But the biggest Internet hit of all was the Mall-o-Ween story, says Mikkelson. That's the one about the woman whose Afghan boyfriend warns her to stay away from the shopping mall on Halloween.
"That story spoke directly to our deep-seated fear that terrorism isn't a thing of the past, it's a problem of the future," says Mikkelson. "It reflected the average person's need to feel some control: terrorism can happen anywhere at any time, but all I have to do is avoid the mall on Halloween and I'll be safe."
Fighting Back One Click at a Time
Urban legends serve a cultural purpose, she says. "These stories let us come to terms with our fears by putting them into words. And it's a way of getting a reality check from the people around you: it's like saying 'I'm frightened by these events, do you feel that way, too?'"
Passing along what looks like important information gives the senders a sense of purpose, a way to fight back, Mikkelson says. "You're doing what you can to combat terrorists, you pass along this information and it can save lives."
Despite those altruistic motivations, Mikkelson says, we should fight temptation. "Don't forward things," she says. "Instead of hitting that forward button, sit on your hands."
OK, we can do that.
But in the meantime, did you know that zapping your mail in your microwave will kill the anthrax spores? Really.* A friend of mine knows a guy who works at the CIA and that's what they're doing to all of their mail. I'm not kidding.
Pass it on.
*Ironing your mail won't really kill anthrax. It's just another urban legend. And microwaving your mail not only won't kill anthrax; it can start a fire.
A teacher and a journalist, Dianne Lynch is the author of Virtual Ethics. Wired Women is back from a brief hiatus..