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Oral Storytelling: E-mailed Urban Legends

Many people think oral literature, or oral storytelling, is an ancient tradition of the past.

I have to admit, when I was young I pictured oral storytelling as involving an older performer who had an abundance of friendly smile-lines and an ample middle-age spread. They always acted a bit strangely but were generally pretty entertaining.

But we are all oral storytellers and keepers of the tradition! The entry for Oral literature at Wikipedia mentions Urban Legends when referring to a modern example of the early human pasttime. An urban legend is a perfectly-plotted story meant to teach us a lesson, albeit, at times, totally useless.

Taking it one step further, I’d classify viral e-mails as oral tradition. Their written delivery doesn’t erase the cultural meanings and norms surrounding their folklore characteristics. By viral e-mails I’m talking about any e-mails that fall under the “mass social” category, like chain e-mails, memes, contests, safety alerts, etc. In our pre-techie world, their lessons would have been relayed over backyard fences. I don’t think those lessons have changed simply because they are relayed via e-mail now.

Oral tradition, then, is alive and well, and in your very own Inbox. Delete what you will, but the tradition won’t ever be erased.