A Web of Lies
By David Streitfeld and Michael Colton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 9, 1997; Page B1
Which of the following suggestions was actually made to the graduating class at MIT this year?
a) "Work tirelessly to anchor the United States firmly to the course of internationalism, to its historic mission as an agent of progressive change and to a world order that reflects your country's commitment to the rule of law, equal opportunity and the irreducible rights of all individuals."
b) "Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way."
c) "Wear sunscreen."
For a couple of days recently, it seemed like nearly all of the nation's e-mail-loving, bored-out-of-their-minds-in-August, "Seinfeld"-worshiping computer users opted for "c." According to an e-mail message widely dispersed over the Internet, that line was the beginning of Kurt Vonnegut's speech to the MIT graduates.
The novelist's supposed speech continued in a similarly pithy vein:
"Enjoy your body. Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own.
"Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how."
And so on. The e-mail containing the speech ricocheted around the known universe, casually and simply believed by everyone. Why shouldn't they have believed it? It's not like anyone was asking for money. But the supposed speech along with a more complicated, more targeted and ultimately scarier Internet hoax proves that in the cyberworld, it may be possible to fool all of the people all of the time.
By Aug. 1, Vonnegut's speech ended up in such places as Wired magazine's Web site, where it was the Quote of the Day. That day it also reached Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, who recognized it as a column she had written in June, without any reference to Vonnegut or MIT. In her column last Saturday, Smich was practically prostrate with guilt at the notion that some unknown idiot had attributed her "simple thoughts" to Vonnegut, and that everyone had believed them.
"Poor man," she wrote. "He didn't deserve to have his reputation sullied in this way."
Vonnegut, who neither surfs the Web nor uses sunscreen, first heard about the supposed speech from his agent/lawyer, who had been sought out by a magazine seeking reprint rights. "I would have been proud had the words been mine," he said, but he confirmed they weren't.
On closer inspection, the words didn't really sound like him anyway. Vonnegut at his best is less snappy but more thoughtful. It's the difference between "Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room" (Schmich) and "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God" (Vonnegut).
Answer "b" above is genuine Vonnegut, from his 1963 novel "Cat's Cradle," which appropriately enough is a warning about the perils of modern technology. "Cat's Cradle" is also about a religion called Bokononism, which recognizes the existence of harmless untruths called "foma," thinks mankind is divided into meaningful groups called "karasses" and meaningless groups called "granfalloons," and says that members of a karass spend their time in the hunt for an object called a "wampeter."
By midweek, the granfalloon known as the media, which had been suffering post-Cunanan malaise, had chosen the foma-filled speech as its latest wampeter.
The New York Times stripped a story across a page, the Wall Street Journal took time off from the sins of Bill Clinton to editorialize, ABC wanted to send a crew out to Vonnegut's summer digs in the Hamptons until he said absolutely not.
Schmich was sought out by "Nightline" and "NBC Nightly News" and, she wrote yesterday, "more book publishers and newspapers than I thought existed in this era of the TV and the World Wide Web."
She also received about a thousand e-mails, a few of which suggested she doesn't exist, or that she is a character in Vonnegut's new novel called "Timequake," and available next month in bookstores everywhere or that "Mary Schmich" is just a cyberhoax.
By the end of the week, Vonnegut was a little unhappy. Here he was, the author of a dozen books written over five decades, as close to a great writer as anyone now working, and he was getting the most attention in years for something he hadn't done.
"It's because it's August, and there's no news. This is the madness of crowds," he said.
He's been accused before of writing things he didn't. In June, he was on a cruise when a fellow came up "and told me he just loved `Venus on the Half Shell,' " a paperback written about 20 years ago under the pseudonym "Kilgore Trout," a Vonnegut character who is a science fiction writer. Vonnegut didn't inform his admirer that the novel was actually by another writer, Phillip Jose Farmer.
That's what happens in the world you get famous for the inconsequential stuff, sometimes things you didn't even do, sometimes things that just don't matter.
"I was in the movie `Back to School' with Rodney Dangerfield," the novelist said. "I was on camera I suppose about a minute and a half, two minutes, but it made me a hero at my dry cleaner's and the supermarket checkout counter. I got more credit for that than anything I've done. This is publicity. People envy that."
