How Personal can Digital Get?

February 20, 2014 4:02 pm

When was the last time you received a letter? It’s an old-school form of communication, true, but we dare you not to feel sappy should you ever get one in the mail. A letter demonstrates the personal effort someone has gone to actually sit down, pick up one of those “pens” they still sell in Kikki K, and place their feelings and thoughts on paper.

You may have heard of Sinead O’Connor’s open letter to Miley Cyrus late 2013. The letter was a reaction to Cyrus’ statement that her controversial video “Wrecking Ball” was inspired by the Irish singer-songwriter’s “Nothing compares 2 U”. O’Connor decided that as the older and more experienced of the two (she’s 47, Cyrus 21) she was in a position to warn the pop-star, all “in the spirit of motherliness and with love”, about the dangers of “prostituting” herself.

It backfired, as Miley Cyrus didn’t appear to like being considered a practitioner of the world’s oldest profession or a puppet to the music industry. She released some of O’Connor’s old tweets from when she was in a bad mental state – claiming her to still be unstable. O’Connor replied with another letter, minus the motherliness and the love, and then another, and another…

What (probably) started out as a well-intended warning from one artist to another, ended up in a large scale feud including the rest of the world. Why send a letter, one might ask? As mentioned before, it’s personal. Ok, then why send an open letter? You can still be personal, but you’ll also get an audience. Every Tom, Dick and Harry can vent their opinions on Twitter for everyone to see, that’s the general idea of social media, but the form of the classical letter makes the message seem more sincere while being something out of the ordinary nowadays.

Open letters have been published in droves, that secret was discovered long ago, but as a form of communication it still catches people’s attention. Open letters may be addressed to a specific person, but as a third party, we get to listen in – and there’s something exciting about eavesdropping.

So the personal aspect of the open letter is a lie. It’s just another blog post in silver wrapping. The O’Connor/Cyrus correspondence wasn’t just a clash of values; it was a clash of generations. O’Connor tried her best to reach out to a woman of the social media age with a (for her generation) valued form of communication. In the end, she was mocked, mainly because of the content, but also for her choice of medium in a time when speed is king – busy pop-stars don’t write, they tweet (and twerk in this particular case).

So how personal can digital get? Not very, one would say. You can send a private message through most social media platforms, or simply send an email, but part of the emotional trace gets lost in translation from handwritten to digital. Maybe the main reason we get sentimental when receiving a handwritten letter is the fact that someone actually took the time to make something – just for you.

What do you think? Can digital get us as personally connected to others as a letter can?


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