I was a long-time cell-phone holdout. Even while living in Silicon Valley (or perhaps because of its fast-paced, ever-wired atmosphere), I loathed the idea of becoming “one of those people.” On the train, in the local coffee shop, and in line at the grocery store, I struggled to ignore the one-sided snippets of conversation that inevitably seized my attention and overtook my thoughts. Eventually, I embraced the cell phone for its practical purposes (What if I get a flat tire on the 101?) as well as the frivolous (Need to find milkshakes while returning from Yosemite with a caravan of East Coast friends determined to eat at In-N-Out Burger before leaving California? No problem.). While I’ve adapted to cell phone ownership fairly easily, I remain ambivalent about my use of social networking tools such as Facebook, largely because it confirms, for me, the true death of the letter.
When MTV first aired “Video Killed the Radio Star,” I was old enough to understand that something big was happening, but too young to comprehend my older sister’s claims that videos would erode the creativity of young people. College-age, wiser than I could ever hope to be, my sister argued that where music could potentially spark imagination and emotion, videos would merely insert images into one’s mind. Our MTV-viewing would, she concluded with sadness, transform our brains into little more than a reel of pre-determined visions.
The death of the letter has taken place more slowly and subtly than MTV’s initial takeover of the music industry (and perhaps, of our minds). In my experience, it has been as much the result of technological advances as it has been the natural outcome of moving from childhood and adolescence into adulthood. There’s no doubt that part of my ambivalence about communicating through social networking sites such as Facebook arises from pure nostalgia. But what troubles me, in part, about the disappearance of the letter is the ways in which new technologies have reshaped the content and nature of our communication.
A natural outgrowth of diary-keeping, the letter-writing I began in elementary school (and continued throughout college with an ever-shifting group of recipients) forced me to begin considering, in a rudimentary way, questions of audience. The same reckless, expletive-riddled sentences intended for L, a friend from the days of forthright, brash, middle-school conversations, could not be interchanged with the more polished ones written for fellow writer (and secret rival) K. Because I had long regarded her writing with both admiration and envy, my sentences to K warranted more time and consideration. (I still recall reading the phrase “crisply starched apron” in a fourth-grade story of hers and internally reacting with a fourth-grade version of Damn! That’s good….)
The point of our letter exchange was not just to convey updates about our daily events and musings, but to create an object of artistic merit that would, as a coworker recently put it, “create delight” in the recipient. These laboriously composed pages spanned several days. Some were written at intervals over months. They included marginalia, quotations from songs or books, and illustrations—caricatures, comic strips. Because these lively conversations took place within the intimacy of well-established relationships, they served as a sort of incubator for my writing and for the person I was becoming during various phases of life.
In college, as email began to take over, I tried at the keyboard to simulate paper-and-pen writing. But the speed of transmission seemed to make lengthy, detailed reflections irrelevant. And while a letter was a surprise, a wrapped gift that arrived without warning and was returned in time, an email message felt more like an obligation, one that seemed to demand a faster response. The newer forms of communication weren’t really designed for exhaustive (and perhaps long-winded) messages, and even if they had been, who really had any time for letter-writing?
Several years later, in the midst of a cross-country move, graduate studies, and the throes of new parenthood, I set up a Facebook account to stay in touch with friends on both coasts. I’ve spent my fair share of time commenting on this or that, “Like”-ing this thing or another. It’s frivolous, and it’s fun. I’m not categorically opposed to Facebook activity; like my cell phone, it has its uses. And as one friend put it, “No doubt I will join [Facebook] soon, because otherwise I’ll miss my newest nephew’s growing up, lose touch with my sisters, and fall off the cliff of modernity.”
Still, I miss many aspects of letter correspondence. Clichéd as my reaction may be, I lament the fact that kids these days—as much as they Like, Poke, and Post, broadcasting their latest updates among a list of so-called Friends—may never compose or receive a real, old-school letter. One that reflects a sustained conversation of reflection and depth and growing maturity. One that involves a particular intimacy, not just that of the friendship, but also of the physical action of writing or reading a letter, with all the accompanying peculiarities of handwriting (L’s left-handed scrawl, K’s meticulous school-teacher cursive). One that provides a snapshot of a particular moment in life, worth saving in a shoebox through several cross-country moves. One that serves as a vehicle for a meaningful exchange, the kind less easily created in a hurried email message or a public Facebook update.
A letter was an artifact, a treasure, a gift exchanged by friends, family members, lovers, artists, writers. It’s hard to escape the feeling that a historical tradition is quietly ending, having been replaced by so much cyberspace junk. If you have a favorite letter (Dickinson to Higginson? Vincent van Gogh to his brother? Bishop to Moore? Sullivan Ballou to his wife? Virginia Woolf to her husband? Dean Young to his nephew, Seth?), I hope you’ll post a link to it below. If you have an artifact of your own that you are willing to share, I hope you’ll post that, too. And if you don’t have such a letter, well, you aren’t alone.
Thanks to Steve Schultz and Scott Challener. And to all my Facebook Friends.