A letter to the Facebook generation

I went to a wedding today and met somebody who campaigns for more letter writing.  This is interesting for a couple of reasons.  One – he was young, and two – he does not work for Royal Mail.

Royal Mail employees would be forgiven for wanting people to send more letters, it’s obviously good for business.  Unless you’re an actual postie of course in which case more mail = more weight.  But surely even posties welcome real letters to deliver as opposed to Amazon parcels, junk mail and bills.

‘Old’ people presumably write to each other because it’s what they did before Facebook, email, even telephones.  But in today’s world where the kids opt for instant messaging because email is too slow, I found myself wondering why any sub-pensioner would make the case for the humble letter.

During the course of the conversation a few reasons emerged.  Firstly, a letter carries considerably more weight than a Facebook message or email.  It’s easy to dash off a quick note electronically.  What’s more the recipient knows this, and the message intrinsically lacks sincerity in comparison to one that has been hand-written, on paper, in ink, in your handwriting, with a hand licked (alright, stuck) stamp on the front.  Not to mention that you would have had to swing by a post box at some stage to send it.

Secondly, there is something thrilling about receiving a letter.  Grabbing the day’s post can be like looking in the fridge at the end of the week: full of promise but ultimately disappointing.  If a real letter falls through the letter box (and a real letter is one where your address is written on the envelope, as opposed to being visible through a little plastic window) it’s a source of great excitement.  When Citybump arrived on the scene, there were a few weeks where The Post was the most hotly anticipated event of the day (well, we weren’t getting out much.)

So there is a warmth and weight to a letter that email just can’t match.  I’m not sure I would dare write to a friend though.  It would be odd.  They would probably dismiss their first thought that perhaps my internet and my phone had broken, to conclude that I must have fallen in love with them.  This could have undesirable consequences.

I would like to drop this chap a note in the post to say that it was nice to meet him.  I’m sure he would appreciate it, and bearing in mind the content of our conversation would know that I hadn’t fallen in love with him, which is reassuring.  Sadly with the bride and groom on honeymoon as of tomorrow morning, I have no way of getting his address.  It seems rather a long-winded way of doing things to send him a Facebook message to ask for his address just to say ‘nice to meet you, keep up the good work’, but that is of course the whole point.

Author: Rachel Wheeley

Comedian, podcaster, full time Mum, based in London, UK

15 thoughts on “A letter to the Facebook generation”

  1. We’re up for a spot of letter writing. In fact Boo has bought you a postcard to send but then got distracted by a visit to Grandmas!
    I’ll remind her tomorrow and then it’ll be in the post.
    See you Friday


  2. Yes, letters have become quite heavy emotionally, though to be fair they always were. I used to write a lot of letters, I’d take a lot of trouble over my handwriting so that the overall effect was clean and stylish. You could write to someone without them automatically thinking you loved them – I suppose I’m talking 1980s – but nevertheless they carried a lot of psychological significance. I used to write letters to my girlfriends (when I had girlfriends) – OK fair enough, but also to female friends of my older brother who were all sharing a student house in Leeds, and I was still at school doing A-levels. Was I in love with these oh-so-sophisticated 20-year-old women? Well, kind of. Were they in love with me? No; they were being nice to me, acquiescing in being the targets of my adolescent charm offensive. It was quite old-fashioned in its way; I wish I still had those letters now, just to see what nonsense I wrote, and what they replied. The longevity of letters lends them a significance they don’t always deserve. The mere fact of rediscovered sentiments dating back years can be bewitching – and dangerous. For most of us, the past is another country. Perhaps email and text have got it right: yesterday’s chip wrappings, regularly deleted. Or do people browse their hard drives for emails sent in the 1990s on their old 286?

  3. I wrote a long letter to an old friend a few months ago, but she ignored it. More recently she did add me to Facebook. Strange old world.

    Meanwhile, I’ve been urging Pete to write a letter to some friends whose wedding we were unable to go to this year (because it was in New York). I don’t think he gets how special a letter saying “sorry we couldn’t be there etc” would be.

  4. One of the things we also thought about letters was that you can’t really not reply to a letter. That’s that theory out the window then. Still, you never know, you might just get a very late letter back. Time moves very slowly where the post is concerned.

