She slowly unfolds the paper, and it crinkles in her hands as she smoothes it against the skirts of her dress. The first thing she does before reading it is to bring it up to her lips, breathe deep of its scent, and smile, wide and free.
Dear People of the Internet,
My generation is one of texters, snappers, and tweeters. Any sentiment that cannot be expressed in 140 characters (or less) is quickly discarded, trimmed, or divided into tweet-able, text-able chunks.
Sometimes, it’s poetry. Sometimes, one doesn’t need more than 140 characters to say what they mean, but more often than not, the message is just one in an endless deluge of trillions of others sent by the billions of people with access to a mobile device.
At risk of sounding like I am an immortal being born two centuries ago, I quite frankly miss the days where you sent your lover clandestine letters under the cover of darkness, or kept up with your mother through long, rambling letters that still smelt faintly of her cooking.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t miss the really old days, the ones when it took years to get a letter from your family in the New World, providing neither the ship carrying the original letter nor the reply sunk on its long and treacherous journey across the Atlantic.
Rather, I miss the letter-writing habits of my mother’s generation, and that of her mother before her. I yearn for the thoughtfulness it takes to put pen to paper and pour your deepest secrets onto the page. I miss the special little touches and flairs of personality both senders would adorn their letters with. I long for the days when communication was not instantaneous.
In a world where communication with people around the world is limited only by the speed of our network connections, complex, nuanced thoughts are left behind. They hover, phantom-like, at the periphery of our mind, begging to be expressed, but they do not fit the mold of today’s fast-paced, speed-of-light communication. There is a real pressure to condense and simplify our thoughts until all subtleties are stripped away, replaced by trite clichés and overused metaphors. Those thoughts flare and fade, seafoam on the shoreline being boiled away by the apricity of the sun in the winter.
Even in poetry, there has been a motion towards shorter, more compressed forms. Some poets take it upon themselves to compose their works of literature within the 140-character limit. Flash fiction is becoming more popular than ever. If brevity were a horse, then everyone, it seems, would jump on its bandwagon. What is at stake is revealed by asking oneself where, exactly, this horse and its wagonload of tweet-happy, tech-savvy youths are heading?
Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps I’m just a cynic, but it’s clear to me, having been isolated from social media as a teenager, that the edge of the cliff is fast approaching, and that today’s youth are speeding towards it as they age into tomorrow’s workforce. One doubts they’ll be impressed by the brevity of the fall; it’s a long way down.
“Ur hot” is a far cry from Sonnet 18. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” has had its essential organs removed, and has suffered a lobotomy to boot.
It certainly gets the point across, but at what cost? At the cost of poetry, at the expense of beauty? Yes, times change, and so must we, but the sacrifice of our language for ‘text-speak’ is like exchanging a banquet for a single piece of fruit. The so-called prize of brevity seems like a meager consolation. The price we’ve paid in words and in sentiments for our communication to keep up with our fast-paced lives is far too high for comfort.
What happened to stopping to smell the metaphorical roses? What became of sitting down with a writing instrument and some stationery to pen a thoughtful letter? Where, pray-tell, did letter-writing go to take to its deathbed, and why is my generation doing utterly nothing to stop it?
It is any wonder that our interpersonal relationships are in tatters because of social media? It takes no courage to ‘troll’ someone. There is no valor in telling a woman of your undying affection if you do it through text messaging.
So much is lost when we separate ourselves by our devices. We are so far removed from each other that even when sitting next to one another, young lovers will be texting others on their phones. What is the point of a mobile communication device if all it does is cheapen our conversations, rob us of the nuances of our language, and compress our thoughts into character-limited shadow versions of their original selves?
There is so much complexity and beauty in every human language. There are long-winded metaphors, rambling comparisons, flowery poetry. There’s the give and take of body language, and the clues given by inflection, and the tell-tale signs of defeat or joy or any myriad of emotions playing themselves out across our features.
I think my generation likes to think that social media and texting bring us closer together. Certainly, it makes the world a smaller place, but we are further removed than we’ve ever been from one another. Our machines and corporations like Twitter decide upon the quality of the thoughts expressed through them. Not every thought can be condensed, chained and constrained by the limits of texting and tweeting.
I have a confession to make. Ninety percent of the texts I send serve not to bring me closer to my friends, but rather to isolate me. We sit in different rooms, in separate cities, intently starting at our screens and watching the infernal ‘typing’ symbol. I feel anything but connected in that moment. All I can think, doing my part as a twenty-something woman to try to keep in touch, is that I am alone in an empty room, waiting for empty words stripped bare of nuance and complexity.
Even calling them is not an option. “Why didn’t you just text me?” people of my generation will ask, seemingly confused by the engagement of their vocal chords rather than their thumbs.
Soon enough, talking on the phone will have retired to the Southern Hemisphere, alongside the fast-dying art of letter-writing.
And one day, when my generation is personified by an aging gentleman furiously texting his grandchildren, the children will laugh while letter-writing is slain by ever-faster modes of communication, and Mr. Millennial, drawing one last ragged breath, will look up from his phone and wonder how, with his 547 Facebook friends, and 1320 Twitter followers, he ended up so very alone.
Maybe he should have written a letter instead.
Caitlin Cacciatore – Poet, Space Opera Novelist, and Letter Writer Extraordinaire