markers exist are so changeable that they're hard to interpret. In short, driving the information superhighway may or may not get you to the destination you were headed for. Today I think I'll recount some of my own weird experiences there.

One time I wanted information on a certain magazine that prints mystery stories, and, having looked unsuccessfully for its website, I tried a search for its editor. I knew her name, so I typed it in. Sure enough, a link or two came up, but they apparently offered a view of my editor with no clothes on. Correctly deducing that the name didn't identify a unique individual, I suppressed my prurient interest and "didn't go there." Eventually, I learned that the lady has no personal website, and runs none for the magazine, either. "So," you may say, "no harm done." But that's because I was already moderately well-informed about the object of the search. How much less would I need to have known before I'd fancy I could at least find out "what she looks like" by a simple click of the mouse? (As I prepared to write this column, I decided I'd better find out what I would have seen if I hadn't suppressed the aforementioned interest, repeated the search, and clicked on the offer. However, it turned out that if I really wanted to see the nude in question I'd have to pay. Needless to say, I lost interest again.)

Next case. Although I deny that egocentrism is one of my faults, I admit that it's one of my characteristics, so, every once in a while, I do a web search for my name, just to see what I've been up to lately. That's also a great way to remind myself how easy it can be to choose the wrong exit ramp from the information superhighway. Since it's me asking about myself, checking up is easy: whatever the web says about "me," I can compare whatever I find with my own recollection.

For example, a Belgian site (not updated since 1999) asserts, in French, that they wish to welcome "me" to something I couldn't quite make out. I think I can safely assume they have some namesake of mine in mind. I also found "me" on a list of recently deceased persons. And at some college I never heard of, it appears that "I" am head of security. Further, a genealogy site lists "me," a few generations back, among the ancestors of the web-mistress. These sites were among those found by using my first and last names, grouped together. By using all three names or first and last with a middle initial, I get a different bunch of sites.

But now, imagine, if you can, that enough importance attached to me somehow (perhaps after I win a Nobel or Pulitzer?) that some only moderately sophisticated person wants to look me up. Not everybody knows my middle name nor even initial, so that person would find pretty much what I listed just now. Would he or she conclude that, despite my great age, I held a job as security chief until my recent death, but that my progeny treasure my memory? There do happen to be a couple of websites where I appear to be a writer (Mysterical-e is one of them), and they might come up, more or less confirming the searcher's suspicion that he was on the track of "the real me."

There can be a sort of fun aspect to making this sort of error, though. Today I looked me up again, and found a very nice photo, or rather a sketch, of "me" in what I take to be an angry or perhaps desperate mood. The accompanying text asserts that "I" am 24 years old, that I'm six feet tall and weigh 195 pounds, and that I'm an intelligence operative for Shadow/Light Intercolonial. I don't actually recall signing on at S/L I, whatever that is, but if somebody looked me up and happened to miss the bearded photos that grace the two websites that call me a writer, that sketch might be interpreted as the real thing. After all, a writer could very well be an intelligence operative. Somerset Maugham was one. Our hypothetical term-paper-writer might well think he or she had found me again, though certainly at an early age--before the beard. Perhaps even before photography. (Actually, I've shaved the beard, but that hypothesis wouldn't occur to our quester, since it doesn't fit with the rest of what's been discovered.)

The Op of that web-page is American (me too), likes Celtic music (the real me prefers classical, but Celtic is all right), dislikes disorganization (so do I, though I practice it in spite of myself), and has several characteristics I might like to possess. For example, he's muscular, dresses neatly, has artistic parents, likes philosophy and shooting, was popular in school--especially with girls, exercises regularly, has gray eyes (spelled, actually, as "grey," but hey, that's okay; mine are only blue-gray), and possesses survival skills galore. In fact, some of these items actually fit me: my father once sang Pooh-Bah in a presentation of The Mikado in Kanab, Utah, for example, and my mother not only wrote poetry but occasionally painted pictures, so I was, indeed, born into an artistic family. See--proves right there that the Op on the page is me, indeed. Also I like philosophy, whether I understand it or not. I'm willing to let you assume that the rest fits me, also, if you wish.

Okay, so you weren't fooled for a minute. Neither was I, of course, but some people might be, and the web offers them no protection from any bad consequences their misunderstanding might cause them. With luck, there won't be any, but who knows?

Here's another example. Recall (and I'm old enough that I can recall this) that before the song "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" showed up, there was a much longer poem, also known as "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Montgomery Ward stores all over the nation distributed copies of this free to every kid who came in. I forget exactly when it was, but I can find out on the web, and the sources seem to agree. Aha! There's a life-jacket--or maybe on the information superhighway it's a guard rail. When several sources seem to agree, the information is likely to be more or less correct. (I know of some sets of sources where that assumption isn't justified, however, because the people who man them just repeat each other's lies. I don't visit them, and wouldn't tell you where to find them if I did.)

What the Rudolph sources don't fully agree on, however, is how it happened that the poem was written and distributed. One version, for example, features a poetically inclined gentleman whose life was all drudgery, writing advertising copy. His wife had died recently, and his little daughter fell ill and needed lots of attention. Night after night, he made up stanzas of the poem to help her fall asleep. According to this source, the man compiled it from there, submitted it to his bosses, and persuaded them to publish and distribute it, which they, in the warmth of their hearts, did.

In another, the same person (same name anyhow), who could conceivably have been widowed--but if so the site didn't mention it--and whose daughter, if any, may or may not have been ill, was assigned by his employer, Montgomery Ward, to write the poem for the sake of advertising. He did, and he or they had it illustrated, and the rest is history. Well, lost history to most of us, but history nonetheless.

How can I choose between the sweet tale and the business-like one? Is it possible for both to be true? Possible? Yes. Likely? I don't think so.

For what it's worth, the one I'm inclined to believe adds that a few years later the author obtained all rights to the poem, after which his brother-in-law, a song writer, collaborated with him in writing the Rudolph song, now so well-known that a lot of people assume the Magi sang it on the way to Bethlehem. The longer poem, meantime, is largely forgotten.

Well, not entirely forgotten. It's on the web. Do you need an assignment? Okay, here it is: considerably before December of 2002, conduct a web-search until you find the poem (that's the original poem, not just the words to the song, silly). In spite of its length, memorize the poem, and recite it to your kids. (What? You don't have kids? No problem: recite it to your parents or your friends or whoever. Strangers at the public library, if necessary.) Meantime, also keep track of how many versions you can find of how the poem came to be written--all the time thinking about how one could go about discerning which of these stick to the strict truth, and which sweeten the story up, to make it prettier. Oh, and while you're at it, try to imagine a way to tell whether one of these--or any website for that matter--just plain out-and-out lies. If you think of a way, I hope you tell the world, especially me. And in case you're inclined to think that none of this matters, I have to remind you that some websites give medical advice. The internet is a powerful tool, but, hey, so is a razor-sharp knife. You have to be careful with both.