When words are not written

When a letter was something that you penned on the paper, you selected the paper, the pen, and devoted much attention to the words that would be inscribed on the paper. Often, it was at least a page long, sometimes longer than that.

 Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook

Even as you were bothered with the physical aspects of your epistle, a part of your mind was already composing it, crafting the words and weighing over their message. What was written had a particular significance; it was much more than what was merely said.

The veritable Emily in her book Post Etiquette (1922) had an interesting take on the task. Says she: “The letter you write, whether you realise it or not, is always a mirror which reflects your appearance, taste and character. A ‘sloppy’ letter with the writing all pouring into one corner of the page, badly worded, badly spelled, and with unmatched paper and envelope-even possibly a blot-proclaims the sort of person who would have unkempt hair, unclean linen and broken shoe laces; just as a neat, precise, evenly written note portrays a person of like characteristics. Therefore, while it cannot be said with literal accuracy that one may read the future of a person by study of his handwriting, it is true that if a young man wishes to choose a wife in whose daily life he is sure always to find the unfinished task, the untidy mind and the syncopated housekeeping, he may do it quite simply by selecting her from her letters.”

Ah, those were the days. The take on how a young man would choose a wife is particularly interesting and so outdated, but her advice is not, as we will discuss later.

The art of handwritten notes, of making yourself write neatly and legibly, of debating what colour of ink to use, has slowly been overtaken by technology, which crept up slowly. When typewriters and computers were first used for producing letters, they were largely confined to offices and thus were means of official communication, not personal ones.

However, in time, the keyboard did not only replace the penmanship of yore, and all that went with it, the romance of the craft, the laborious, yet loving efforts of those who had chosen to impart the degree of permanence to their thoughts.

Electronic mail predates the inception of the Internet, and was, in fact, a crucial tool in creating it, but with the spread of the Internet, it became a tremendous method of communicating messages practically instantaneously, and thus became what is often called “killer application”.

The introduction of e-mail absolutely changed the way people communicated. On e-mail, communications were immediate. Instead of days, it took mere seconds for your message to get through to the other party. Naturally, you expected an immediate response and this was often the way in which the recipient would respond to your e-mail letter.

Unfortunately, speed came at a cost-lack of reflection. We have already noted how what is written has a particular importance in communication. What people realised over the years of using e-mail communications with each other is that this significance has transferred itself across various mediums, even those that seem to be casual, like e-mail. It would not be wrong to say that e-mail stuck a “killer” blow to letter writing.

To play on the tag line of a modern advertisement which says, “Nothing official about it”, as far as written communication is concerned; there is nothing casual about it. Inappropriately written e-mail messages have often got people into much trouble, legal and otherwise.

Now, Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder of Facebook, says he is going to change the way people communicate. He believes that people are exchanging shorter and shorter messages to communicate with each other. He is targeting school students who say they find e-mail “slow and cumbersome”. He found that many are using Facebook to send messages and stay in touch.

My friend Gupi found this out the hard way. When he complained to his daughter Taran, a yoga instructor, that she had not kept him abreast with her latest trip, she retorted: “But, Dad, I Facebooked you!” Soon the telephonic conversations between Taran and her sister Daman ended with “Facebook me”. Now, Gupi makes sure that his Facebook page is open most of the time, since his school-going son Guru also appears on it from his boarding school whenever he gets a chance. The immediacy of getting in touch with his loved ones makes him keep his computer on all the time.

Now Facebook Messages blog says it wants to integrate Instant Messaging (IM), online chat, e-mail and texts. Many people have been using them over the years. They are there in popular mail packages like Gmail (Gtalk and Buzz), Yahoo! (Messenger) etc. What all of them share is an intense desire to encourage users to spend more and more time within their sites, and for this, they marshal whatever is needed-games, activities, chat, e-mail, photo-sharing, etc. Why do they do that? Because of lucrative advertising revenues, without which we would have to pay for the Internet services, rather than get them free, as we do now.

So, Facebook Messages will stay and will attract hundreds of thousands of users. Along with “revolutionising communication”, as Zuckerberg says, they will further make communication more and more informal. Well, I still take comfort from the fact that informal is not thoughtless. I implore readers to be thoughtful in their communication. The consequences of not being so can indeed be painful.

This column by Roopinder Singh was published in the Lifestyle section of The Tribune on November 23, 2010.

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