Writing Letters The Old Fashioned Way

I was flipping through channels the other day, and saw a very odd scene on TV. It featured a teenage girl sitting on a couch and writing a letter to her best friend. What came as a shock to me was that despite the action taking place in the present day US (the show seemed very recent) she was doing it with a pen and paper. She wasn’t texting her friend, writing an email or using Facebook’s wall. She was doing it the old fashioned way. She would write it, fold the paper in half, put in an envelope and drop in a mailbox.

I found it incredibly weird. I don’t think you could find a single teenager who would do something like that today. At least not in the small town suburban America that was depicted on that show. You could probably catch some kid writing a letter to their grandma this way. I could probably imagine someone writing a sappy love letter this way – you know, to be romantically, old-fashioned or something. But a letter to a friend to let them know how you are doing? Who the hell does that.

Your friends should already know what you are up to from reading your Facebook status updates, am I right? The sad fact is that most of my student’s don’t actually even use email these days. That communication is to slow, and to indirect for them. They much prefer the burst and stream type communication provided by text messaging and social networks.

A typical teenager will broadcast their more public status updates to all their friends via their social network, and use texting for immediate real time private communication. An idea that a young, suburban mall rat would actually write snail mail letter to a friend is almost inconceivable to me. It just doesn’t happen anymore! I often rant about people are computer illiterate these days, and can’t accomplish even the simplest tasks on their machines but this is one exception. They may not know how to copy or move files on their machine. They may not know how to double space or save a word document. But if they are less than 30 years old, they WILL know how to use facebook and texting feature on their phone. You can pretty much bet your life on it.

This of course may not hold true for some environments – for example very poor neighborhoods and etc. But in suburban, middle class America almost every teenager has a Facebook account and a cell phone with an unlimited text messaging plan. Those who don’t have an unlimited plan, go over their text message limit (no matter how high it is) every month. But it seems that Hollywood didn’t notice this trend yet. Perhaps they need to update their dusty old story books or something.

Do you agree? Do you see similar trend around where you live? I live in the Tri-State region so perhaps this phenomenon is unique to the east coast metropolitan areas. Who knows…

I also have a question to my readers from other parts of the world. Seeing how US is like 100 years behind Asia and parts of Europe when it comes to cellular technology, do you also see texting becoming primary mode of communication among younger people? What is the next phase in that process? Is preference of texting and social networks over email becoming mainstream all over the world?

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15 Responses to Writing Letters The Old Fashioned Way

  1. Nathan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    My grandmother is too old to be able to see her computer monitor anymore, so the only way to reliably communicate with her is via snail-mail. I was reflecting recently what a profoundly different experience it was to actually send and receive physical letters (I don’t hand-write them though since my penmanship is horrible).

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  2. Daosus UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox SuSE Linux says:

    Odd, I write letters to most of my friends. They think it’s quaint, but everyone likes getting something in the mail that isn’t a bill.

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  3. Yeah, I think it’s a bit generalistic to assume such allegations.
    I write letters every once in awhile. I don’t even own a cell phone.

    I am one out of a hundred I know. But the image projected as the “American Teenager” is not always the case.
    I feel people who don’t fit that model are Real Americans.

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  4. Malachite UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    The last time I wrote a letter I was in boot camp. After that, haven’t, before that, never. I do agree that the majority of people my age (19-24) all much prefer emails & text to the old fashioned way of communication.

    To speculate on the next phase: until we get brain computers, im not sure there is one; it would require the input/output to be much faster, and you cant really get that with a cell phone, which is quite speedy as it is.

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  5. mcai8sh4 UNITED KINGDOM Opera Linux Terminalist says:

    Here in the UK (or at least my world), I still occasionally write the odd letter, as Daosus mentioned, it always puts a smile of someones face to receive friendly mail in the post. I really don’t get all the hype with facebook, so I never use that, although quite a few friends do, I just find it pointless. I send texts if I want to send a quick message (not requiring an answer!) but my main communication is either via the phone or in person. Non urgent information is sent via email, (conversely for business, email is sent if urgent). A lot of women tend to use text for random conversations. But you’ve hit the nail on the head regarding computer illiterate people using facebook. Also text’s in England text messages are seldom free, I think the average price is 2-5p (3-7 US cents) – for some thats over £15/month. You forgot to mention MMS – NOBODY uses that here. And only a few bother with mobile video calls. I think communication will stay the same for the next 5+ years.

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  6. JeremeIn UNITED STATES Opera Linux says:

    Things are going the same way here in Missouri. Texting is used for immediate personal communication, and facebook for basically all else. The only exception is for school organizations; there are still some people that don’t have a facebook account, and it is much easier to compile a list of email adresses that can all be sent to at once instead of tracking down everyone’s facebook account, especially since many kids like to use ridiculous nicknames for their profiles. The only time anyone I know has used snail mail is for formal invitations or thank you notes.

