Thursday, February 25, 2010

Ramble: Blogging: Letters, and blogging, and the return of writing

Back to blogging about blogging, continuing from some of the thoughts from this post.

I've always liked the idea of collections of letters. If I search on "correspondence" on Amazon, I find book after book of of them. Letters by Truman, Machiavelli, Catherine the Great, immigrants, gardeners. Letters by famous people, letters by ordinary people.

Conclusion: People used to write letters.

People don't seem to write letters any more.

In fact, when I was a kid, in the latter part of the stone age, people rarely wrote anything that they weren't required to write. School essays and work reports, sure, but just writing on an everyday basis, beyond an occasional scrawled note to the kid's teacher or the milkman? It just didn't happen. If people wanted to stay in contact with someone, they called them on the phone.

Then the Internet came. When I was in college, you pretty much needed to be in college, or work for a sufficiently geeky company, to have Internet access. And it was primitive - Telnet, EMACS, Usenet. Right around the time that I graduated, it became fairly easy to get an individual account, though we had to buy access from that guy who was trying to defray the tens of thousands of dollars that he paid for the Unix box sitting in his garage. And argue over who got to dial up on the one phone line, until we broke down and just got two.

Then the web came. And high-speed connections. And WiFi. And Internet phones.

And now everybody writes.

For the first time in perhaps half a century, a very large number of people regularly, often daily, express themselves with the written word. Email. Chat. Forums. Texts. Facebook. MySpace. Blogs. Much of it may not be good writing, but it's writing. The self-written word, gone for decades from the average person's experience, is back.

I find this exciting. I think that when letters went away, we lost an important mode of expression. People writing about their lives, or their kids, or their gardens, or their cup of coffee, or their perfume, or that perfect hat - for a long time, that was largely gone from the world. Sure, a few published writers give you that close, quirky feel - Calvin Trillin, Henry Mitchell, a fair-sized scattering of columnists and authors. But it's different, at least in principle, if the writer has to make it through the "publishable" filter.

This lost form of expression returns with blogs. Not fancy glossy corporate blogs - we never lost that mode of expression. It's existed all along, in magazines and brochures and coffee table books.  The lost expression returns with individual blogs, driven by the quirky minds of those individuals.

So that's why I love blogs, and why I don't care too obsessively about traffic numbers or mass appeal. After all, back when people wrote letters, each letter got the equivalent of one "pageview" - or maybe a few more, if your correspondent passed the letter around the household. It wasn't written for the whole world. It wasn't written to get a check from AdSense. It was written because in your life, something happened that gave you something that you wanted to say.

Of course, it's nice when more people want to hear what you have to say. I expect that Elizabeth Lawrence might have found it exciting that her letters were of interest to enough readers to result in a published book. (Then again, she might have been horrified.) But the main thing that I'm celebrating in this particular ramble is that writing, individuals writing, is back.

Photo: By Ammodramus. Wikimedia Commons.


  1. What a great summary of how writing has evolved! That is exactly what is occurring.

    As an 11 year old, I had 40 penpals all over the world whom I purchased for a small fee from an organisation in Finland. I would write long letters on airmail stationery with attractive stamps to children in the US and Australia, Africa and France, and it was fun learning about their lives.

    At rising 51, I realise I am doing the same thing by writing a blog and participating in other people's - I do feel a network has emerged of likeminded people whom I would dearly like to meet in real life. I have already begun with some perfumistas in the UK and Germany.

    Then one form of writing which I have always maintained is the postcard. It appears that elderly relatives have been keeping my cards in shoeboxes since the late 70s, and I am starting to inherit collections of my writing output from quite an early age. It is bizarre to see the handwriting of my younger self, and there is nothing like an old postcard to transport you back in time!

    I agree with you about traffic and Adsense not being the be-all and end-all of blogging. I definitely don't select topics because I think they will "attract" readers, and consider the content of mine pretty marginal on the whole, as I don't tend to review the latest releases - or only very late, if at all!

    That said, having built up the traffic that I have, I feel reluctant to let it dwindle to nothing, so I am concerned in part about what people think of the blog... Though that concern is more likely to affect my frequency of posting rather than influence the subject matter. I was prepared to lose a goodly portion of my American readers over the PO piece, after all. : - )

  2. This is a great blog post. I've often wondered how our entire view of history will change from the death of letter-writing traditions.

    About 5 years ago I read a biography of Mozart that was pretty detailed. You learned so much about his life. The reason that historians know an enormous about Wolfgang Mozart is that he wrote constant letters to his father, and friends too. We know about his travels by carriage, and heck we know about his pet dog passing away. It's amazing the details of Mozart's life that historians know.

    I don't think the blog can really replace that.

    ChickenFreak, thank you for another insightful blog post.

  3. Thanks, flittersniffer!

    I'm impressed at your correspondence history, and vaguely jealous of the postcards. That sounds cool. :) I pretty much never got into any letter writing.

    Yep, I wouldn't want people to stop reading, and I must admit that keep an eye on readership stats, but I firmly smack myself if I threaten to blog _for_ readership stats. (And nothing about your blog is marginal! I love your blog.)

    Nah, Americans aren't loyal enough to the Post Office to leave your blog about it. :) (And if they feel criticized about their sample sending policy, they'll just blame the Post Office. See?)

  4. Hey, Melody!

    Yeah, it's hard to tell. On the one hand, the blogs are digital, so they're expiring out of existence right and left.

    On the other hand, they're replicated in many many locations, and there are things like the WayBack machine, so perhaps we'll have _more_ permanent data about ordinary people than we had before?

    On the other other hand, the famous people are unlikely to be doing a lot of deep personal blogging, and unlikely to be writing letters, so we're back to losing that information.

    It's weird. We'll see. :)

  5. Hey CF-- yes, you bring up a really beautiful thing that's happened: when people have a forum for their ideas, they put them out there. It's actually quite wonderful if you think about it.

    I like the thoughtful distinction you make, however, that it used to be that letter writing, as time-consuming as it was, was usually intended for only one or a handful of people. This casting your thoughts out into the Great Unknown known as the blogosphere is a different phenomenon altogether.

  6. Hey, LCN!

    Yes, it is fascinating to see what happens when _anyone_ can "publish". They may or may not get an audience, but the words are out there. It's going to be very interesting to continue watching what people say, and what people want to read.