Okay hear me out: we should bring back pen pals. And not necessarily email pen pals, where we just write long messages to one another. I’m calling for the return of hard-copy, pen-on-paper letters here. With stamps and envelopes. Without autocorrect, message history, or any other innovations beyond the technology of the late 19th century.
I’ve had pen pals in the past. In elementary school, we were told to write letters to fellow students from across the province on two occasions. It seemed back then that writing letters would be a big part of my adult life. Instead, emails rendered letter writing obsolete in all but the most formal circumstances.
It wasn’t until university when a couple of my friends from the internet and I decided to write letters to one another. Unfortunately, that fizzled out after a few letters. In a surprise to no one, my pen-pal relationships that fared best and lasted longest were those based on email.
Still, I think the idea of pen pals has potential, and I’d like to see it widely adopted by a new generation of letter writers. After all, the practice never died out and it’s easy to find resources to help you start writing letters. Pen pals are also a common way to boost your writing skills when learning a new language.
When I say we need to bring back pen pals, I really mean we need to give the medium new life.
There’s a precedent to my madness
I’m envisioning something like the vinyl revival of the early 2010s. CDs were widely attributed with killing vinyl, but the medium never went away. Some artists kept printing vinyl records, and their fans kept buying them. It was thanks in part to that infrastructure that the medium could have such a resurgence. And last year, vinyl records outsold CDs.
Similar storylines played out for film photography, cassette tapes, fountain pens, vintage computers, retro video games, and just about anything old school. In fact, one of the first notes in my “Media Are Plural ideas” file eloquently reads, “why do young guys love old-guy shit?”
I’m not going to attempt to answer that question here because I have other things to do this month. Even when I had an hour-long radio show, that topic proved too expansive. But suffice to say, sitting down with a pen and paper is the same sort of “old-guy shit” that some “young guys” tend to love.
“Young guys” here means millennials, although I would assume Gen Xers and Zers probably enjoy record players and film cameras too. Aesthetics are a big part of it. Not only do the devices themselves look fantastic, but the media they produce have qualities that contrast with their digital counterparts. Think the static of a song played on a turntable, or the hazy look of some film photos.
Fine paper, written upon with a high-quality pen, has a similar novelty. Not to mention, you can really go wild with calligraphy if you’re so inclined. But a cheap Bic, some printer paper, and that chicken scratch you call penmanship is all you need to capture that old-school aesthetic.
Plus, there’s something satisfying about receiving mail. Well, non-bill mail. To me it feels like getting a present, albeit on a smaller scale. It helps when my mail is a package, but even something like a new bank card is rewarding to open.
We can bring back pen pals as an antidote to social media
In my last post, I talked about how social media isn’t fun. It’s soul sucking and stressful, in fact. I recommend replacing your time on social media with other enriching activities, such as reading my blog, leaving comments on my blog, and writing letters to your friends (perhaps about how they should check out my blog). Or, you know, other stuff.
All jokes aside, getting a pen pal is a great way to stay connected with people while disconnecting.
The device you’re using to read this article can put you in contact with just about anyone. But I doubt you use it to talk to more than a handful of friends. Most of them probably live close to you. I get it. After all, every conversation you start cuts into the time you could be spending consuming disposable content on Twitter or Facebook.
Social media helps us feel connected to everyone else. Like that person from third year university who we haven’t talked to in years. At least we still follow each other on Instagram and like the other’s photos.
But what if one of you decides to scale back your social-media use?
Maybe you’ll bump into each other in 30 years in the frozen aisle of a grocery store. You’ll talk about your kids and they’ll discuss the fitness class they’ve been enjoying. After the fifth annoyed person manoeuvres between your carts en route to a blowout ice cream sale, you’ll get the hint that your conversation, though enjoyable for you, is inconveniencing others. You’ll awkwardly bump into each other a few more times before checking out and never seeing each other again.
Or, you can DM that person and say, “Hey, how have you been? I know we haven’t talked in a while, but I want to catch up. Weird question though, would you be interested in being pen pals?”
Let’s bring back pen pals. But how?
In my experience, the best pen pals are people like that, who you normally wouldn’t talk to often.
A big reason why my past attempts fizzled out was because those people were friends from various web-based communities. I would open their letter and read it with glee, but then I would go online and interact with them. We either ran out of things to say in the letters or accidentally covered the same ground elsewhere. I certainly never felt as though we would lose touch if we didn’t write back.
Remember those successful email pen pals I talked about? Two of them were people who sought to minimize their social media presences, and one was someone whose schedule was completely opposite to mine. On a day-to-day basis, I would rarely interact with them otherwise.
Major pen-pal services seem to agree with me. In fact, most of them seek to hook you up with a total stranger. But that can be a little scary, especially if you aren’t willing to rent a P.O. box as a privacy buffer.
In my case, I have so many people from high school, university, and various digital communities who I could ask about becoming a pen pal that I don’t see a reason to turn to one of those services. Also, I feel I can trust these people with my address. And I’m certain we could find something interesting to talk about, since we’ve done that in the past.
What you do is up to you, but I would wager that you also have a few old friends you could call on to get you started.
In the lab, with a pen and a pad
Let me know if you take up my call to bring back pen pals.
Have you ever had a pen pal? When is the last time you wrote a letter to someone? Tell me all about it in the comments or on social media.