When I got a new job five years ago, one of the first people I told was my friend Naunihal. When I started wondering if my kid was autistic, I talked about it with Naunihal. When I was weepy over the imminent death of a close friend, Naunihal checked in on me. He is the pal who talks tactics for managing my kids, my email, and my fitness regime. He is also the friend who lets me vicariously enjoy his travels as a scholar of African politics, and his journeys as a single man while I’m married and boring. We share political news, tech tips, and emotional angst.
There’s only one catch: we’ve only seen each other twice in the past twenty years.
My friendship with Naunihal is that most contemporary phenomenon, the Facebook friendship. Yes, it has its roots offline: Naunihal and I were grad school classmates and friends in the mid-nineties, hanging out between classes and studying together for our oral exams. Amid the brutal effort of cramming several decades’ worth of political science knowledge into our pre-exam brains, Naunihal was the study partner who also forced me to practice answering questions without any profanity, so that I wouldn’t drop an f-bomb during an examination question about the comparative political economy of financial regulation.
Within a few months of that exam, however, I had packed my bags and moved to the opposite end of the continent; since then, I’ve only seen Naunihal on the two occasions when I attended the annual meetings of the American Political Science Association. In a previous era, my departure from academia (and thus, from those annual meetings) would essentially have ended our friendship. Thanks to Facebook, however, we’re a regular part of one another’s lives. When I joined Facebook in mid-2007, Naunihal was one of the first old friends I reconnected with, and we’ve been in ongoing contact ever since.
These days it’s unusual for us to go more than a couple of days without exchanging comments on one another’s latest posts, or talking politics and sharing personal news via Facebook Messenger. Even though Naunihal has never met either of my children, he’s been one of my most valuable parenting resources, since he not only has the infinite patience borne of distance, but also a lot of experience with adults who have the same Aspergian/ADD tendencies as my kids. All that, and he’s also the source of many of my favorite internet memes and news items: when one of my favorite Canadian politicians recently got engaged, I knew about it an hour before the story broke online, because Naunihal sent me a snapshot of the proposal that was circulating among Sikh Instagram users.
There’s only one Naunihal, but there are many such friendships in our day and age: valued, trusted intimacies sustained entirely through social media, instant messaging and (for the old-fashioned) email. It’s enough to make you doubt the epitaph that John Brown wrote for the simple letter, all the way back in 1990:
The letter, it seems, is dying; but its deathbed is surrounded by an unprecedented number of specialists, who find the moribund of great clinical interest, and every one of them seems to have a diagnosis of his own. All agree, however, that the health of the letter has been undermined and finally dealt a fatal blow by the telephone, the telegram, the cassette, the fax, and other technical innovations that have deprived it of its raison d’etre.
Brown was hardly wrong in blaming technology for the slow-then-fast demise of the pen-on-paper postal letter. But just as he (and others) were recognizing the collapse of our longstanding epistolic culture, the modern equivalent sprang into existence.
Thanks to the newfound abundance of text-based communications tools, and the social networks that allow us to discover or rediscover potential correspondents, friendships conducted entirely through text exchange are once again the norm. Would these friendships look familiar to the letter-writing friends of earlier centuries, when epistolary friendships were also common? Or is there something essential that we have lost—or at least changed—in moving the text-based friendship from page to screen?
In the letter-studying business, this could be considered a question of epistolarity. Reviewing Janet Altman’s influential book Epistolarity, Bernard Duyfhuizen quotes her definition of the term: “the use of the letter’s formal properties to create meaning.” Altman’s book focuses specifically on the epistolary novel (books written in the form of letters), but her framework has broadly influenced recent scholarship on the impact of the letter as a form.
Shifting our personal correspondence from paper to text messaging inevitably has an impact on that form—but it’s better understood as an expansion of the already eclectic universe of letter-writing. Dig into the extensive scholarship on written correspondence, and you quickly discover that letter writing practices have varied enormously across eras, cultures and classes. In his article on Anglo-American epistolary instruction, Konstantin Dierks documents the shift of letter writing from a “specialized skill of elite white men seeking to wield intellectual authority in public life” to “a common way for middling white families to pursue polite self-improvement and to affirm sentimental bonds in private life.”
