The Epistolary Moment

Two anecdotes about receiving mail, followed by a probably clumsy cultural analysis: There’s a photo of Merlin at the end, too.


Item one: Once each September I send an email to one of my oldest friends, whom I haven’t seen in 15-ish years, as a sort of birthday gift.


Because my birthday is a few weeks later, she does the same thing.


These two simple emails have become the correspondence event of the year for me and I spend probably about a month and a half in anticipation and reflection.


Item two: In 2008 I briefly worked on a business plan for a social media startup called Snail Mix. The idea was to have strangers send and receive mixtapes (or mix discs, if you want to be precise) to each other through the mail. You would earn points for completing certain actions (cataloging the mixtapes songs, making label art, etc) and points would be redeemed automatically by me mailing you random treats/rewards–nothing of any real use, just tchotchkes or hand-drawn cartoons or merit badges. In theory the platform would make money by appending affiliate links to tracklists so if someone really liked a song they could buy it and we’d get a cut. The whole thing was overly complex and not designed to make any real money (brief reflection reveals all of my projects share this trait) but the central premise was that receiving unexpected but meaningful packages in the mail was a delightful and memorable experience.


The clumsy analysis: I think capitalism has figured out how to exploit both of these singular, pleasurable experiences and in doing so, has cheapened them through mass-production and streamlining.


Writing letters is time consuming and emotionally messy. Long-form correspondence, I think, requires us to actually sum up who we are and what we have been doing at a certain point in time, and then fling it into the winds (or into the mailbox/inbox of an outside observer). Email correspondence is particularly interesting because it allows you, displaced by time into an outside observer, to look at a snapshot of yourself ,to consider (and perhaps cringe) at how you viewed the world, and how you communicated that view.


Revisiting correspondence, especially when you have both sides of the conversation in-line (as with email), is almost distressingly intimate–Kristina and I fell in love at first sight, but processed that intense experience via six weeks of hyper-intense emails. At the time I re-read the emails obsessively and spent every opportunity almost literally breathless in anticipation of the next missive. Eight and a half years in and I am not sure how it would feel to read these emails. I haven’t looked at them in years.


The stated use of social media platforms is ease of communication–instead of writing a letter you can communicate briefly, publically and symbolically. This not only streamlines the communication process (I don’t have to send a letter to each of my friends telling them about the cocktail recipe that I recently came across) but also mystifies the communication–you don’t really write to a single person, you write to an inchoate audience, a “public” defined however nebulously by your own values. This leads to stylized, even symbolic communication, which necessarily strips rich, personal meaning from the content.


Both of these processes cheapen communication: You can’t really say what you mean because saying what you mean requires a conversation, and a real conversation requires active participants, probably with a limited audience. Whether an audience always changes a conversation into something else I am not sure of. Like subatomic particles we become pinned down by observation, our mysterious inner workings transformed into immutable values.


In addition,social media is a public and participatory cultural engine and part of that participation involves, to a certain extent, following the dance steps–using catchphrases, memes and stylization Some of the form is useful, the development of a new vernacular grammar and style, which is awesome and generative and often quite funny.


However, use of them can hijack meaning, or remove meaning entirely–they are often heuristic hacks and lard your words with excess meaning, or shave away the nuance and emotional import into irony or posturing. I write these blog posts in an email letter as an email to a specific person (which changes occasionally, I’m imagining this one going to my friend Kally, though we have never talked about letter writing and I don’t think she’s subscribed to the email list).


In the absence of any self- or reality-defining communication, social media also serves as an identity-affirming mirror in which we may revisit our past selves by scrolling through old tweets, old photos, old posts. Or maybe I used them that way because I am often confused about who I am and what I am doing in a general sense. If we are posting for an audience and employing externally-generated stylization and expression, then using that content to explore who we once were and how they relate to our current selves, do we not become the content? Maybe this is what I get for not journaling, or maybe this is why journaling is important. Or maybe journaling, in having an audience of one, poses the same distorted mirror problem.


On to packages. Probably inevitable due to economies of scale, the subsidizing of gasoline and the changing nature of commerce, receiving packages in the mail (once a momentous event) has become rote. Rarely do I eagerly await something in the mail (usually something from kickstarter, or something I have ordered from a specific seller on etsy for a specific purpose), more often I am slightly bummed out by the pile of empty boxes waiting to be broken down and chucked in the trash bin the city has painted green and told us is for recycling (it all goes to the same place, currently).


I don’t think shopping by mail is particularly evil, nor do I think it’s particularly worse in terms of carbon emissions or waste than shopping in a place with bad public transportation and worse walkability (i.e. most of America). I do think turning the experience of receiving packages in the mail into a utilitarian, every day event eliminates some of the magic and weirdness we require as nutrition for our imagination.


I think what I am trying to get at here is by making the magical rote (making things rote is a necessary part of monetizing something) we shrink the horizon of the imagination. That’s pretty dreary! Consider mailing someone random stuff, or sending a long email (if you’re on the email list you can reply to this email, hint hint).Expect weirdness out of your daily life and create that expectation in others by producing weirdness in daily life.



Yours in epistolary anticipation,