    1. Yes, it’s not quite the same when they drop through the letter box at 2 in the afternoon is it?!

  5. Oh the utter wonderfulness of romantic sentiments actually put down by someone in ink!! Letters are unbeatable for lurve. But electronic communication does something to what we actually choose to write, don’t you think? I’m on a break from Facebook at the moment because I was appalled at what I found myself writing on there. Not only trivial – that in itself wasn’t the worst thing – but sort of twee and wannabe witty. I’d put quirky updates like, “Found a banana down the back of the piano,” or “God I love ginger crunch creams.” OK, but a whole stream of these is unbearable. I wasn’t doing justice to my essential moodiness, but you can’t do unhappy on Facebook, as one of my kids pointed out , showing me a post from a friend saying, “Hurting, always hurting…” Whereas you can do moody in letters, they are long enough, and deep enough, to be both various and emotional. Short and instant somehow seems to require light.

    1. That’s precisely the problem. You can’t reflect how you really feel on Facebook because it is the least intimate communication method since someone who paticularly wanted other people to hear what he had to say invented the loud hailer. Once you’re talking to everyone you know, and particularly if you’re restricted by a socially acceptable word count, all you can hope to be is ‘hilariously’ flippant. Facebook messaging is ok, as it’s just email, so private and therefore as intimate as you like, but the status updates, the walls, the groups, the photo tagging just serve to reduce every relationship to a stream of superficial banter. I know a few people who document their every mood swing via status updates, and find myself wondering what they hope to acheive? What solace do they expect from their friends in response to a status update of ‘think I might just end it all’? ‘Cheer up mate you haven’t seen the photo I just tagged of you from the week-end yet – LOL!’ is the likely level of response. The whole thing is pretty desperate frankly.

  6. You’ve so nailed it Rach. There is something inherent in the nature of facebook that makes it trivial, unreal. It’s a bit like the relationship of reality tv to reality. It almost doesn’t exist, the links are tenuous. I ended up as a sort of reality tv version of myself, how scary is that?!!

    It’s such a deep subject, I could go on about it for ages (but I promise to keep it to around 2500 words). There is a sort of unspoken etiquette about short, instant text communication like texting and IM chat, it’s not done to say stuff that’s too serious because the assumption is that the recipient is busy & it would be an imposition. And we really are busy, that’s true. And no-one wants to get a text just as they’re going to work/pick up the kids saying, “Feeling so shit i cd end it all so easily.” That one’s got to be on the phone about 7pm, work over, tea had, evening ahead for therapy.

    It’s taken me a while to realise, for example, that chat conversations can be conducted at quite a leisurely pace, instant reply is not required & it can all last hours. And I’m still coming to terms with the anxiety having multiple inboxes causes. I dislike the feeling of having emails AND texts AND voicemails all waiting for me, with the worry that there are several people out there, all thinking, “Bloody Machin, he’s so crap.”

    It’s about authenticity, perhaps. We can handle short bursts of relative inauthenticity via text or chat, but anything more is potentially troublesome. There’s a conflict between wanting people to get the real you, i.e. the substantial, non-dizzy person with the real feelings, and not wanting to burden them with heaviness.

    I don’t know if you ever get this re Baba, but I found there was both a ‘good’ template I felt a certain pressure to fit my experiences into, defined by baby books and parents on tv looking impossibly organised, and, oddly, a ‘bad’ template which ostensibly allowed you to say everything wasn’t always marvellous but in fact restricted you to a sort of hackneyed version of stressed parent. “Oh, yeah, going short of sleep (wan smile). Yeah, I do go a bit stir-crazy sometimes.” But NOT “I sometimes feel like killing the baby and then myself,” or “It’s so boring some days.” Neither felt real; the highs were way higher, the lows way lower. Maybe that’s just me being a bit bipolar, but I believe some experiences challenge the conventions of communication that are ordinarily available to us. Maybe that’s why letters appeal – the chance to be taken exactly as seriously as you want to be?

    Cor, I’ve come over all Open University. I hope you’re taking notes..

  7. Sorry Facebook fans!! I’ll probably be back on it next week. It is good for photos and getting in touch. And I really did find a banana down the back of the piano.

  8. I found before Facebook arrived that contact and communications had reduced vastly between friendship groups as the natural evolution of post school, post uni moves and jobs and relationships and kids all generated changes.

    A select few friends and contacts may have had a chance of staying in touch by phone calls – very unheard of for letters and postcards – which I felt was a shame generally.

    Facebook then and other social media thingies I think are a massive good thing. Yes the contact depth might be light, but I am lifted by being able to have a window into those friends and contacts – and esp the real outlying contacts that you would likely NEVER had contact from in any form. To see snippet comments (which I can hear their voices saying sometimes !) , to see photos of various antics and trips and activities and kids growing, and then to have additional quirky quizzes/groups/news articles that those people are sharing I think is fantastic.

