Thursday, November 05, 2009


When I was a kid in the seventies and early eighties, it was common to see mimeographed, and later photographed, things being passed around workplaces and brought home. Usually these were jokes, often about the trials of work (being overworked and underappreciated), though the ones most likely to interest me were puzzles -- at the time there was a lot of "Wacky Wordies" puzzles and acronym expansion riddles going around. Occasionally it was a particularly amusing Erma Bombeck article, or some kind of "inspirational" cartoon.

But what they all had in common was that the means of distribution was photocopying or mimeographing, and you could effectively date them by how terrible the copy was, since they would usually be pretty terrible due to being copies of copies of copies of copies, and done on crappy copiers (by today's standards). Mimeographs were even worse.

By the middle nineties those had all but entirely vanished, replaced by the forwarded email where the first ten screenfuls were the lists of all your grandmother's friends, and their friends, and their friends, and so on. And at that point, there was a slight change of content: jokes (usually weaker ones) were still common, but "inspirational" stuff became far more common (and usually sappier), and of course we had the addition of a lot more scams, hoaxes, urgent warnings, and chain letters.

Nowadays, that urge to share anything amusing or interesting with your friends seems most likely to show up in Facebook and Twitter. The quality and kind of what we're sharing is still changed, but probably not as changed as the delivery medium's changes might suggest.

I had all this brought to my attention because someone has photocopied an article and taped it to the office refrigerator, but it's not some kind of warning about washing your hands, or entreaty to participate in something. It's solely there because it's supposed to be funny. (It's a retread of the old jokes about how there are no calories in broken cookies, published by Stephen King for some reason.) And what was really striking is that someone shared it with us by a means that used to be common, but today, feels really anachronistic, strikingly out of place.

I wonder what we'll be doing to share our amusement in ten years, but even more, I think about what preceded the mimeograph age (or at least the time when mimeographs and photocopiers became ubiquitous and inexpensive enough to be wasted on cartoon jokes). Seems like if there was a real sea change it was then: those mimeographs are more like today's Facebook posts than the retelling-of-jokes face to face that's probably the only analog to precede the mimeographs. We're used to the idea that any social or cultural thing changes faster now than it used to, and computers always speed things like that up, but I think the mimeograph is a forgotten harbinger of a bigger change than we realize.

1 comment:

oberon said...

The means of distribution in those days was secretary-to-secretary, since they were usually the ones who controlled the copier. I can remember when my secretary had all the good jokes. Interoffice, it was primarily sales personnel.