The death of letters

LettersI’ve been sorting through the attic, clearing out old toys and games and sorting out boxes of old letters and cards: the accumulated paperwork that follows us through life. Funny thing though, the trail is getting thin. Through my teens and twenties, there are letters and cards from school and university friends, each envelope carrying the stamp of a far off country or telling tales of new jobs and adventure. Gradually, these turn into cards announcing weddings, births and second careers. Slowly though, the flood of letters thins: still birthday and christmas cards, but very few letters. In fact, i’ve had one this year.

The shift to Social technology and online communities has been transformational: it’s changed how we work and how we play, but most of all, it’s kept us in touch with the little details. Indeed, in a recent survey i did on the Learning Forum, the biggest impact people had felt from the Social Age was in our social lives: it eclipsed both ‘work‘ and ‘learning‘ in terms of response, combined.

But why should i care? After all, i spend half my time cursing the paperwork that comes cascading through my letterbox: bills, adverts, telephone directories (seriously, who still uses a paper directory?!). But letters are different: they have a reflective quality that i miss. The sight of a handwritten envelope still makes me smile: the thrill when you recognise the handwriting, when you see a little picture drawn on the back, when you see an unusual stamp or exotic postcode.

I’m no luddite: as regular readers know, i’m never without my iPad and my last handwritten missive was circa 2006, but i can’t let the humble letter die without wondering if we have lost something.

Bundles of envelopes, tied with string, tell stories from my past: love and adventures writ large and written in spidery script over yellowing pages in fading water based inks. Letters feel, they smell, they crinkle and age. Emails just archive.

Letters require a little more reflection and are harder to send in haste and often less hasty in tone than ubiquitous email.

Letters are emotive in ways that gmail just ain’t. Hotmail is hot in name only, whilst the letters of love that lie tied in ribbons reminisce of summers past and passions inflamed.

Letters remind me of friendships lost and to revalue those that persist. I never revisit my emails in this way. Why is that?

Of course, i have Facebook now, and wonderful it is too: it lets us remain loosely connected with the multitude of people who pass through our lives, but maybe it doesn’t let us build the depth of connections that only a letter can truly hold.

I started by claiming that i’m no luddite, but maybe a small part of me misses the taste of the glue on the back of the envelope, of the experience of writing a letter and drawing little pictures in the margins. Experiences that must surely be almost lost to us today. The speed and ubiquity of socially collaborative technology is driving the Social Age, but today, for one day anyway, let me reminisce for the feel of a letter, opened in haste over breakfast, bringing news of loved ones from far away. I miss that.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
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7 Responses to The death of letters

  1. Pingback: The death of letters @julianstodd | A New Socie...

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  3. benoitdavid says:

    Very true. We feel less and less the paper… I for one love to write, sketch, doodle… anything. My problem is, I want to keep it all! So I revert to the digital. I’ve tried all kinds of apps to get closer to the feeling of writing, and thanks to Julian, I’ve tried Paper, and I really like it. Still waiting for a stylus I really like though… I use the JOT Flip from Adonit, and I’d like to get their new JOT Script, but its not integrated to Paper, and they won’t do it, ’cause Paper have their own stylus that I find too big… but that’s just me.

    Anyway, my little hamster is spinning here…. I smell an app here… throw an email you like into this app, and it will give it a [visual] feel of being handwritten… then send it to yourself (through a service) to have it printed and sent to you my mail! Pick the paper, pick the handwriting style, the color of the ink, rollerball or old-style “plume”… and even a nice perfumee scent, if it’s a love letter from your other half! 🙂

  4. Meg Peppin says:

    Not dead.

    I wrote five long letters a couple of weekends ago, to young and old, bereaved and happy. The youngest person told me she loved the letter so much she wanted to frame it. But each recipient was equally thrilled.

    I took took my time to think about what I wanted to say, and even decorated some of the letters with a little pen and ink. I got some time out of it too.

    We can do both – digital and analogue – can’t we?

    • julianstodd says:

      Hi Meg, well, we can, of course, do both: maybe i was reflecting on the fact that many of us tend towards the easy path and end up with a quick email or Facebook ‘hello’ instead of taking time out to write. When one finds the time for a letter, the rewards are, of course, equally great for both the writer and recipient!

      Despite our best attempts to retain the old, there’s no doubt that we are seeing as fundamental a change in interpersonal communication as was seen through the introduction of printing or paper. There is a democratisation of communication and an ease and speed of conversation: my reflection was that we may have lost something in the process. I’m glad to hear that you’ve managed to hold onto the best of it and that it’s been so rewarding. Looking forward very much to meeting in person at the Drake event next week, and i’ve greatly enjoyed catching up on your blog this morning, best wishes, Julian

  5. Pingback: The death of letters | Linking Literacy: Digita...

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