Thursday, July 21, 2011
The electronic rewriting of history, email by email, page by page
Earlier this summer I visited my hometown of Moravian Falls, N.C., and discovered it has become a point of pilgrimage—some newcomer ministers are proclaiming its falls is a portal to heaven.
The obvious image here is of people eager to slide down the falls to their deaths, but what they are saying is that you can talk to angels if you hang around there.
Yes, the falls where teenagers once swam in the muddy lake it fed, the falls where my great-grandfather ran a grain mill, is now suddenly an angelic chat room. The idea is being promoted via web sites and YouTube videos as well as some local pulpits.
OK, whatever, maybe this will bring some much-needed tourist dollars to the area. But the same fellow who told me the falls is a heavenly portal also told me that there is a prayer rock in the nearby Brushy Mountains where the Moravians who founded the town prayed 24-hours-a-day for 100 years.
I'd never heard this before even though some part of my family has lived in the area since at least the late 1800s. I'd always heard that the Moravians were there only a few years before giving up and moving to what is now Winston-Salem. So, when I got home, I googled "Moravians and prayer rock" and found new web pages mentioning this as fact—a history quickly being rewritten. Only when I went into Google Books and looked at pages in an actual history book (the only one I could access online) did I see references to the Moravians' short stay in the town.
The book was the authoritative source—well researched, edited, verified. But I had to dig to find it and if I wanted more on the topic, I would have had to make a trip to a North Carolina history collection. When it comes to research these days, how many people would make the trip, or any kind of effort to consult a book? Most would just go to Wikipedia, or use whatever first pops up in a Google search.
There is a danger that whatever is most accessible will become the truth, repeated and repeated until it becomes a fact, or even part of the historic record. Crazy email rumors can be checked on snopes.com (although, obviously, a lot of people don't bother to verify them, given the multiple layers of email addresses in some of the emails I've received lately). Put something on a web page and it seems even more valid or authoritative, perhaps because it is more static, more "there."
My son told me a while ago that it's a game among quiz bowlers to go into Wikipedia and create false citations, sometimes even false histories, to see if anyone notices. So far, almost no one has.
(The photo above is of a painting, done by my great aunt Maxie Pardue many years ago, of the Moravian falls, where her family lived when she was young. Any appearance of angelic halo or aura is caused by my camera's flash.)