Everything a tiny fraction of the internet knows about an obscure TV show called Street Sharks is a lie.
Geek.com writer Jordan Minor announced on Thursday that in the early 2000s, he made a habit of trolling a now-defunct wiki-like site called TV Tome by adding a bunch of fake information about the little-known syndicated cartoon, which aired for three seasons in the mid-'90s.
Minor, who at the time was a rebellious middle schooler, says he made up episodes, storylines, and a female character named "Roxie." He even cleverly added real actors to the mix; for example, he listed Henry Winkler as one of Street Sharks' guest stars, in a tongue-in-cheek homage to Winkler's famous "jump the shark" episode of Happy Days.
And then, like all good vandals, Minor moved on.
Not everyone else did, however. Because of the way (mis)information tends to spread online, Minor's brief moment of fabrication circulated the web for more than a decade.
Minor's joke perfectly illustrates how bad information travels on the web
Minor's self-debunked hoax reveals nothing new about the internet, which is full of similar fabrications — often sly Easter eggs slipped into Wikipedia entries or other open source wikis, usually meant for humorous effect. Take the hoax of Olimar the Wondercat, an entirely fake Wikipedia page about a fake TV show that one Wikipedia editor created and maintained for years. Named after the editor's cat, the page ultimately outgrew the original hoax, as other editors got in on the joke by adding fun "facts" and other fictional tidbits about the made-up program.
The same thing happened with Minor's Street Sharks endeavor. After TV Tome was merged into the website TV.com in 2005, the information from its Street Sharks entry began to spread. If you've ever run an internet search for a phrase cited on Wikipedia or another open source wiki site, you've undoubtedly learned that the web is full of garbage rip-off sites that lift whole passages from wiki pages without actually bothering to fact-check or confirm any of their content.
Sometimes pages that provide information without citing any sources or including any disclaimers are eventually passed around as factual. Other times, the sources provided are themselves completely bunk.
And so Minor's Street Sharks fibs and falsehoods became fodder for the completely deteriorated current state of the internet's collective memory of the show. Minor writes, "I’ve found forum posts of people saying [the character he invented named] Roxie was their favorite character, and read IMDB reviews of people fondly remembering episodes that don’t exist."
He's also found people passionately declaring that they once owned VHS tapes containing episodes he knows never existed, because he concocted them. Meanwhile, he alleges that real Street Sharks voice actor Andrew Rannells (who now plays Elijah on Girls) once supported the idea that Winkler also guest-starred — just because Minor once said so on the internet.
The internet's collective memory is powerful — and not always accurate
Minor cites these incidents as evidence that truth on the web is largely unknowable — but he also fails to allow for the possibility that plenty of other people could've simply been playing along with his joke, as humans on the web are wont to do. For instance, he describes his made-up character Roxie as "loosely based" on a real character named Rox, so it's possible that people were simply misremembering the original character's name rather than playing into a collectively generated false memory.
Collectively generated false memories do happen, of course. Sometimes our collective memory is so powerful that when the internet provides us with insurmountable "evidence" to the contrary, instantaneous conspiracy theories arise. The Wikipedia entry for the Berenstain Bears has a Talk Page with an entire section devoted to discussing the belief that the title of popular children's book series The Berenstain Bears once spelled "Berenstein" with an "-ein" instead of an "-ain."
So many people insist that they remember seeing Berenstain spelled "Berenstein" that a parallel universe theory has arisen to try to explain it — an example of something called the Mandela Effect, in which a parallel universe is used to explain collective unsubstantiated memories.
Another collectively generated false internet memory concerns the ending of a 1988 TV movie called 14 Going on 30. So many people have mistaken the movie's ending as a lost alternate ending to the beloved Tom Hanks movie Big, which has a similar plot, that threads arguing over whether the alternate ending of Big was actually real proliferate; one thread at the Straight Dope was started in 2002 and is still continuing today.
There's even a famous Creepypasta (a story that belongs to the vast and popular genre of the same name that trades in horror-related internet urban legends) known as "Candle Cove," which plays on the idea of these eerie collective false memories of pop culture. "Candle Cove" simulates a conversation on an early internet message board where users are asking whether anyone else remembers the creepy children's TV show they watched in their childhood known as Candle Cove. As the thread progresses, more memories are revealed, and the thread participants start to simultaneously doubt their own memories and realize that the "real" TV show was more terrifying than any of them guessed.
If the internet is malleable, is anything real?
In looking back on his adolescent Street Sharks, uh, "experience," Minor concludes that his story is a dizzying reminder that the internet is constantly — and rapidly — rewriting history. Of course, that assumes history was ever a knowable conundrum to begin with.
Research into false memories has shown for decades that getting people to misremember real-life events is fairly simple, which is why eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Studies have also shown that it's easy to influence someone else's memory simply by claiming to remember something different.
Even Minor admits that "my lies were mixed with half-remembered truths," noting that he can no longer really remember what was real and what wasn't. His ultimate takeaway that the web is unreliable and fallible really speaks to the greater truth: that collective human memory itself is unreliable and fallible.
Perhaps the most useful lesson to glean from Street Sharks is that we live in an age when the internet never forgets but memory is fallible, lying is easy, and citations are often needed but rarely provided — and even when they are, there's always the chance, however slight, that your "source" could be a trickster like Minor. Given all this, instead of wondering why lies are so thoroughly pervasive online, perhaps we should focus on the positive: It's a miracle we know anything at all.