    But I do think “LOL” should be banned.

    1. I have to say I definitely agree with Nige that for all its shortcomings Facebook is A Good Thing. Like a lot of things it is probably how you use it that determines whether it does good or bad things to your relationships. Keeping in touch with old mates = good, writing sincere status updates ‘outing’ mates who have left themselves logged onto a public computer to everyone they know = bad.

      All I’m saying is that a proper extended bit of communication is good sometimes, in addition to the fluff of Facebook.

  9. True, I got back in touch with a couple of people I almost certainly wouldn’ t have outside of Facebook. And a few people requested friendship who I really quite strongly didn’t want to be friends with, which always makes me feel a bastard. It’s pride versus conscience or something close. I know perfectly well why I don’t want to pal up with these people again, but it’s by no means all about them. Some of it is about me, my inability to cope with them, my vulnerability to certain aspects of their personalities. One guy will, I know, involve me in joint projects which will fail because he’s arrogant & I’m too much of a coward to tell him. So, not really a friend at all, but we have years of ‘history’ because it took me that long to realise he brought out an acquiescent, insincere streak in me that made me hate myself & him. There were good times, but ultimately he was a piss-taker & I was a doormat. Not to be repeated.

    Of course, you may think, what’s all the fuss? – just ignore ’em. Well, yes. But I don’t like a space in which ghosts can speak to me. If I’m honest, I suspect the motivation of people trying to get back in touch after 10, 15, 20 years. I suspect mine on the couple of occasions I’ve done it. I feel the sheer busy-ness of life already makes me neglect my family and current friends, so I wonder what I’m doing contacting people I’ve drifted away from. It’s not that I think they’ll all be awful, just that I know I won’t be able to commit to anything, not even meeting up in a pub for a yarning session. If I do, it’ll be ‘We must do this again’ and part of me will think yes we should, but I’m up to my back teeth with shift work & 3 kids & trying to be a househusband so my wife can do teacher training & just trying to keep up contact with my small circle of friends, even if 90% by text!!

    Sorry if that sounds a bit glum, but isn’t this part of the whole social media thing? The flipside, perhaps? We imagine – buy into? – a prospect of increased leisure time, but the modern family is so mortgaged (pun intended) to the unfeasibly high cost of housing, both working, so time-poor, that it’s often a mirage. Hence, maybe, the tension I feel over authenticity. Shallow is often all I have time for and I didn’t like seeing that smirking back at me out of Facebook. Where am I finding the time to bang on at length on this blog? I’m stealing it from myself; I should be asleep but want to communicate in defiance of my pressing schedule.

    Strangely, I feel a letter coming on.

  10. John, you’re Facebook bashing again, but I think that’s ok because despite all said earlier about how it’s a great way to keep up with old mates etc… it still makes me feel vaguely uneasy. That’s quite an odd thing to admit to considering it’s only a website.

    Perhaps it’s my own green eyed monster. I find myself internally wincing at other people’s status updates. You know you can ‘like’ status updates? I often wish you could ‘unlike’ them. That would be great, if there was a little button you could click to ‘disapprove’ of status updates. ‘4 comments. 5 people like this. 2 people disapprove of this. 3 people have specifically defriended you because of this update.’

    I came off Facebook just before I got married because I had gone on a foolish ‘friending’ spree and befriended everyone I had ever met. The Facebook friend count was an addictive game. How many friends have I got? Less than that person! I must know more people than that!

    I then got far too much information from people I really couldn’t give a toss about, and their status updates annoyed me: “Look at them, having a good time” I thought to myself, enviously. I was having a good time and I didn’t want to be doing any of the things they were doing, but looking at pictures of their glamorous nights out / holiday photos made me angry.

    I think perhaps Nige is a better person that me, enjoying all the status updates and photos of kids growing up and all that simply as a little glimpse into the lives of friends we can’t see as often as we’d like. But if you have ‘friends’ on Facebook you don’t like that much, the glimpses can cause the opposite of a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.

    Happily, I realised the trick with Facebook is to only be friends with people you like (obvious, but requires proper effort to achieve.) Don’t accept friend requests from old colleagues, school friends, blokes (or girls) you got off with once at a party in 1997 just because they ask. If you don’t want to log onto your computer and see a picture of them on holiday in Cyprus riding a banana boat, reject them. They might be annoyed, but they’ll get over it, and if you’re lucky you’ll never have your door darkened by them again.