Attempts to track down the real speaker at MIT's graduation ceremony, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, were unsuccessful. His speech was light on humor, as evidenced by quote "a" above.
The Vonnegut incident, harmless as it seems, illustrates the vast potential for e-mail fraud. A more elaborate and potentially more dangerous prank was recently played on 40 media executives, two journalists and Monty Python alum Eric Idle.
"The following accounts have reference numbers way out of sequence," began the first, innocuous e-mail, ostensibly written by some guy named Denny Reikert from some corporation called Dysson. None of the recipients had heard of Dysson, and most replied in return e-mails that there had been some sort of mistake.
Apologetic and mysterious e-mails from Reikert followed, along with a note from Vicky DeBice, Dysson's director of human resources, assuring that "Dysson does not buy or sell electronic address lists." Later, DeBice sent another message: "For reasons yet to be understood, you received messages from one of our members, Denny Reikert. Denny Reikert was found dead yesterday afternoon."
At this point several recipients, among them Microsoft exec Marty Behrens and MGM online producer Ken Locker, referred the incident to corporate security. But the story continued: Mendiero Barrett, Dysson's vice president of Pan-Pacific Integration, announced a private inquiry into Reikert's suicide; a corporate-looking Web site offered employee photos and client lists; an anonymous employee insisted that "Denny was no suicide."
"By the time they asked if I wanted to take Denny Reikert's position at the company, it seemed to stretch credibility," said Locker, who was taken in by the hoax.
As the recipients were informed two weeks after the "on-line fiction" began, Dysson was the creation of LaFong the team of Michael Kaplan and John Sanborn, who also created a CD-ROM called "Psychic Detective" and several other Web adventures.
Kaplan thought of the interactive idea after his wife, Susan, began accidentally receiving corporate e-mails from a company called Digital Cities. As the messages continued, Kaplan decided to indulge. "When a memo showed up asking that all recipients check Roger's numbers before Friday's presentation, I wrote back something like: `Is it just me, or do Roger's numbers look a bit padded in the 3rd quarter? Let's confab ASAP.' And I held my breath to see if there would be a reaction.
"Did you ever see the Seinfeld where Kramer goes to use the bathroom and ends up working for the corporation?" Kaplan wrote via e-mail from London, where he and his partner are attending a multimedia conference. "This was a lot like it. Every day I'd wait to see if Susan and I were getting fired ... or promoted. And no one ever responded!"
With this incident in mind, Kaplan and Sanborn created the Dysson adventure, a "corporate version of `Dungeons and Dragons,' " to pitch to friends and colleagues.
Not everyone appreciated the joke. "You should be ashamed of yourself," New York Times technology columnist Denise Caruso told the duo. And Idle, Kaplan and Sanborn's idol, posted a long anti-Dysson message on his site PythOnline.
"I thought it was pretty cool," said Time magazine staff writer and Dysson recipient Michael Krantz. "But it's kind of edgy material to fool someone into thinking they've been implicated in the death of another human being. It's over the line of what's ethically acceptable for an artist."
The passion of the negative reactions took Kaplan by surprise at first. "People want to trust their e-mail. It's customized, it's personal, and I suspect it is the one aspect of their computer that they feel totally at ease with. So to suddenly have this sort of invasion by fiction, to have to question what's real or not in your own mailbox, and let's face it to have to deal with something as terrifying as death and suicide was just going too far for people. I understand that now, but at the time I suspected most of our recipients would catch on quickly."
In the future, Kaplan said, he would make sure to subtly solicit audience participation for other such endeavors. For instance, there might be an icon on a Web site inviting visitors to click if they want to participate in an online murder mystery. Nothing would happen immediately, but several weeks later, after the recipient had forgotten about the mystery, Denny Reikert or someone like him might show up in the "in" box.
At least that way, Krantz said, "you would give your informed consent to have your mind played with." But after the Dysson episode and the Vonnegut e-mail, which the Time writer also received, he's more wary. "I'll be a little less credulous in the future about something that claims to be authored by someone or represented by something."
Sanborn, the other half of LaFong, has already taken the lesson to heart. His e-mail from London simply said, "How do I really know you work for The Washington Post?"
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company