As a middle-class child growing up in England in the seventies and eighties there was a pen pal trend.
As I recall there were even organisations that would match you with an appropriate pen pal: someone with whom you shared interests. And then you wrote to each other. Some people had pen pals in Japan. Some had pen pals in the same country, like me.
You shared silly things, sent stickers and photos to each other and wrote letters on cute Hello Kitty paper. Most of my own correspondance was mundane – the latest single I’d bought for example or what the weather was like.
The thing about a pen pal was that you never actually met in person.
Of the 400 friends I have on Facebook, I’ve never met at least 130 of them.
We know each other only through the computer. We comment on one another’s status updates, we share photos, we ‘like’ things.
Twitter is even worse. I’m not going to count up who I’ve never met out of my 1,500+ followers but I’ll take a guess that it will be the majority number.
We’re living in the era of the digital pen pal – sure folks try to attach fancy names to the whole process such as ‘networking’ and even ‘social media marketing’ but what it ultimately boils down to is that same simple notion of a pen pal. The only difference is that our communication is more frequent and done electronically – oh and lots of other people get to see it.
The beauty of the pen pal was always that you shared things with each other that you might not tell your friends. Or you revealed more of yourself because it was easy to do (or you made up stuff cos you knew they’d never find out it wasn’t true).
Today people are still doing that on Facebook and Twitter.
I know I probably reveal more of myself online to my Facebook and Twitter friends. Why? Because I can. Because typing is easy and because the feedback is instant.
I realise I’ve simplified the idea here – there are plenty of online gurus ready to explain the science of it all. But it all leads me to believe that the more things change the more they stay the same.
We’re all just collecting pen pals.