Let’s Change the Nature of Public Debate: An Introduction to Letter

Many people are nostalgic for the days when letter writing was commonplace. When they describe these longings, they usually cite the physical aspects of the experience: the movements of the wrist as a ribbon of ink loops across a thick, creamy sheet of paper; the crisp precision of folding it in three and slipping it into an envelope, the slightly bitter taste of the gummy envelope fold on the tongue; the walk to the post box; the gentle drop into its crimson slit; the knowledge of words passed from hand to hand, carried across the country, across the world.Very few people now write letters. Most of us no longer feel any excitement at the sound of mail thudding gently onto a bristly doormat. It’s usually just electricity bills, misspelled invitations to take out new credit cards and advertising flyers—trash. In theory, email could have taken on the role of the old, physical missive. But the electronic inbox has become the home of queries from the boss, appointment reminders and job enquiries. It’s drearily corporate, so ineluctably associated with work that it simply doesn’t feel intuitive to us to use it to send the long, chatty, personal, intimate messages we used to entrust to the postman.

Now, when we’re apart, we communicate largely through WhatsApp messages, through hearts and comments on Instagram pictures and Facebook posts. But on Facebook, Instagram and other similar social media platforms, when we write, we do not know who may or may not be reading. We send our status updates out into the ether, waiting, perhaps anxiously, to see if there is a response. It often feels very one-sided. Each status is a message in a bottle and we may pour our hearts out in a long screed to receive in return, from our interlocutors only icons—blue thumbs, red hearts, yellow grins—signals created by a single click, the tiniest lift of a finger, the smallest conceivable expenditure of time and energy, the hollowest simulacrum of affection.

We log onto Twitter, where our conversations take place in a fast-paced, gladiatorial public space, one 280-character utterance at a time, egged on by the likes of strangers, discouraged by their jibes. It feels, often, as if we are not so much having a conversation as talking at each other, performing for the crowd of those listening in, courting the approval of our followers. Twitter is not intimate. It’s a jousting arena.

Our perception of the passing of time is also skewed by the conventions of Twitter. The brevity of each single tweet misleads us. On Twitter, I sometimes remind myself of an alcoholic former flatmate, who stocked up on miniatures of Bell’s whisky. Each one, to him, must have seemed like a dainty little tipple, in its innocent doll-sized bottle. It allowed him to feel that he was not really drinking that much, as he downed each one and dropped it into the belly of the extra strength bin bag he kept beneath his bed and would gently nudge back out of sight with his feet as it received each new unwanted testament to his consumption.

Of course, Twitter can be wonderful: for discovering serendipitous connections; for talking to people with whom you would never otherwise have come into contact; for witty exchanges and gnomic pearls of wisdom; for brainstorming and crowdsourcing and seeing your ideas reflected through a prism of different perspectives. But many of us feel profoundly ambivalent about our time spent on that website, especially if it was spent arguing. Amid the cut-and-thrust of tweet exchanges, many discussions quickly devolve into exchanges of insults and cheap gotchas. When we log out, we’re not always left with the satisfying feeling of having come to a greater understanding of a complex or controversial subject through discussing it with someone with a different perspective. All too often, at best, we have only the hollow and fleeting pleasure of having elicited applause from our followers for facile pointscoring that even we ourselves know was meretricious and mean spirited. In the worst case, our blood pressure is up by ten points and we’ve gained not insight but enemies. Rather than someone savouring a single malt with a friend, we behave like drunks, staggering into a bar looking for a brawl. Outrage is addictive, unhealthy and generally a waste of time.

Communicating by letter offers unique advantages, which do not necessarily have anything to do with the physical act of writing, the aesthetics of penmanship or the materiality of ink and paper. Choosing to write to someone communicates that you care about their opinion. When you write with a specific, single reader in mind, you can’t get side-tracked by a desire to show off or score points. You have to attempt to empathise, to imagine how that human being will receive your words and this encourages you to write more clearly, persuasively and vividly than you would if you were casually tossing a 280-character quip in her general direction.

A letter takes a little more effort, effort which is, in itself, a pledge of good faith, a sign of skin in the game. The letters on our site are public—but they are public like a conversation overheard in a café, not like a rap battle. The form itself encourages intimacy and frankness. We therefore believe it provides an ideal medium through which to discuss ideas, explore disagreements without vitriol, defuse tensions, bridge political and social divides, exchange experiences and build the more meaningful one-on-one connections that social media seldom fosters.

How long does it take to write a letter? The perfect amount of time: just enough to make the recipient feel that you have invested in him, to make it feel like a gift. But it’s not as effortful as composing an essay or an article. You don’t have to structure, plan and proofread. If the style is ruminatory and the prose meandering—if it sounds as if you are thinking aloud—that only makes it seem more sincere and more direct. And yet, once completed, you have created something of your own.

