Joke/UL origination question

Last night we watched “Memory of Murder” and there is a part where there is a rumor among all the school children and they all “know” the murderer lives under the outhouse near the school. And the cop is grilling one of the school girls about who told her that that is where the murderer is, and she says she doesn’t know, it is just common knowledge around the school.

Which made me wonder: If you had all the time and access and resources needed, could you find the person who told her, and ask them who told them, and find that person, and ask them who told them, and eventually get to the person who originally started the story?

And that prompted me to wonder, who started the joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Could that person be tracked down if you went far enough down the line and everyone could remember who told them the joke and you could keep going from person to person, etc. until you found someone that said “no one told me, I made it up myself.”?

How are most urban legends/e-mail hoaxes started anyway?

Well, a friend of a friend once told me…

If you go to the Urban legends reference pages, they have a lot of information about what urban legends are and how they start. Prepare to waste huge amounts of time being amazed at the stupidity of the human race.

This wouldn’t work. Imagine you were the guy they started with. Could you tell them where you first heard this joke? I know I couldn’t, given that it was so long ago and I’ve heard it so many times from so many sources. This is not to say you couldn’t find the origin of the joke, but I think you’d have to do a more scholarly research, looking for earliest printed references to it and so on, which may or may not yield definitive results (probably not).

If we assume that everybody could remember who first told them the joke (it’s important that it’s the first time, or we could end up going in circles), and that the guy who started the chain was still alive (and I guess all the links as well), then I can’t see any reason why we couldn’t track down the orinal joker. I just don’t think this would be the case.

I think urban legends are pretty much the same, sometimes you can find the source, sometimes you can’t. Except for really recent ones I doubt the “who told the person who told the person who told you” trail would lead anywhere.

I started that joke, which started the whole world laughing.

I once knew and had classes with a sociologist that was billed as one of the foremost rumor experts in the world. His name is Fred Koenig and that link has an interview about the anatomy of a rumor on NPR.

He was often hired as a consultant for big companies when they had a rumor or urban legend problem regarding their business. The companies would often be very interested in finding the source of the problem. For word of mouth rumors, that was nearly impossible. He claims that the source can only rarely be found and there often isn’t a true source at all. The rumor starts from a small seed and then evolves without any one person or thing creating it.