Electronic communication has, of course, followed a similar journey out of the workplace and into our daily lives. When early network technologists introduced instant messaging as a way of updating users on network resources, I doubt they anticipated that the same basic technology would one day allow me and Naunihal to debate the relative merits of Pilates classes vs. DIY strength training. Which brings me to the most common criticism of today’s message-based friendships, as opposed to the epistolary friendships of yore: the idea that they are somehow more banal than the legendary correspondences that find their way onto library shelves and course syllabi.
That contrast hinges on a romanticized view of old-timey letters. As Philip Stevick writes in “The Inner Life of E-mail,”
Read over a number of nineteenth-century letters and it will be extraordinary the extent to which the substance of the letters is anchored in the small details of daily life. A letter written in the evening will, as often as not, refer to the evening, the period of summary and repose at the end of the day, the full charge of the day’s fatigue, the approach of sleep. A letter written after a meal time will often mention what was eaten.
And in a memoir of her Italian mother’s letter-writing after moving to America, Maria DePaola Friedlander revels in the remembered details of there mother’s correspondence:
To her mother and her sister, my mother wrote the events of her life and how she felt about them. All details were airmailed across the Atlantic. What we children were like, our illnesses, our personalities, the traits she approved of, those that gave her pause. She described our life in New York City and the annual summer exodus to the shore or the mountains. She gave news of other relatives. She sent the names of the universities we attended, described our careers, and then our spouses, and later our children. Ongoing, steady, nothing too trivial to leave unmentioned, the words flowed back and forth and gave sustenance.
Nor were these domestic limited to feminine correspondence. In her article “Male Friendship and Masculinity in the Early National South,” Anya Jabour writes about a circle of male lawyers who “kept each other informed of the births of their children, commiserated with one another about the illnesses common to youngsters in the nineteenth-century South, and exchanged advice on education.”
If these epistolary examples leave me feeling less apologetic about the domesticity (and frequent triviality) of my online correspondence, Alison E. Hurley helps put my anxiety in historical context. Writing about correspondence among “Bluestockings,” Hurley notes the dilemma of eighteenth-century ladies desperate to keep up a correspondence: “Because she had no Parliament (or Oxford, or club) to socialize in, a woman’s conversation was largely doomed to be epistolary in nature. But, precisely because she had nowhere to go, a woman often had nothing…to write about.” For the ladies of eighteenth-century England, Hurley writes, resort towns like Bath provided a solution to that problem: “by giving women and their acquaintances somewhere to go, the watering place also gave them something to write about.”
Having something to write about mattered to the 18th century correspondent in part because of the public nature of letters, as Simon Richter describes:
Letters were shared or read aloud; they were metonymies for absent and desired authors; they became the basis for new friend ships with new and unfamiliar readers. Letters were bound together and made available to house guests; they were frequently published, with or without the author’s permission, with or without the discreet removal of private detail.
Letters written from spa towns were the eighteenth-century English lady’s best chance of making it into circulation, Hurley writes, because
they contained more public information than did typical female missives, they were deemed of greater real interest to a larger sphere of readers than were most women’s letters. Thus, although many ostensibly private letters were read aloud during the period, letters written from watering places were virtually guaranteed an unusually large audience. A spa letter was the closest many women ever came to public authorship, and they knew it.
Thanks to the miracle of social media, we modern ladies no longer have to fight our way into circulation: all it takes is a click of that “post” button and our latest profundities (or trivialities) can be broadcast to the world. But for exactly that reason, the private, epistolary friendship is all the more valuable. In an online culture where so many of our relationships are public and performed, the daily or weekly exchange of private messages and emails offers a form of friendship that feels more authentic in its intimacy.
“In a society in which friends and family members were often separated for long stretches of time, letter-writing could constitute the essence-as well as the evidence-of intimate relationships.” That’s Jabour again, talking about the eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century American South—but she could be speaking of Facebook friendships like Naunihal’s and mine. At a time when we are increasingly attuned to the ways digital media disrupt the social fabric of our world, it’s lovely to realize that it’s also giving us something back: the delightful, meaningful and longstanding tradition of epistolary friendship.