Remember 'toothing'? Last year the BBC, Reuters and (inevitably) Wired all reported that Bluetooth phones were instrumental in a wave of casual sex sweeping Britain.
"Brits Going at It Tooth and Nail" (geddit??) screamed Wired, with Daniel Terdiman opening his report with the discovery, "The Brits sure are randy".
According to his and similar reports, phone users were using the Bluetooth radio on their handsets to send suggestive anonymous solicitations to people within range. Who then copped off.
Now a British journalist has admitted to making it all up. Toothing never existed, and it was only hoax on a gadget-fetishizing press. The British, it seems, rely on tried and trusted pick-up techniques such as a furtive smile, a wink, or dropping an umbrella.
At the time El Reg was sceptical - a "tad suspicious", we recall - and we requested no more information, thank you.
So hats off to Ste Curran, former Editor at Large at games magazine Edge, who fabricated the stunt.
"All we did was register a forum (which has now been taken down by the service provider, but we have a backup) and fill it with fictional posts by fictional Toothing ’sceners. A week later, we had what appeared to be a vibrant UK Toothing community all ready to roll, and I sent the link off to Gizmodo, a gadget blog. They reported it (you can see that first story here, with a credit at the end to ‘S’, my super-subtle pseudonym). Everyone else linked to / blogged / ripped off their story. Things started to roll, and we became a ludicrous, implausible meme. In turn, that brought Real People to our forum. Others created forums for their localities - Sweden, Denmark, Italy, whatever," he writes.
Alas, Curran then had his work cut out.
"I had to write Penthouse-letters-page style sexual adventure stories for a full page article and interview in The Telegraph."
"I am more and more convinced that it's a myth like flying saucers, in which technology comes to dramatise emotional longings... It is a myth about the benevolence of the world - the modern commuter's equivalent of believing that a statue of the Virgin weeps for you."
All of which is true, and beautifully put.
But the hoax wouldn't have grown legs, and scampered into the public prints, if it hadn't been for a press pack resolutely determined to overstate the transformative power of technology. Wired is a particular sucker for this kind of gadget-inspired nonsense. On such occasions Linus Torvalds' famous reminder should be nailed to the newsroom wall - or even tattoed on Wired reporters' foreheads. "Technology doesn't change society," the Linux ubergeek likes to point out, "society changes technology."
So Toothing never was, but similar myths remain uncorrected and at large.
"Help me! I'm emergent!"
One such net myth repeated endlessly by highly emergent blogging people is that text messaging decisively swung the Philippine elections held several years ago.
"On January 20, 2001 President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines became the first head of state in history to lose power to a smart mob," claims Howard Rheingold.
But text messaging was used because voice calls were prohibitively expensive in the Philippines. It wouldn't have been as sexy to say "the telephone" swung the election, and deposed a President, and that wouldn't have given Howard a title for his book, Smart Mobs. The very phrase "smart mob" conjures images of some fantastic, occult collusion between supremely well-adapted techno-humans and incredible new machines.(Why was the mob smart? Because unlike you and I, they were using the latest technology!)
A similar, and even more distasteful kite has been flown more recently, ascribing Spaniards' decision to oust Prime Minister Aznar and his Popular Party in the wake of the Madrid bombings, to mobile phones.
This kind of myth-making diminishes us all, both as individually as humans and collectively, as members of society. If mobile phones make organising social relations more relaxed for us, and they do, it's probably because we quite like organising our social relations in a relaxed and ad hoc fashion to begin with. However this kind of human spontaneity is now so unthinkable to the reporters, that it must be ascribed to something new and shiny, and mechanistic. (Humans on their own, surely, couldn't be spontaneous?) Once, as Andrew Brown pointed out, weeping statues were required to dazzle the public. Now you just need to know how to pair a Bluetooth connection!
Ste Curran's prank worked because so many news outlets - of a predictably Puritan nature, we can't help noticing - wanted to believe that machines were unleashing some new and hitherto unrecorded aspect of human nature. But, pace Larkin, casual sex is neither new, nor does casual sex require some special machinery. Except, of course, your umbrella. ®