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  7. Mart SINGAPORE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I guess I can provide my opinion on the last para, since I’m located halfway around the world from you. :P

    The tech governing my late teen years was the pager. Messaging in code was part of my daily life back then (remember 1-177155-4?). In 2000, when I was 18, I got my first mobile, sponsored by my parents including the subscription (the pager I paid myself), a chunky Nokia 5110 (which I lost amazingly).

    Text messaging is now a big huge part of my life. Even my mum texts me if it’s a casual question. So much that sometimes, I have to tell my friends to call me if it’s important, and not to text, because I may not hear my mobile beep. I guess it is a natural progression from texting on the pager, except that now, numeric codes are replaced by abbreviation codes (“u”, “ttyl”, “lol”, et cetera). Those are tolerable.

    My fiancee works as a youth counsellor. You should have seen the texts she gets from her clients. Example: “sees, wd u lyk to mit me ltrr? Can c u at md.” In English, it says “Sis, would you like to meet me later? I can see you at MacDonalds”. Yes, md = macdonalds for some reason.

    So I’m guessing that texting (in sms) is a huge part of a youth’s life, since it is the easiest and mobile phones are so ubiquitous here. In the streets, I can even see some as young as 10 already carrying high end Sony Ericsson or Nokia phones. My niece is only 10 and she already has a hand-me-down phone, to be used only on weekends and school holidays.

    Facebook and Friendster are quite popular social networks among Singaporeans (I have heard them being used as a verb before: “you can facebook me later!”, whatever that means). However, I am not sure if it has reached the levels of popularity as you have described. I rarely get facebook messages or emails from my friends as it is, but we text each other pretty often. These services has yet to go mainstream as it is still not widely available on-the-go. Wi-Fi isn’t as ubiquitous (Wireless@SG sucks ass) and although the 3G coverage is quite good, it is still a service that primarily tech geeks use. Some still go “Wow! You can check your email on your phone?” when I do so.

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  8. Jaded Judas UNITED STATES Konqueror Debian GNU/Linux says:

    But at some point, one needs to communicate something important via snail mail.

    For example: Today, I mailed a letter (certified, return-receipt, restricted delivery) to [medical insurance company] concerning the ongoing battle to force my insurance company to provide the coverage for which I am paying. Once one moves beyond the high school / college environment, you must be able to write such correspondence… or pay an attorney to do it for you.

    [[I did use LaTeX letter class to write the three page letter]]

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  9. Hector SPAIN Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    No snail mail arround here either (At least my world). Even my parents text message when they’re out of the city!
    I have the feeling (no direct knowledge, I am not exactly a teenager anymore) than you are right and texting and social networks are preferred over email. Youngsters are even loosing the ability to write full words, as Mart said. And not only in text messaging (which I do understand, due to character limit per msg) but even in e-mail, face-book, blog comments, wherever.
    On the other hand I agree with Jaded Judas, some things must be done through snail mail… but only because (at least in my country) almost nobody uses (nor understands) electronic signatures… sad.

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  10. Alphast NETHERLANDS Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    In the Netherlands and in France, unless you are in a really remote rural area, text messaging and e-mails or social networks are the norm, especially amongst teenagers and young adults. Heck, even my 93 years old grandma sends me e-mails from her Mac… ;-)

    The little difference is that FaceBook is not as widespread as in the USA, and other social networks are more represented. Hyves is the network of choice in the Netherlands and similar but different ones also exist in France. Still, most people have a Facebook account.

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  11. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @Nathan: My grandmother uses snail mail all the time. So does my mom, my dad and pretty much every other person over 40 that I know.

    And you are right. It is a different experience. When I get a snailmail, I read it, then toss it among the other papers on my desk, never to find it again. Then if it is something that warrant’s response, I either email or call the person who sent it to me. I seriously can’t remember the last time when I sent a snail mail for social purposes.

    @mcai8sh4: To tell you the truth, I don’t exactly know what the hype about Facebook is either, but I’m an anti-social introvert type so I’m not their target demographic.

    Though if you listen to my students rave about it, it’s like the best thing since sliced bread. And I can sort off see how they arrive at that conclusion. It’s kinda like having an RSS feed to all your school buddies lives. You get up to the minute updates on who is dating who, who got drunk where and all of that with picture and video attachments.

    But if you are a fairly private person (like me) who doesn’t like to post ultra-personal stuff where everyone can see, and if you don’t really care that much about social gossip, and stalking your friends then the appeal is indeed limited.

    @JeremeIn: Yeah, it’s the same thing here. Official stuff is always sent via email or snail mail. Which is why students never actually check their email accounts anymore. Since all their social stuff is done via Facebook they associate email with spam, and boring, spammy official emails, annoucements and messages from school organizations.

