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25 November 2008

40-Somethings On Facebook. "It is a cohort that is entirely comfortable with computers, but which also has a memory of the courtesies and languor of the pre-computer age. We read a lot online, but also have newspapers delivered to our homes. We write e-mail as if we were born with the skill to do so, yet we wrote letters by hand until we were well into our 30s."
Yet a peculiar gloom possessed me after this incident. Truth be told, I felt rather hurt. The swiftness with which I'd been sized up and found unfit for "friendship" felt like a slap to the face

Actually, I think Varadarajan was right to feel this way and it has nothing to do with generational differences. The conventional method, if the youth simply didn't want to be Facebook friends with Varadarajan, would have been for the youth to simply remove Varadarajan from the youth's friend list, which would also have the effect of doing the reverse--but without Varadarajan being actively notified. Varadarajan would have found out only if he had gone looking for the youth among his friends and not found him there.

The "take me off your friends list immediately" request indicates that it wasn't enough for the youth simply to not be friends with Varadarajan; the youth wanted Varadarajan to know that he didn't want to be friends with Varadarajan. Which is exactly the slap to the face Varadarajan identifies it as.

I'm a few years shy of forty still, and in some ways I don't fit Varadarajan's profile at all (I don't subscribe to a newspaper, I can't remember the last time I wrote a personal letter by hand), but in some ways I do--especially being more careful and thoughtful about what status updates I post than some of my younger friends seem to.

But then I wonder how much of that is confirmation bias--the millenials who post surprisingly revealing information stand out, but I might not take much notice of updates from those who are just as cautious as I am in what they post.
posted by DevilsAdvocate 25 November | 14:49
I do really miss letters. I know, I know, you can always write a letter. But we don't live in a culture of writing letters any more, so it's sort an artistic performance as opposed to an organic attempt to communicate.

When I was in high school, I ended up with a lot of friends from outside my town - people I met in summer programs. During the year we'd write to one another - my best friends, sometimes two or even three times a week. The letters were such works of art. And there was no feeling in the world like coming home from school and seeing a couple of fat, funky-looking home-built envelopes in the mailbox. The time elapsed between reading (and re-reading) and writing to your friend was a really nice ruminative time, as you thought about what you were going to say in your next letter.

And now we just blurt it out, bleagh - "Miko is sitting in her office thinking about lunch." OK thanks. Whoop de do. Poetry,'s a lot harder to pull off without the paper medium.

There are some tricks for it, yeah, but it's stil...just different.
posted by Miko 25 November | 15:52
I'm not yet 40but awfully close, but was a very early digital immigrant, so to speak. Maybe that's why I don't have any trouble parsing what an online 'friend' is. I mean, V. says "Our Facebook friends constitute a grouping to which we are tied by a loosely elective kinship." And that's correct.But that's exactly why I have no compunction at all about ignoring a friend request from someone I don't know on FB. There's no winsome emotionality to clicking 'ignore' - that person is asking for access to a part of my life that has boundaries, and I don't want to grant them access, at least not yet. Just as in real life, when I'm accosted by a relative stranger who says "I wanna be friends," I don't feel any need to treat that request as sacred. It's a request that needs to be evaluated.

There's a lot of nuance to the word 'friend,' and that nuance existed long before there was an online world for it to operate in. I remember a lot of teenage discussions about what a 'friend' really was, and that was before I had any online-only or online-originated friendships. It's never been a concept with clearly defined parameters.
posted by Miko 25 November | 16:01
I have a box full of letters that I received from my best friend during college. She has a similar box full of mine, we competed in creating the nuttiest letters, some were one-page cartoons depicting our adventures, there were illustrations in them, pressed flowers, white sand from exotic beaches, record breaking twelve meter long letters, letters written on fax-rolls, letters written on toilet paper and letters with the address written in runes on the envelope (that made it to the right address!). I recall one letter had a simple "hi how ya doin?" and then a seven page description on what streets I would walk to dodge familiar eyes as I snuck myself an evening smoke while using the "must post this letter" as an excuse to leave the house after dark, all drawn up with maps and mailboxes and mission impossible style rolls and dives across the road and the big blue letter box marked with an X (and a half page footnote on what color letter boxes were around the world). These letters were frickin' hilarious and full of in-jokes that only we understood, and I really wish that I could track her down and make a book out of our letters. But then, maybe that will break the magic and the won't seem so funny anymore.

