Remember chain letters? Not email spam, or those “make a wish and send this to nine people within sixteen hours or you will die a nightmarish death” forwards you get from your Aunt Spinster every other day; I mean actual, physical, in-the-mailbox chain letters.
They used to show up every now and then when I was a kid, usually sent by some member of my Girl Scout troop or a camp friend, usually involving an idea exchange of some kind. The hardest part was copying the letter out a half-dozen times, by hand, because the typewriter was too loud and I was too slow on it. (Yeah, I said “typewriter” – remember those?)
Having teachers for parents came in handy, as sometimes I could convince my mom to add the letter to her pile of worksheets slated for the mimeograph machine at school. (Remember mimeograph – technically ‘Ditto’ – machines? Oh, that purple ink and the cool, soggy feel of fresh copies…) After making copies, the job usually entailed choosing a handful of new victims, adding my own address to the bottom of the chain, and then sending something – a recipe or reading suggestion – to whatever name was at the top of the address list.
Sure, chain letters have always been annoying, but at least back then you could respect that the person subjecting you to one had put a little effort into it. Plus, you had a real chance of getting some actual, physical something in return for passing it on. With chain emails, all the sender has to do is type your name and click a button – and with auto-fill features, they probably don’t even have to type your full name! It shouldn’t be that easy to inflict mass exasperation.
Remember sending messages by balloon? Not for accuracy, but for fun. We did a class project in elementary school where we tied note cards with little wishes or greetings on them to the strings of individual helium balloons. En masse, we released our balloons, then waited to see if any of the note cards would get a response. They bore instructions for those who stumbled upon them to write back saying who they were, whose message they had found, and where the attached balloon had come down. It was exciting to have your message found at all; if it had cleared the city limits you were a freakin’ rock star.
Nowadays, kids post a status on Facebook and ask people to share it, to see how many likes and posts and trips around the world it can complete in a week or something. Forget one person finding it, success is judged by the thousands. Sure, this method causes fewer avian deaths from choking on latex, but it just doesn’t feel as exciting to me.
Remember phone trees? That intricate system of parental communication to spread the word about school closures and game cancellations, and the political intrigue of which parents got placed how high on the list, and whether this was based on popularity or reliability or both… Screw Game of Thrones, phone trees were the real epic drama in our lives.
Remember pen pals? Remember note passing? Spending hours of your life drafting and re-drafting, deliberating and analyzing with friends, and consulting the Magic 8 Ball, all to find the exact, perfect way to say, “Do you like me? Check one: Yes ; No”… Taking great pains to fold your note with origami-master-level intricacy, and using every color of pen at your disposal to make it beautiful… Then playing your own version of “Six Degrees of That Cute Guy Kevin” to devise the most efficient but least risky network of girlfriends to get that note from your third period art class to Kevin in sixth period Algebra in secret… Remember that?
It took days of planning and weeks of working up the nerve, not to mention hours of tortuous waiting for the response. Each letter, each note, each thought was an EVENT. Now you can just text, “DTF?” and it’s all over in four characters. Where’s the beauty in that?
There used to be a romanticism to the way we communicated in the world. The difference between the past and today’s technological convenience is the difference between Shakespeare and two emoji’s depicting a milkshake and a throwing spear.
Which brings me to my point: I joined Twitter this week. I have shuffled off this Luddite coil and now will bear the whips and scorns of time… or whatever. My handle is @FFrontalNerd if you care to find me. Let’s see if we can make poetry in 140 characters or less (ahem, fewer). See you on the Dark Side!