    That’s all very well for the bloke from the party (sorry Neil), but it’s not so easy with current colleagues. These people are very difficult to avoid, and they are often the ones who spend hours doing their updates, commenting, uploading photos… Your news feed is peppered with their little face popping up with yet another inane message. There’s not a lot you can do about this, except perhaps either Man up, defriend them and deal with the consequences, or just put up with it.

    Since skulking back onto Facebook in a fit of boredom, and depressingly a feeling that I was missing out, I now think it’s worth being a part of, but I have far fewer friends. I’m even thinking of getting rid of a few more. Can’t beat an occasional clear out. It’s like taking clothes to a charity shop – you feel sort of cleansed by the process.

    I think it’s entirely justifiable to downsize, particularly when it comes to digital stuff. I’ve spent considerable time and effort unsubscribing from almost every email distribution list I’ve ever had the misfortune to sign up to. My email inbox now pretty much only consists of real emails, from real people, and I find that much easier to deal with.

    Twitter used to stress me out, until somebody pointed out to me that you should just treat it like a river: just look at it occasionally, see if you can see anything interesting and if not, go away again. No need to feel you should read everything on there, you might as well sit down and try to read the internet.

    I think it’s ok to downsize your friend group if you want to as well. Either on Facebook or just generally. Scale it all back. See the people you love, drop the people you hate. Simple as that. Then the time you spend in contact with real friends is better, cos you’re not worrying about all the people you don’t see all the time, and you’ve made an active decision about who your friends are.

    Fewer, more meaningful relationships have got to be better for the soul than hundreds of completely fatuous ones.

    I’m not done with Facebook yet. I feel another post coming on.

  11. I love the idea of formally disliking Facebook status updates. It would all get terribly out of hand, of course. It would be pretty galling getting a load of your updates disliked. Before long there’d be people doing themselves in after an unbroken string of 63 update dislikes.

    This is a fab thread, you’ve really hit on a nerve here, Rach. Well, one of mine at least. Yes, I wish I was a bit less cagey about social media, and could just take em for what they are, or appear. I don’t think of myself as someone with a load of skeletons in the cupboard but the few that exist definitely unnerve me. You are very brave to prune your online friends, I’d be worrying about them knocking on my door and demanding to know why. What’s so bad about me, eh? You haven’t exactly been pal of the year yourself!

    Perhaps we are – I am – trying, foolishly, to fit social media into old pigeon-holes. They’re not letters, nor are they phone calls, or telegrams. They’re not even chats across the garden fence or down the pub. They’re new, they’re their own thing. But the original question begged was, have they killed letters? And if they have, is it the need for deeper communication they’ve killed, or the desire? Why, in short, don’t I write letters any more?

    One very blunt answer is the one you alluded to early on, R. Letters are if anything taken more seriously than ever, and if my missus knew I was writing actual, handwritten letters to someone, she’d be well miffed. But I could write to family, or several very old friends.

    I think the immediacy of email etc has made writing seem an oddity, but it doesn’t explain the weight question, i.e. why don’t we still use letters for really serious, heartfelt sentiments? I’ve no hard answer, I just think we’ve become lighter, there’s a perceptible pressure to be urbane, easy-going and on the whole that’s gotta be good. In a way, someone like me, who worries about the fleetingness of relationships with friends (and more than a few family members!!), should love social media for exactly the reasons Nige gave. Keep up, but keep it light, too busy for much else. Hell, they even remember birthdays for you! Perhaps Facebook only feels worryingly trivial if one is also experiencing a lack of more serious communication with one’s nearest and dearest – the weighty that should balance the whimsical. Ooer, getting a bit psychological here. Could I charge £50/hr for these ramblings? OK, 50p?

    That’s certainly a known side-effect of kids. I’ve been round to friends’ houses with children & spent hours totally dealing with kid-related stuff, on your way out you say ‘bye and realise you’ve actually said nothing to each other beyond “Oh look out, he’s trying to ride the cat again.”

    I do write a very occasional journal. Started it 7 years ago when my mum died, the aim was to give my children something to fill up the vast, empty spaces between notable holidays and injuries that I encounter when I try to recall my childhood. Maybe that’s the answer – get the heavy stuff off your chest into a series of handwritten tomes, and in the meantime try and make someone laugh with a SERIOUSLY witty Facebook update.

Comments are closed.