When I was in college in the early 1980s, letters—on paper, in ink, with self-licked stamps and everything—were the primary form of communication. Cell phones, Facebook, and e-mail were inconceivable; the payphone in the hallway was noisy and unreliable. And so, like every college student of that era, I wrote letters. Lots and lots of letters. I wrote whining letters to my parents, diligent letters to my grandparents, and daily, lovesick letters to the boyfriend I had left up north. I wrote so many letters to him, in fact, that rumor has it the student workers at his college’s mail room played games every day to decipher the secret acronyms I scrawled on each and every envelope. Recently, when this friend was in a horrific accident, my thoughts went instantly to the cache of letters I still have somewhere in the attic; letters that, for all their angst and silliness, captured a key moment in this now-middle-aged man’s life.
Today, of course, letters have become an endangered species. Rather than telling their tales or singing their woes in print, students communicate across a wide and rapidly expanding range of media. They e-mail. They text. They IM and pin and tweet. Rather than meeting potential partners at a mixer or in a bar, they hook up through sites such as OkCupid and HowAboutWe. Rather than writing letters home about their studies abroad, they post photos to Instagram and log their travels on Tumblr.
In many ways, this explosion of communication channels has facilitated a parallel expansion of communication itself. Today, most Barnard students write daily and fluidly, freed from the compunction to have someone specific to talk to or something specific to say. They have friends scattered around the world and means to access information from the most remote corners of the planet. When we traveled to São Paulo in March for our 2013 Global Symposium, our student fellows tweeted and blogged throughout the day, sending real-time missives back to campus and beyond.
These are the information flows that define both social and commercial discourse in the early 21st century. They are the drivers of the highest growth sectors in our economy and the holders of the jobs to which many of our students aspire. Yet even in these pre-nostalgic days of constant communication, I can’t help thinking that something precious is being lost amidst this move from paper to pixels, something fundamental about the way we interact with those we like and love.
Here is what concerns me. First is the basic loss of physicality, of the smell and touch and sight that once surrounded the act of writing letters. Once upon a time, people’s personalities registered through their handwriting, with the slope of an “l” or the swoop of an “e” conveying something that mattered. People wrote on stationery they chose, whether it be perfumed or monogrammed or torn, hastily, from the back pages of a notebook. When I went to summer camp many years ago, my mother wrote every day, on bright yellow paper wrapped in similarly bright envelopes. I don’t remember much about the content of her notes, but I remember the sight of them, and how the paper alone conveyed a waft of homesickness. Now I write my daughter over e-mail, trying to recall which collection of question marks and exclamation points will create the emoticon that stands for love.
I also worry about how electronic communication destroys time. When letters were constructed from pen and paper, they took time—time to conceive, to create, to re-write and ponder over. They took time—sometimes agonizing, heart-wrenching time—to be received at the other end. Think for a moment of Downton Abbey’s fictitious Anna, waiting for the stolen letters of her beloved Mr. Bates. Or of the real-life Samuel Morse, who created the telegraph after hearing, too late, of his young wife’s death. Clearly, in this latter case, e-mail or texting might have helped, but the very real-time nature of communication can impede communication as well, allowing quick messages to be forged by the urgency or anger of a moment. Quick messages, like all contemporary messages, are also relegated with equal speed to the cloud, a vast and inchoate space that remains very difficult to conceptualize. Will my personal emails, carefully filed in my Outlook (or Gmail, or whatever) folders really be there when I want to reminisce over them, 40 years from now? Will they be there for my children, if they ever want to understand them, or me? Or will the cloud devour such ephemera once I’ve forgotten my password again?
Which brings me to my third concern. Because, as we’ve learned from various unfortunate scandals over the past several years, no electronic message ever truly disappears. I may forget my login or tire of social media, but Facebook remembers every post I’ve ever posted or personal message I’ve ever sent. Our children’s unfortunate photos are stuck on their walls, now, forever; our partners’ indiscretions are logged, not so discreetly, on their smartphones. Maybe the world is better off with the eternal vigilance of WikiLeaks. Or maybe we were safer when our words were simultaneously more perishable and more private.
Thankfully, my friend survived his accident and our letters are left, once again, to the vagaries of whatever mice or memories may desire them. I don’t know if I will ever read them, or if anyone will ever care. But there is something about the tangibility of long- lost time, saved, as it is, on paper, in bundles, for real.
For now, though, I have thrown caution to the cloud and started to tweet. You can follow me @deboraspar. Happy Spring!
—Photograph by Steve DeCanio