In letters, we can reform without practice, beg without humiliation, snip and shape embarrassing experiences to the measure of our own desires – this is a benevolent form. The ideal self-expressed in letters is not a crudely sugary affair except in dreary personalities./“Anderson, Millay, and Crane in Their Letters” – Elizabeth Hardwick
One does not have to search very hard to find articles on the problem of social media creating artificial expectations about the lives of others. Just typing “social media edited lives” into DuckDuckGo provides articles on body image, how it changes our perceptions of ourselves and others, and how social media changes our lives in general on the first page. I especially like this quote from the first article, “there may be ways to curate your Instagram feed to make you feel happier in your own skin – or, at least, stop you feeling worse.” We have gone beyond the carefully curated self Hardwick noted in the quote above. We are now creating curated others in our lives.
When I read the above quote yesterday, my mind immediately went to Facebook, but I suspect Instagram and Twitter are worse offenders. Unlike the letters of the past, the idealized self in our social media posts is often a crudely sugary affair. I see many more people faking healthy skin and relationships more than they do career success or some other achievement. Perhaps, unlike a letter, it is hard to use social media to turn a pile of wood consisting of a glued but not flattened benchtop and offcuts that will one day become legs if you ever get around to shaping them into a completed workbench. Even though you could mail pictures with a letter, they never had the expectation the Facebook et al. create about achievements. There is a put-up or shut-up to social media about physical achievements that could inspire us to do things. Instead, it seems to have inspired us only to do easy and easily demonstrated things, or, in the case of myself and others, to ignore posting much of anything on social media.
If it stayed there, encouraging trend following, clean skin, and a sense of propriety about what you share, it would not be so bad. What concerns me more is sites like Pinterest Fails. When shown items from it, more and more, I see, “I’m not going to really try, but make something that will get a lot of hits.” Are these items really fails, or have we leveraged social media to make failure itself a form of achievement. How hard are people working on getting the most viral failure knowing that the same effort put into a moderate success would go unnoticed?
Is the ideal self of social media, especially one built on failing to fame, an improvement over letters?
A few times in the past, I have looked to start up an old-fashioned postal correspondence. While I got a letter out on occasion, I was not able to spur replies. Perhaps I did not curate the me in the letters enough to interest the other party. Certainly, in my junior high and high school years, we returned from music camp with a list of addresses of people to write. Most exchanges lasted one or two letters, but a handful lasted until the next summer. If I found those letters in a box, I wonder what I would find. Certainly sorting out identities, trying different ones on for safe, that is remote, audiences was easier for me in those letters than they would be today on Facebook.
Thirty plus years of regret of not maintaining those correspondences wells up from time to time, even before writing this. I have connected with some of them on Facebook, but it never takes.
Perhaps those are the people I should try to strike up a correspondence with. If I can find them, perhaps letters with them are a safe way to work through the transitions of later life as well as this attempt at one last career change. The wait for a letter to arrive in the post is a kind of sweet anticipation lost in the social media era. It is the other side of the coin from the more deeply edited ideal self of the letter compared to Facebook. It seems immediacy, for all its value, also steals charm throughout the system.
What social media does, and letters do not, is aid us in constructing an edited narrative. It is closer to memoir, our autobiographies, than a letter. This leads me to one last thought from Hardwick in the same essay:
It is difficult to think of a man except as the sum of his remarkable deeds, a statue surrounded by selected objects and symbols. Private letters are disturbing to this belief. What they most often show is that people do not live their biographies.