Notes On Distractions
Note #1

Solicited mail

At the time of writing, there is a 45% chance that you, dear reader, are a member of Facebook, the first social network to obtain one billion active users. 1 If this is the case, it’s perhaps equally as likely that you receive most of your birthday messages via Facebook, rather than by text, phone call or (shudder) post.

Zuckerberg’s unstoppable behemoth has made it near-compulsory to send a birthday message to every ‘friend’, and through a combination of reminders and sheer convenience rendered it entirely meaningless. On our birthdays, we are flooded with messages from long-forgotten schoolmates and ex-colleagues who we barely care about, and who probably don’t care about us, either.

We’ve become so reliant and trusting of these reminders that a common prank is to edit a friend’s birth date – so that, the next day, they are overwhelmed with birthday messages by their own gullible friends. Now, while it’s not as if remembering the date of someone’s birthday is any reflection of your closeness, there’s still something very painful about seeing friends who sent loving messages (or maybe even turned up to birthday drinks) just a few months ago now acting purely on the basis of a message on their homepage.

As if to prove my point, since I began writing this piece Facebook has introduced a new feature called gifts, where real, physical presents – cupcakes, cuddly toys, and probably more – can be ordered directly from the site. 2 The brilliantly clever (and evil) bit is that this feature is directly integrated into the ‘birthday’ panel on the home page. Promotional images show the current “write on so-and-so’s wall” option replaced with “give her a gift”.

It’s exploitation, pure and simple. With users thoroughly trained to send birthday messages from a spot on their homepage, they can now be encouraged from the same spot to instead go and and spend money. (Mind you, I’m sure Facebook’s stockholders will appreciate it.)

A few years ago, I made the decision not to send birthday messages on Facebook – partially as an act of protest, and maybe a bit of laziness. Last month, I went further and, on the day of my birthday, hid the date from everyone. What emerged was interesting: a few close friends, whom I’d spoken to recently, posted birthday messages; and then mutual friends, seeing these posts, jumped on board – many thoroughly confused by the lack of notification. By the end of the day, just over ten friends had sent me messages – a far cry from most years, where my wall would be filled with dozens of brief and boring messages.

Far from lonely, it was actually quite pleasant. I had time to read and respond to them all, and felt somehow that I’d reclaimed a bit of my life back from Facebook.

Was it a mean thing to do to those friends innocently relying on Facebook to remind them of birthdays? Maybe, though I resisted from posting a status mocking those who forgot (after all, I never send birthday messages via Facebook). On the other hand, it felt pretty liberating and oddly exciting to commit such a social taboo. Not being plagued with notifications all day was merely a bonus.

It’s not the first time I’ve felt the need to take my life “offline” a step. When I moved to Newcastle to study, I found it difficult to keep in touch with friends from home, even though the majority were just a text message away. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter are generally considered to be great ways of keeping in touch with friend, even when on the other side of the world, but that’s only half true: rather, they’re great ways of keeping track of people.

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Some fill this void with long phone (or Skype) calls, but I like to use a more antiquated form of communication: letter writing.

In the age of instant messaging and real-time document editing, there’s something refreshing about sitting down with a pen and paper. In some respects it’s comparable to records: they’re expensive, difficult to store and need a whole deck-hifi setup just to hear a single record – barely tolerable in today’s digital age. Yet what I love about vinyl is the feeling of ceremony involved. Playing a single record takes so much more effort than pressing ‘play’ on my iPod that it feels, somehow, more of an occasion.

While the contents of a letter could just as easily be transferred in an email, I can’t think of he last time I sat down and spent several hours on a digital message. The ‘send’ button cries out to be clicked, whereas there’s no rush to sign off a letter; I feel I have the luxury of taking my time over it.

Physical letters are not only nicer to write; they’re also far better to read. Few of us can be bothered to sit down and read a multi-page article on our computers (I wonder how many have actually got to this sentence?). Why should we, when the insta-satisfaction one-armed bandits of Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, 9gag, Mashable et al can provide far more entertainment in a shorter space of time?

Like a printed copy of a Word document, or a good book, handwritten letters are easier to concentrate on, to settle down with and enjoy. It’s nice to know, as the letter writer, that you’re not having to compete with photo tags and Farmville invites.

And sometimes I find different aspects of friends emerging in their letters – thoughts deeper than our day-to-day conversations.

But by far my favourite aspect of handwritten letters are the personal quirks of the sender: the paper they use, their handwriting, any added stickers or doodles. I like knowing that their hands have touched this letter, laboured over it, folded and sealed it. The copy you own will be the only copy ever in existence – a limited edition, so to speak.

I don’t know if letter-writing has universal appeal. A few friends have failed to reply to messages, I guess because they can’t find the time or energy, or simply don’t enjoy writing them (or, y’know, they hate me). Still, I think it’s worth the effort. It certainly means more than sending a brief Facebook message at the suggestion of an automated system.

Notes:

  1. This one billion is out of an estimated 2.2 billion internet users. Kind of mind-blowing, isn’t it? And with schemes like Facebook Zero, it’s feasible that one day Facebook membership might even dwarf regular internet access.
  2. You may vaguely remember that the site once allowed ‘virtual’ gifts to be bought for friends, which surprisingly were only discontinued as recently as August 2010. Though I have no numbers, I imagine only a very small percentage of customers actually bothered spending real money on what amounted to little more than a cute illustration.