New ways of communicating are popping up every day in this quickly changing world, and it’s easier than ever to carry on a long-distance relationship with boyfriends, girlfriends, family and friends. But have we gotten better at communicating with the ones we love? Here’s a look at how the art of exchanging written words has changed through the years. From letters, to e-mail, to instant messenger (IM) to text messaging (SMS), one thing is clear – in the 21st Century we have more options than ever before.
The most time-tested way of carrying words across the world, people have been writing letters since as long as there’s been ink and paper, and even in today’s digital age, there’s nothing quite like a hand-written letter. It is generally the most deliberate form of communication, especially in these days, when most people sit down at a desk in front of a glowing screen instead of a pad of paper. Letters must be written, folded, addressed, stamped, sent, etc. Compared to e-mail, the process is much more intricate.
It can also be much more intimate. While typing is the placement of pre-designed letters in pre-programmed positions, handwriting is a visual history of a hand moving across a page. Letters are not just mere symbols, but expressions in and of themselves. Compared to fontfaces, handwriting is far more personal and emotional. It can even be art. It can also be illegible at times.
But the main drawback of letter-writing is that it is slow. It can take days, or even weeks for a letter to reach its destination, and in our age of instant communication, by the time the snail-mail gets there it may already be out of date. Still, for those with the time and will to write them, letters can be a marvelous way to keep in touch, and receiving a personal letter or package in the mail will brighten just about anyone’s day (well, depending on the content, that is!) They are also easier to save and re-read at leisure than e-mails.
The digital-age equivalent of letters. E-mail is faster, cheaper and more convenient than its floppy, envelope-bound ancestor, and has become the way to communicate in 21st Century America. Many people check their e-mail many times a day, and with wi-fi connections, they can now do it just about anywhere. Thanks to computers in public libraries and community centers, even homeless people can have e-mail addresses.
Of course, this immediacy can be an advantage and a disadvantage. While e-mails can speed up communication, it also can lead to rushed off, sloppy or emotional responses that might not manifest themselves in the more deliberate world of snail mail. Because e-mail shortens the distance a thought has to travel to get from the mind of the sender to the mind of the receiver, there are fewer natural filters for the information to pass through. This can lead to communication that is greater in volume and quantity, but not necessarily in quality.
The means of communicating is also much more limited because e-mail is generally limited to the characters on the keyboard rather than the full, endless range of what can be written or drawn on paper. Although font colors can be changed, and pictures can often be attached to or embedded in an e-mail, this is still a relatively restricted freedom of expression. In some ways this restriction can be freeing, as things like handwriting, margins and other practical concerns can be ignored, allowing the writer to focus more on the content of her missive rather than its form.
Removing a few of e-mail’s barriers results in “instant messaging” which takes correspondence out of in-boxes and turns it into real-time conversations in messenger windows. Two people connected to the Internet at the same time can send messages back and forth to each other as quickly as they can type them without having to check or address e-mail. This generally results in shorter messages, with emphasis placed more on conveying meaning quickly rather than eloquently. This has lead to the development of internet slang, which is usually based in abbreviation (i.e. “brb” and “lol”) and the proliferation of emoticons, which attempt to use either pictures of combinations of text characters to convey emotions.
Because of its rapid back-and-forth nature, instant messenger may be the closest that written communication can come to duplicating a telephone conversation, although it is generally a less expressive than talking on the phone since typed characters cannot come close to conveying the nuances of vocal expression. However, it is cheaper and often more convenient.
Where cell phones and instant messaging meet, text messaging is born. Unlike instant messaging, which only works when both participants are sitting in front of a computer screen, text messaging can be done on the run. Slang and abbreviations are even more widespread since message size is usually limited. Currently most cell phones don’t offer a lot of text customization, but some allow pictures to be sent as well. At this point we’re a long way from the hand-written letter. Text messages take just seconds to send and can instantly rattle in the recipient’s hand, pocket, purse or wherever else a cell phone may be kept. Although the communication is now near simultaneous, it’s far more abstracted and limited than ever before. In some ways it may not matter. People are desperate to commune with each other, and a single text message may deliver the same thrill today as a package or letter in the old-fashioned mail box.