How to communicate (a long form wondering)

Nice beach, France
Stories in the sand, in Nice, France

Developments in communication technology over the past 15 years used to feel as if they were aligned with my own growth. The internet arrived at my house just as I became a teenager, and I bought my first mobile phone when I was 16. Both came in time to be used to email, text and instant message those same people I saw all day at school. In my first office job out of school, our antiquated computer system printed on that old-fashioned computer paper with the holes down the sides, and an email server that looked nothing like the Microsoft outlook I encountered when I started at my first full-time job three years later.

And now that I am nearing 30, life developments no longer happen so fast for me. With this comes the feeling that I have enough tech and communication tools in my life. I skype, email, instant message, I send photos, videos, texts, documents, and I blog, Instagram and tweet (I also sometimes learn things) – all, often, from an iphone that seems every smaller compared to the newer models. I can also while away hours not doing anything in particular, wondering about the lives of some Pinterest pinners, boring myself with Buzzfeed and attempting to read all of the internet. The balance between internet and private and virtual and real still exists, even if not always maintained.

But just because the rate of my own change and growth has slowed doesn’t mean that anything else has, or will. And just because I don’t feel like I need new methods of communication doesn’t mean that they won’t keep coming. Or just because I think they’re a bit ridiculous doesn’t mean they will go away. And so I have to ask myself questions like, is there a place for snapchat in my life? (The answer to that one is yes, but barely.)

Juliet's house verona Italy
Notes on post its and chewing gum, Verona, Italy

With all these shiny happy things, I sometimes just really miss receiving personal post in the my real-world letterbox. A Facebook message or an email from a friend is awesome, but it’s not quite the same as a short scribbled message on the back of a postcard. I still have, among the many things in my parent’s attic, a shoe-box with the letters, cards and postcards received over my child- and young adulthood. I was a terrible letter writer, lacking the imagination to start my letters with anything other than ‘how are you? I’m fine’, but writing letters was what we did. I wrote to my grandmothers, family friends who lived in different cities, school friends who moved away. I wrote to my cousin at her first year hall of residence at university, her value as a person clearly illustrated by the responses she sent me (first year of college, likely still opening letters with ‘how are you? I’m fine’.

Five years after that letter from my cousin, my sister went to America and Europe for a multi-month tour. As well as post, we did get telephone calls from her (this was pre-skype) and emails sent from the shared-computers, ones that she had to line up to use. The letters that she sent me are stored in that shoe-box. But the emails..? Mum used to file them into an email folder, but I doubt that still exists. Does the digitisation of communication mean you no longer have to store as a keepsake everything ever received? For an email, what would that look like, anyway? A print out identical to an office email? A pile of computer paper neatly stacked in the same box it came in? Or as an electronic folder on the computer desktop, never again opened and hogging space on a hard drive?

It is easier to pretend that old emails don’t exist. A couple of years ago I threw out some letters that brought back feelings of embarrassment and memories of awkward teenage moments I didn’t want to remember. I briefly had an old teacher as a pen-pal (who was legitimately awesome) who counselled me on a mean girl in my glass. I recycled those letters, because I care about nature, but how much easier is it to select all and trash little bits of internet fluff? Or, even better, to simply abandon old email accounts and wait for the hosting site to shut them down.

When my age group started to travel, friends would send bulk email updates with what they had done and where they had seen. The emails have now been replaced with a single photo on Facebook, which is somehow expected to convey in an instant what an email achieved in a half hour. I still send the occasional postcard and birthday card, even if Italy likes to make trips to the post office an expensive privilege. I know they are never received on time, and they are still accompanied by the Facebook post, because things are no longer official unless they’re virtual and visible, but I prefer it just the same.

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