E-mail, Instant Messaging and Chat Rooms: The New Letter?
Personal communication over distance used to be laborious – considerable physical impediments slowed the process. In the 1800’s, an aristocratic gentlemen hand-penned a letter with a quill pen and bottled ink, sealed the envelope with melted wax, and sent a footman to hand-deliver the missive to his faraway love; in the midst of battle, foot-soldiers ran relays across hostile territories, rushing battle plans to waiting troops; news of the California gold rush galloped across America by horseback. Even our modern postal service takes at least a day – with numerous people, and ground and air transportation involved – to move a letter from point A to point B.
In years past, knowing a personal letter could take weeks to reach its recipient increased its significance. The writer thoughtfully chose paper, pen and ink, taking time to consider the message. Guided by historically-evolved etiquette and a sense of social propriety, he created an artful object by combining written thoughts with an individualized medium that reflected personal style (Landow 221). Sherry Turkle writes in Virtuality and Its Discontents “the (letter bears) the trace of the physical body of the person who sen(ds) it” (481). A written letter has meaningful form and content. You know the recipient either personally or by public reputation, and you know their residence or workplace.
Enter the personal computer: today, a dude clicks away, instant-messaging his favorite chick; complicated war strategies are instantly e-mailed across secure computer networks; chat rooms create never-ending global cocktail parties. Two PC’s with Internet connections equal instant communication, instant gratification. We rely on a machine to create our format, and our content often resembles a stream of consciousness. Sometimes we know the person on the other end, sometimes we don’t. Ease of use is more important than social etiquette, so much so that formal writing conventions morph into casual verbal conversational style, making the Internet a simplistic simultaneous substitute for face-to-face interaction and the arduous act of writing (Turkle 480).
You can almost hear 1964-Bob Dylan croaking his way through, “…times they are a-cha-a-a-a-angin’...” With Internet personal communication modes of e-mail, instant messaging and chat rooms at our fingertips, stripped of the physical barriers inherent in communicating via handwritten letter, our real-time thoughts and emotions can be read and “heard” by friends – or strangers – across the world in an instant. Are these mediums – e-mail, instant messaging and chat rooms -- new kinds of “letter writing” or something else altogether?
Letters make a personal connection with the sender and recipient, sharing intimacy; in writing a letter, you send trust through the mail. “When we want to be our “real” selves, we may pick up a pen rather than turn on the computer,...