Digitally disseminated folklore

Back in 1975, Alan Dundes and Carl R. Pagter published the first in a series of Urban Folklore From the Paperwork Empire books, in which they catalogued an assortment of material — drawings (most with captions or other text on them) and slogan signs — created by office workers, photographically reproduced, and distributed through office mail. In addition, “dirty” drawings and pictures were passed from hand to hand, just as “dirty” jokes spread by word of mouth. All of this material cycled informally, and (like classic folklore) no one had any real idea where it came from, beyond the person who gave it to you, nor did people care about that.


This dissemination of subterranean cultural material continues, but now mostly by digital means. And at a vastly increased rate. And a fair amount of it is the same stuff that used to be passed around the office.

In any case, few people care about the source of the stuff that comes their way — an attitude that distresses me with respect to cartoons and obvious artistic creations and makes me uneasy in lots of other cases. Meanwhile, some of my friends treat my attitudes as charming academic eccentricities that don’t, and shouldn’t, concern ordinary people.

I have several friends who follow the Male Ballet Dancers page on Facebook, which is packed with very high quality photographs of dancers in action: first class dancers, excellent photography. But rarely are either the dancers or the photographers identified. Here’s one such image, iof a remarkable dancer on a trapeze:


Meanwhile, from this Facebook page I have an image of a crowd of dancers distriibuted across a huge space, many of them floating in the air — obviously an original artwork. It was posted by a contributor who puts a great many images on the site. I have tried to reach him to ask about the image, but I’ve found no way to do that except though the page itself, and he doesn’t answer (quite possibly doesn’t even read messages), So I appreciate the art but feel I can’t share it.

Then there are odd things that people stumble across, often while looking for something quite different; typically, these aren’t identified as to their source. Like this caftan (or kaftan) moose-knuckle Chris Ambidge sent on to me:


There are a fair number of sites offering high-quality X-rated male photos — often pretty clearly taken by professional photographers, using professional models — but unless you start with a known photographer, you’re probably not going to get any information. It’s all just stuff that floats around on the net,

Meanwhile, the old-fashioned office-style folklore is still with us. Here’s an e-card I got an office-Xeroxed version of (with a pink pig on it) some 40 years ago. This one is slicker but essentially the same:


(The slogan has been attributed to Mark Twain and to Robert Heinlein and probably to others, but not with a lot of evidence.)

2 Responses to “Digitally disseminated folklore”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Like this caftan (or kaftan) moose-knuckle Chris Ambidge sent on to me

    Sometimes the optional relative pronoun is useful. Even though I know better, I had a moment of reading this as referring to “moose-knuckle Chris Ambidge”. The parenthetical before it probably contributed to this reading.

    I have a very vague recollection of wanting to use the “teaching a pig to sing” quote as one of my rotating .sigs, but wanting to attribute it. I was sure I had seen it in either the “From the Notebooks of Lazarus Long” sections of Heinlein’s Time Enough For Love or the excerpts from “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar” in my Mark Twain collection, but could not find it in either place.

  2. Lee Sebastiani Says:

    Terrific post! I will suggest this as a thesis topic for my students.

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