Whenever I want to feel old, I tell the college kids I know about what it was like when I was at Bard. Nothing gets a bigger reaction than saying nobody had a celphone (the first ones appeared my Senior year and we were all amazed, saying to each other “what would anyone want a celphone for in college?”), but it’s at least as amazing that you still had to plug your computer in to a phone line and dial up for internet. Facebook was not yet a gleam in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye: Friendster came out the year after I graduated.
One thing we did have was e-mail. In the ugly student center they built in the middle of a previously nice field my sophomore year, there was a little area off to the side of the central atrium with a sort of e-mail bar: two long tables with tall stools and eight or ten computer terminals. They were monochromatic, displaying only grey and black text, and all they did was access your student e-mail account. So you could sit down, on your way from the art studio to your dorm room in Tewksbury, for example, and read and write an e-mail or two, undistracted by any other Internet time-wasters. (There really weren’t any Internet time-wasters yet, that I can remember, except of course for AIM.) I generally wrote at least two looong e-mails a day this way, to my friends Michele, or Emily, or Tim, or whoever else might have written. Of course, these days, nobody writes even e-mail anymore. We have this vague, impersonal, easy non-connection: Facebook, which sucks up all the energy we used to put into e-mail. Am I “in touch” with Emily now? Of course, we’re Facebook friends! But when’s the last time we poured our hearts out to each other, like we did when we were in college and both miserably in love? Facebook is not the place for expressing real emotions; everyone rolls their eyes at such melodramatic behavior, and it makes sense: it’s the difference between crying on a friend’s shoulder and shouting in a crowded room. Instead everyone trades one-liners and looks wistfully (or is that just me) at pictures of their absent friends having fun.
So it’s been very interesting to write these letters. I haven’t gotten anything back yet, so I have no idea how I’m coming across. It’s very different even from the e-mails I used to write, and of course I’m out of practice even with those. It’s not a conversation yet; every letter is an opening statement. At first I was trying to update people on my life and news, but that soon got boring and a bit depressing, so I’ve been writing more about things I’ve been thinking about, reading, and so on. But of course I’m writing every day, so I still end up writing the same things, sometimes, over and over. It’s a kind of iterative process, as we used to say in art school; and it’s an interesting way to work through ideas. I’ve come up with things on the third, fourth time writing about an idea that I wish I could have said the first time around, and I’ve written things the first time that it feels like I can never correctly recapture again. Really, I haven’t been writing the same things that often, I don’t think, but it feels like it. It almost feels like writing a blog post, without mass production. I suppose this is why they wrote circular letters in the past.
My fond hope is that, at least to some degree, these letters start a real conversation or two again, like I used to have with so many people. It’s actually been astonishing to realize how little I know about my friends’ lives now. When writing to each person I want to ask questions about them, and I find I know so little, embarassingly little. I’m only vaguely aware whether people are married or have kids, and beyond these huge life changes, generally, I know nothing. Maybe that says more about my poor attention span and my relatively sparse use of it, but it seems to me that Facebook is the problem, giving the illusion of connection. I’m sure for some people it’s an important and valuable connection to the people in their lives. I know (because they say so on the Internet, in protest against people like me) that many people find that Facebook breathed new life into their relationships; but for me it has rather choked them within an inch of their lives. I hope these letters can resucitate them.