After that, I didn't write that many letters.
posted by dabitch 25 November | 16:04
I still have a shoebox full of all the letters I received the year I was a freshman in college (1982-83). Email does not feel the same.
posted by JanetLand 25 November | 16:22
dabitch, I have a box of letter from my school penpal (with whom I am still good friends). It just occurred to me to scan those for her as an xmas gift this year. Unfortunately, her first husband made her burn my letters to her so it will be a onesided deal.
posted by trinity8-director 25 November | 16:29
I do really miss letters.

Me too. During one of my apartment moves a few years ago, I took the time to really go through some boxes of letters and postcards -- and I was amazed by how many there were (from the early/mid-'80s through the mid-'90s), and how exciting it was to read them again. I remember how exciting it was just to receive letter, too; this was back in the pre-cell-phone days when long-distance calling was still pricey -- so if I was home from college for the summer, say, it's not like I could call my friends across the country with any frequecy. So letters really were still the main way we could stay in touch. (Like dabitch recalls, they were often full of long elaborate in-jokes; we also tended to do collages and in-jokes all over the envelopes, too.)

Of all the letters in that box, almost none were dated after 1995. Hello, email.

And does anyone else wonder how the ubiquity of email will affect historical and biographical research in the future? In grad school, I did a ton of research in the Chicago Historical Society's archives, and such a staggering amount of the information I found came from letters and postcards. Or think of the countless biographies and collections of letters of famous writers, politicians, inventors, etc.... we can reconstruct so much of their lives because of the material traces left behind in letters. Will there be archives of emails in the future? Or will all that electronic correspondence just...disappear from the historical record?
posted by scody 25 November | 16:31
trinity8-director, what a great gift idea. :) And how creepy possessive that her first husband made her burn your letters, not just toss them but burn. That sort of thing is reserved for love letters sent by exes that broke your heart!
posted by dabitch 25 November | 16:43
I'd like to say that I miss letters, but I really don't. I have a dear friend who doesn't own a computer and prefers to communicate by letter. Every now and then something will pop into my head that I want to tell her, but the thought of having to track down a pen and stationery and a stamp and agonize over how to express myself and whether my handwriting is legible --just to let her know that I saw the boy she had a crush on in high school at the supermarket--seems too much. If she had e-mail, I could just say, "Hey! Guess who I saw today?" and she could write back and tell me all the things in her day that were too trivial to put in a letter and we'd both feel a little bit closer. But nooooo...she's all about letters as a lost art, so we only communicate a few times a year. Goshdarn hippie!
posted by jrossi4r 25 November | 16:55
In a world of digital crap a handwritten letter is a very organic thing indeed. I write my Dad, Grandmother, and a very special 86 year old lady. Something about addressing an envelope, putting a unique stamp on it; and making a bike trip to the post office to mail it just makes a days labours so much more self-energizing.
posted by buzzman 25 November | 16:59
I got a letter at work the other day that said:

"To Daddy
How are you doing at work today?
I just felt like writing this because I felt like it.
[10 year-old daughter]"

It's hanging on the wall off my office, complete with government-standard time-and-date-received stamp. It wasn't handwritten, but still ...
posted by dg 25 November | 17:14
I wrote letters to my best friend and the brother-of-my-heart during my very long and boring real estate classes. I was able to send off the letter to my best friend within a day or two of finishing it because he was only near San Fran, but I kept forgetting to send the letter to my Canadian friend because (and this was when I was new, mind you) I didn't feel right about usurping the company postal service to send a letter to Canada. So it languished for at least a week before it finally went in the mail.

And how did I hear from them that they'd received the letters?

Text message, and AIM, respectively. ^_^
posted by TrishaLynn 25 November | 17:57
Man, I hate it when people conclude that their own particular circle's irritating behavior defines some entire demographic.

But I agree it's lovely to get handwritten letters, and for me it now feels a bit contrived to write one -- as Miko says, it's an "artistic performance".
posted by tangerine 27 November | 00:54
What if a First Lady was accused of treason? || Traced in Air