To be clear, I don’t mean business and bills and such. I much prefer email and online banking for that kind of stuff.
No, what I miss is personal mail. Letters.
I’m obviously not the only one who feels this way. A while ago, I ran across the Post a Letter Social Activity Club and just this morning, Letters in the Mail.
Somewhere along the line, email for personal communication lost its allure. I suppose this was inevitable. Back in the day (the mid/late ’90s), most email was friend email. That, combined with the novelty of immediacy, meant that email was soon the way to communicate with friends. There was a brief point in time when receiving an email seemed special.
But then, as you know, Bob, we started doing everything online and email became routine, just one more task on the to-do list. Receiving (or sending) an email not only didn’t seem special anymore; it felt impersonal.
In snail mail days, you stuck your bill stubs and payment in plain #10 envelopes. Business correspondence was typed on white letter paper and stuck in the same plain white envelopes. But for your personal letters, you pulled out the fancy-pants paper and envelopes, stationery you carefully picked out or someone bought you for a birthday gift (in the hopes of receiving a letter, natch). You handwrote and and maybe you used a purple or green pen. Maybe you decorated the envelope or enclosed something along with the letter. Each letter was a mini-package, a gift, even if it was just a birthday card or a postcard.
An email is an email is an email. Business or personal, you type in the same box. The content differs, but the appearance is the same. Personal “letters” now look just as bland as business correspondence. But that’s not the whole story.
Receiving a letter was genuinely exciting. Mail! You got to open it, read it, and then you had time to savor it. You actually got to enjoy the receiving of the letter because there was no expectation of an immediate reply. First, the sender didn’t know when exactly the recipient received a letter. Second, there was an understanding that one didn’t reply immediately, but waited until a more convenient time (Sunday afternoon, perhaps) or until one had a few letters to reply to. Third, once the reply letter was sent, it’d take several days to get to the recipient, so once you sent your reply, you could bask in the satisfaction of a task completed. The cycle of letters might take a month to complete, but this was ok, because in between there was the anticipation, and also letters from other people (which you also got to savor & enjoy).
And so it turns out immediacy really isn’t so awesome for personal correspondence. You send an email, you know the other person gets it right away. You receive an email, you know the other person knows you’ll see it as soon as you check your mail. Your excitement at receiving a personal email is tempered because replying immediately goes on your to-do list. But if you’re anything like me, the reply keeps getting pushed down the list, because you want to write a real response and that takes time, so you keep putting it off and putting it off…
(…thinking of you and you and you and you and you…)
Then, when you do finally get around to catching up on your personal correspondence and hit send, your satisfaction is mixed with dread because the recipients could reply right away and if they do, shouldn’t you reciprocate by being equally speedy, but omg, you’re exhausted. Writing is draining! You can’t write another letter right now. It’s too. much. pressure.
(And that’s not even getting into the whole questionable privacy of email issue.)
People who lament the loss of old media are often framed as Luddites fetishizing objects. Content is content, technophiles say, however it is delivered. And this is true, in some cases. It doesn’t really matter how my phone bill is delivered so long as I receive it on time to pay it without penalty. I’m not a hoarder; I don’t have a room full of old utility bills I can’t bear to part with because each one is a unique flower. In this case, content is content. Form is irrelevant.
But a letter from a friend is not the same as a bill. The form does affect the content. It affects what the letter-writer writes and what the recipient receives. At the very least, a physical letter is a tangible reminder of the person who sent it. Beyond that, form also affects practice. It affects how we write and what we write. The individual multiple-page letters we used to send are today more likely to be brief messages broadcast to our various social networks. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of messages, it’s that they aren’t ideal for the kinds of things we used to write in letters to our BFFs, our deepest, darkest secrets, the grime and embarrassment of our lives. Now it’s all public and we’re all surface, granite and glass and stainless steel, light and shiny—just in case someone googles us.