Email Forwards And The Oral Tradition: Dinner With The Family
February 2, 2008
At some point during our holiday dinners, the entire extended family finishes eating and turns to group conversation before food coma sends us to the couch. My beloved grandfather used to fill this time with jokes. I don’t know where he got them, but he always had new ones.
Grandpa is no longer with us, but last Thanksgiving we got a fresh infusion of humor from someone I’ll call “Chaplain Tim”. He wasn’t at the table, but his jokes were: a stack of printouts, rubber-banded together. They were printouts of email forwards, raw and uncensored, including lines and lines of email addresses of previous senders and recipients.
Chaplain Tim knows my parents but not their email address. A minor obstacle for someone with a printer and uncommon levels of motivation. It was in this way that dozens of emailed jokes — among the most weightless media objects known to man — broke their chains of virtuality, and entered the physical world to continue their march toward world domination.
We each took a bunch and sifted through, reading aloud only the jokes that seemed the funniest and not too inappropriate. (I don’t know what kind of chaplain this Tim character is, but it’s not the kind that spurns dirty humor). I have always disapproved of this very genre of email, but I must admit they worked much better in our synchronous communal context (emails being asynchronous and communal). In other words, we had a lot of fun.
With the oral broadcast of these printed email forwards, my Media Theory Moment was complete. I couldn’t believe the social and technological channels that these rabbi-priest, husband-wife, and doctor-patient jokes were traveling: email to print to voice, from a distant professional acquaintance to a close-knit group of family members.
When my Aunt D. innocently asked my mom to xerox them for her, my head almost exploded.
Mom said: “Rekha, you should email Chaplain Tim, he’s a really nice guy.” Oh, I’m sure he is. But I’m going to lay low and hope he never figures out how to reach me.