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The Speech That Wasn't

Wednesday, August 13, 1997; Page A20

THE STORY of the bogus commencement speech purportedly delivered at MIT by Kurt Vonnegut, and distributed far and wide over the Internet before someone finally figured out that it was nothing of the sort, has been seized upon as yet another example of how easily and swiftly the Net can spread a fake. The novelist is said to be amused but also a trifle alarmed at the amount of attention he is still getting, despite repeated denials, for a "speech" in which new graduates are advised to "Use sunscreen" and "Do something every day that scares you," along with other slightly offbeat but arguably sensible advice.

News of the hoax or the mix-up, since no one knows whether it came about by mischief or by accident, has been flashed to the four corners of cyberspace almost as rapidly as the original collection of one-liners, which, it turns out, were put together in June in a lighthearted mood by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich. Ms. Schmich, who also expresses chagrin at the turn of events, began her June 1 column with the prophetic sentence, "Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out." The column goes on to recommend the exercise of composing one to "anyone over 26," and then to demonstrate.

We'd venture to guess that it is Ms. Schmich's own initial insight that accounts for her semi-spoof's prodigious distribution. True, it's a mystery how the name of Kurt Vonnegut or the venue of an MIT commencement got attached to the piece (especially since the MIT speaker this year was the eminently serious United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan). But it's no more peculiar than the numerous other persistent, and totally false, rumors and documents that constantly circulate on the Net.

It's not as if anyone knows who originally launched the hoax message featuring a "Neiman Marcus chocolate chip cookie" recipe, or the "actual correspondence" between a hotel guest and a maid about his hundreds of soap bars, or the "authentic" document about TWA 800 that spooked Pierre Salinger. What circulates on the Net faster than anything else, it's clear, is jokes.

You might wish a more high-minded use of so powerful a communications technology, but there it is. People forward clever verbal sketches and funny poems around the Internet with real glee – the form has never before had such an audience – and the further pleasure of giving sage advice is, as Ms. Schmich notes, a mighty motivator. Add the two forces together, and the slapped-on name of a famous novelist is just so much gravy. Mr. Vonnegut is probably lucky that, attention-wise, he got off as lightly as he did.


© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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