In ancient times, in another life, at work on an IBM Selectric with its trademarked changeable balls of font, the infernal machine and bottle of Makers Mark cropped from the photograph, circa 1984.
It has been said that in my heyday I was an enticing letter writer, and they were almost never typed. Scouting about for some analogy to this blogging phenomenon (Is it epistolatory in nature? Will it catch on?) I found myself trying to explain to a friend who never does social media why people do (blog). “I suppose there’s a charm to it,” he wrote back, “but it is hard for me [an academic – Ed. note] since I am used to historical and cultural and textual specificity, to figure out what is at stake in the generalized literacy of these exchanges.”
“It’s like cocktail conversation,” I replied somewhat unhelpfully, “except you don’t have to dress up and it’s typed instead of uttered with a drink in hand.” Come to think of it, I reflected, there could well BE a drink in hand in some cases. One-handed typing, that is, which would suggest another kind of on-line entertainment altogether and about which I ardently hoped my academic friend was unaware.
“So this explains the curiously hip and worldly-wise tone you seem to adopt?” he inquired.
“I admit,” I wrote back only slightly defensively, “there might be an element of flirtation.” I could have expanded on the subject but restrained myself. One’s audience is so unpredictable and unknowable, I explained. “We work in the dark,” I wrote, fond of the phrase.
“You don’t know who you’re corresponding with?” he asked.
Yes and No, I confessed, half-lying.
“You feel isolated,” he remarked.
“It’s not quite like that,” I countered, as if I were caught out writing to Miss Lonelyhearts. I thought of my father and men like him with their ham radio set-ups in basement rooms across the Midwest, excited about making contact with some stranger in another state on a clear night. Or truckers talking to each other on CB radios as they roared along some endless anonymous stretch of interstate.
“What interests me,” my friend continued, “is the relation between the isolation and the self-presentation. Are people obsessed with self-presentation because they’re so isolated? Or is isolation an effect of the emphasis on self-presentation? I tend to think the latter. It’s hard to sustain a controlled play of surfaces in a social milieu. Just like real bodies don’t stay put the way pornographic images do.”
I agreed, for the sake of the argument.
But really, it’s ham radio, I wanted to reply. With pictures. For strangers. Not like letters (if you have any of mine, please burn them).
Or maybe my friend is right. It’s a game of self-presentation. Dear Reader, I could be an elderly Dutch woman on my grandson’s MAC for all you know. I could be working for “To Catch a Predator.” I could be anyone.
I could be someone you know.
[Originally posted 11/13/2007]