Social media was originally designed to help us stay in touch with people over geographic distances. But it’s not provided the intimacy and depth that so many of us crave. We hope that Letter will fill that gap and provide a medium that will meet a human need that has gone unfulfilled since the days of postage stamps and airmail stickers.

While we encourage people to use our platform for productive exchanges on any topic, our main hope is that Letter will help change the nature of public debate on socio-political issues. In our increasingly interconnected world, we face many problems that both require urgent action and are morally complex. One of the best ways of disentangling them will be through good faith, long-form dialogues between people on opposite sides of each question. Such discussions need to be conducted in public—it’s important that people have access to the insights generated and that they can witness the process that produces such insights—but the parties involved should be free from the need to provide maximum entertainment value or to perform for an audience, which encourages intellectual narcissism and populist sloganeering. Debaters aim to win; letter writers to persuade.

At the moment, we have to choose between two forms of discussion: in person, we may have illuminating, friendly conversations, but these remain private; in public, we spar in front of an audience on television, YouTube and social media, and the temptation to say whatever will please our respective tribes is ever present. Letter provides a third option. We hope it will introduce some of the care and attention people usually give to writing articles to the sphere of dialogue. And that it will infuse some of the civility, thoughtfulness and generosity we usually show each other in private conversations into the sphere of public debate. Right now, the opposite phenomenon is more common: political disagreements are poisoning private relationships. In the polarised, combative political environment of today, we need calm, considered one-on-one discussions more than ever. The letter format is a nudge in the direction of good faith dialogue and Letter is its adaptation for the digital age.

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  1. It’s a strange thing. Reading this, I suddenly realized how much I miss letter writing. I think the last serious letters I wrote were in 1987 when my father was dying. Email appeared in my life shortly after that (I was an early adopter), and while I now realize that something was lost, at the time the ease of electronic communication hid that from me. And just this morning, reading this letter on letters (or letters on Letters…) I realized one of the things that I have been missing these last ten or fifteen years is the intellectual intimacy that a letter brings with it. I had initially blamed my general dissatisfaction with electronic communication on the change in social media – twenty five years ago, electronic social media mostly comprised the confines of an electronic bulletin board – but now, I realize that it goes back further, and deeper, than that.

  2. “Many people are nostalgic for the days when letter writing was commonplace.”

    Who? Really? This is news to me.

    “We log onto Twitter”

    Ugh, ugh, ugh…no, no, no. Twitter is disgusting. “We” do not log in to (not onto) Twitter. The writer apparently lives in a bubble and is completely unaware of it.

    “Our perception of the passing of time is also skewed by the conventions of Twitter.”

    No, no, no. It’s just you and your ilk. Hey, anyone see the blue checkmark journalists on Twitter cheering the hospitalizing of one of their compatriots? None of them could see the hypocrisy in gangs of mostly white people in black shirts roaming the streets beating up an unarmed gay journalist of color and thinking this is the opposite of fascism.

  3. One of my favourite peoples that shares our beautiful, beautiful planet with us accesses the interwebz at a library once a week or so to check email correspondence which is printed and put into the paper correspondence file. Two decades back, I established a website to document this friend’s personal language. I’m chuffed that I managed to convince this friend that the language needs a home on the interwebz. I’m more chuffed that the dictionary for this language will be printed next year after more than 50 years in the works.

    My handwriting is atrocious: I find it painful to hold a writing utensil long enough to write more than a short sentence, maybe two. Fortunately,I learnt to type at an early age and I’m able to print my words onto paper and post them via the postal system to my friend, so as to continue the esoteric conversations that we have when I make delicious foods for this special friend.

    Now that Letter exists and Iona suggested that Lacerant Plainer and I begin corresponding there, I will now have a digital version of the paper letters. One of the things that I find with Twitter and other short-form communication platforms is that the communication — if it can be called communication — is that it is often reacting instead of responding. My goal is to respond as reacting only seems to ramp up differences whilst excluding the commonalities.

    I’ve been drafting my responses to Lacerant’s letters to me in my head whilst out riding my bicycle: exploring subtle roads that might not be taken and choosing paths that might look easy to the eye but end up being rather tough on the wheels.

    I’m glad Letter exists and I look forward to its growth.

    1. Can’t wait to read more of your correspondence with our lovely friend, V. (“Lacerant Plainer”). Hopefully, soon I will be chatting to him in real life over whisky. And one day in the not too distant future to you too.

    2. Hollow simulacrum of affection,beautifully put. Perhaps you could translate that into Latin and suggest it to FB for a coat of arms.

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