    @Mart: Pagers? Really? We actually never had that trend develop here. Only people with pagers were doctors, high powered lawyers and generally people who needed to be “on call” for work.

    Back when I lived in Poland cell phones were quire rare – plans were expensive, and coverage was shit. Most people who had them, had them for work related stuff. No one used pagers though.

    I remember that around the time I was Freshman in HS prheaking was still big at my school. All the upper classmen had the little dial boxes that would let them exploit public pay-phones and call for free. It was on a decline though since Polish Telecom was revamping their systems at the time, and phased out the old coin operated phones, and replaced them with elecronic ones for which you had to buy a pre-paid call card. They turned out to be invulnerable to these exploits, and the little black boxes that everyone used to carry disappeared.

    I moved to US around my Junior year and here in US cell phones were on the rise. Quite a few of my class mates had them, but they were far from being ubiquitous. In my family, you got your first cell phone when you left for college so that you could call home in case of emergency. So I didn’t have a cell in HS at all – in fact, most people didn’t.

    They sort of exploded while I was in college, and all of a sudden everyone had them.

    Also, funny factoid: last year we found my cousin’s first cell phone in the basement. That thing looked like a brick with an antenna. She said she didn’t remember it being so huge, and she could not figure out how the hell she was able to fit that thing in her purse. :P

    @Jaded Judas: No question about that. I do send quite a bit of official stuff via snail mail. That has not changed yet. I never denied that. I was talking about sending letters for social purposes.

    @Hector: Well, I’m 27 so I’m not a teenager, but I believe I can still relate to them. My brother is 23 and I do work with college students many of whom are freshmen fresh out of HS so I do get some insight into their mindset.

    @Alphast: Yeah, I wouldn’t expect Facebook to be that widespread outside of US. I know it is popular worldwide, but I figured it is largely a US phenomenon.

    I know that Orkut is big in Brazill and Poland has nasza-klasa.pl which literally stands for “our-class”. It is sort of a hybrid – a little bit like MySpace (sans the CSS injection), a little bit Facebook (sans the sleek Web 2.0 design). Basic idea behind it is to allow people reconnect with former classmates and interestingly enough, it is very popular with people over 40.

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  12. Hector SPAIN Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I am a “little” older (37). :-)

    Where I live facebook is quite widespread not only among teenagers, but also “older” people (thirtysomething, fortysomething, even more) with lots of groups related to HS classes and so.
    I have this “anti-social introvertion” too, but lately the pressure is been so high that I finally created a profile on facebook. But I still don’t get the feeling. I’ve only used it to find a couple of old friends, and have private conversations. I am using facebook like a colorfull open addressbook, then I use it “e-mail” like.

    Oh, and politicians here are crazy around facebook too! Yesterday I read an interview with quite a relevant one who said he had around four thousand “friends” (quotation marks are mine) and that he dedicated an hour a day to them. Man, I want this guy’s job!

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  13. Morghan Phoenix UNITED STATES Epiphany Linux says:

    I prefer e-mail myself, or snail mail if absolutely necessary, and I think the only reason I prefer the electronic version is that I don’t have to go to the photo lab to get prints of my pictures to send attached to an e-mail. Though from the look of it I am the only one who thinks that way. I can’t drive to the store without almost running over some teenager with his/her nose in a phone texting away. Even my wife’s dad, who is somewhere in his fifties, can’t seem to remember that I do not have or want a texting plan and every “how r u?” costs me a quarter a piece. But at least when it’s costing me money I have an excuse to be cranky when someone uses a mode of communication that seriously annoys me.

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  14. I maintain that letter-writing is undergoing a bit of a renaissance, at least inasmuch as once can convince young people to put pen to paper to write a snail mail letter. It has a bit of retro cache.

    You said, “An idea that a young, suburban mall rat would actually write snail mail letter to a friend is almost inconceivable to me. It just doesn’t happen anymore!”

    But it does. I have many of their letters as precious proof.

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  15. Johanna DENMARK Safari Mac OS says:

    I am the typical teenager (17) from the otherside of the big sea (Denmark, Europe), but then again maybe not. I can see all my friends using facebook and text-messaging most of the the time. I however prefer writing by hand and always seem to read the text messages too late. I live by the motto ‘If its really important, they can always get hold of me via phone &c’. For me a letter is much more personal especially when written by hand, so I keep weekly contact with two of my friends with letters of maybe 4-8 hand-written pages. Now you probably think I am some loner/geek, I am sorry to dissapoint you, I actually enjoy the company of all the girls in my class and plan several social events as well as being the spokesperson in my class. I can to some extent say that your statement is true, however it cannot be generalized to every teenager.

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