Thursday, February 4, 2010

#130 - Communication Breakdown

Communication Breakdown

2/4/10 (#130)

Years ago, I used to write letters. As friends dispersed to various greener grasses across the nation, I took great pleasure in slipping into a booth at the Bagel Shop or settling down at Dysart's Truckstop with a pot of coffee, a pad and a pen to knock out a few pages about life, longing, and the pursuit of that elusive thing we call our self.

Letters are an incredibly efficient communication device, allowing for vast expressions of thought with no investment beyond the time. No hosting fees, no connection costs, no hardware purchases - just a pad and pen, and a bit of spare change to get a person to come to my door, pick up my note, and hand deliver it to a person living on the other side of the country. Best of all, writing letters greatly increases your odds of receiving letters, which make the mailbox more than a repository for bulk mail and bills. On any given day, there may be brilliant thoughts and sly observations spilling from the confines of a white A8 envelope.

A well-crafted letter - or at least, enthusiastically-crafted - is more than an act of journalism, a mere recounting of facts. Even when there is a reader in mind, a letter transcends expression of self and becomes an examination of self. As we take the tangled yarn of our thoughts and lay them in linear format of the college-ruled pad, we understand them better ourselves. We expound on a topic like a lawyer delivering a closing argument, and at the same time we are the jury, weighing the evidence of the argument. Quite simply, the writer learns things that even the reader will not - especially because the writer knows exactly what has been left out.

A decade ago, I acquiesced to the convenience of email. The allure of immediate delivery and the efficiency of production (I type faster than I scribble) made it the communication medium of choice. Yet there was a dark side to that convenience: Every letter was typed from the confines of my apartment, and letters began to be notes, more efficient but less effective, stringed bits of data increasingly focused on facts rather than feelings. Just as digital recording failed to capture the sonic warmth associated with analog tape, email was a sterile substitute for the penned page, the backspace button removing the richness of cross-outs and overwrites and addendums penned in the margins.

Emails have now fallen away themselves, replaced by the small confines of social media boxes. Facebook gives the illusion of staying in touch because we see photos of people's lives, we read quips and blips about exploits and interests, but the format doesn't serve deep dives. Social media is creating a society of broadcasters, with pithy replies and a quick click of the "like" button expressing our approval of the life being led. The list of grandmother-boggling acronyms (i.e. OMG, LMAO) continues to grow to accommodate our thirst for brevity and accelerated delivery. As a culture, we are constantly striving to communicate in fewer and fewer characters. (WTF?)

Where will it end? That's my worry---that it will end. While I embrace the value of new technologies, I'm disappointed that our embrace of these new tools has caused us to lose our appreciation for the old tools. It alarms me to realize that several of the great friendships of my life have spent a year limited to the confines of social media. It hardly feels like "staying in touch" when communication is reduced to bulk-distribution tweets.

Writing letters is the antithesis of Twitter. I appreciate the economy of language that application imposes (many thoughts benefit from such rigid editing), but I worry that as a culture, we are defining 140 characters as the communication norm. More frustrating, the space limitations have not improved the quality of ideas being broadcast. Hasn't the blogosphere lampooned eating-updates with sufficient frequency that reports on the contents of one's lunch burrito should remain a personal experience? (Judging by my Facebook wall, apparently not.)

Perhaps the letter is the interpersonal communication analog to newspapers, an archaic form serving fewer and fewer users. Perhaps - but I'm not going to be party to its demise. This weekend, I'm going to dig a blank pad from the pile of paper debris in my office, sit down with a cup of coffee, and scribble a note to brighten one of my friend's mail boxes.

People do still check their mail boxes, don't they?

©2010 wpreagan