The Defeat of Personal Communications

22 Jul

In the past decade first-class mail delivery by the United States Post Office declined by 29%, down to around 276 billion pieces of mail a year. During that same decade my letter writing dropped by about 90% to just a handful of letters each year. The reason for these related declines is, of course, e-mail.

I got my first e-mail account in 1982. I think it was mhall@sytek.com. Since then I’ve had addresses ending in @well.com, @compuserve.com, @aol.com, @sun.com, @macweek.com, @me.com, @computerworld.com and many others. But back in 1982 few of my friends or family had e-mail, so I wrote letters and postcards to keep in touch.

I wrote to a lot of people and I wrote often. Although I never counted, I probably cranked out 200 or so letters each year and maybe an equal number of postcards. My morning routine would be to initiate or respond to correspondence with my first cup of joe. I could usually scrawl one or two each morning before heading to work. Cathie, my wife, was also an excellent letter-writer, and because we were such a diligent correspondents, we received plenty of real mail.

Alas, today all of my friends and family, save my sister, have e-mail. Correspondence, with the exception of vacation postcards, has devolved into the digital variety. My life is the lesser for it.

Yes, I communicate more frequently with many friends because it’s so easy. We type brief missives to one another, attaching files, links, videos, and whatnot. We send each other stuff we wouldn’t have taken the time to do in the past because it’s a breeze to do. And while I appreciate getting each and every message, there’s no excitement or tactile pleasure when I see something new in my e-mail queue.

Whereas, whenever a letter arrives, there’s always a heartfelt enjoyment at sorting through the mail, choosing the letter, opening it, easing out the contents, and reading the pages, sometimes working with Cathie to decipher someone’s penmanship. Different people use different paper and ink. They insert clippings, photos, and whatever else can fit into an envelope. Each letter was unique, reflecting something personal about its author.

Now everything appears black-on-white in Optima 14 typeface. Talk about boring.

Although I collect postcards sent my way as a kind of lazy man’s hobby, I also hang on to many of the letters we’ve gotten over the years. Stuffed away in boxes are not only the hundreds upon hundreds of my friends’ epistles, there are even a few notes from people regarded as famous, whom I’ve had the good fortune to encounter. I’ve also received e-mail from notables over the years. Let me tell you: it’s not the same thing.

The triumph of e-mail is considered a victory of modern communications for all the obvious reasons. But it’s also a sad defeat of personal communication for reasons that are special to each and every letter writer and recipient.

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3 Responses to “The Defeat of Personal Communications”

  1. Kate July 31, 2010 at 4:01 pm #

    This is interesting Mark. I got off work the other night at 8:30 p.m. and was going to the Post Office on my way home to leave some mail – and it was open! No line, quiet, etc. I was marveling at the office being open that late and the postal employee at the counter nearly begged me to tell my friends that it was open late during the week. She indicated that she was worried about the branch closing down. It was probably the best experience I’d had at the post office. They are hurting and I think customer service is beginning to be a real focus.

    I also collect and love post cards, the written word, cool stamps, etc., and would really lament if this all ended.

    I’ve only gotten maybe 5 letters or cards from my brother’s four kids – collectively. I fear this is an indication of our future!

    • Mark Everett Hall August 1, 2010 at 6:58 am #

      Getting your nieces & nephews or anyone under 30 to write–ink on paper–letters and cards is all but impossible these days. And it’s not surprising, given all of the communication tools we’ve put into their hands. We gave them free e-mail, cheap texting, pagers, and ubiquitous cellphones to keep in touch; asking them to keep pen & paper at hand as well would be asking too much. 😉 I think you’re right about the USPS trying to focus on customer service. Our postal carrier greets us by name, is always smiling, and brings bundles to our door and makes certain they’re protected from the rain (this is Oregon). I’ve always been impressed with the reliability of the post office. 276 billion pieces of first-class mail a year, but the few letters & cards written to me or by me always seem to find their way through that huge volume to the right mailbox. Impressive. But, in the long run, I fear the PO will be a victim of digital technology. Just look at us: strangers who’ve “met” in an electronic forum, communicating digitally, creating a virtual relationship, with long odds against us ever sending real mail to each other. Not that a lack of paper diminishes our encounter in any way, it’s just the new way interacting without the USPS as our go-between.

  2. investment reporting August 13, 2010 at 5:38 am #

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