Open letters are the weird half-cousin between a private letter and a public announcement, and they are becoming a thing, probably for the worse. You see, open letters straddle the line between public and private in a funny way. They’re usually addressed to a singular entity and/or person, yet freely and publicly available for anyone to read. The phenomena of the “open letter” suggests that we are people with a lot of feelings without the proper tools of communication to express them.
They are also part of a larger rise in snark culture, which emphasizes winning “Internet points” for how witty you are in your takedown of said person you are writing the letter to, over sincere, heartfelt emotion that one would usually associate with a letter.
Most open letters follow a fairly uninteresting formula. It always starts with the “Dear So-and-So,” greeting, as if to announce, “I don’t actually write letters.” Then comes the familiar and very expected takedown of said person you are writing the letter to, and/or an expression of what you deem to be a highly controversial opinion (it’s not). The intended recipient may or may not be a public personality. And finally, it’s signed by yours truly.
Let’s deconstruct this for a minute. Private letters are written between two people with a modicum of trust and respect for one another — which is why when private letters are ever published publicly, it’s a huge betrayal, even if nothing incriminating is found. We expect that what we say in private discourse and/or communication will not be shared with others. But the Internet is changing that.
Online confessionals are commonplace and the boundaries between private and public are blurring. Twenty-somethings sending “hilarious” emails to their colleagues about their bosses have found themselves without jobs. Humiliating letters shared between friends mysteriously end up on the front page of Gawker. Suddenly, you can’t really trust your friends, even well-intentioned, to keep from forwarding that email or funny anecdote to someone else. This all, of course, leads to some pretty socially stunted behavior.
I feel super connected by the Internet. I live at home in a city where most of my friends from high school have moved away from and none of my college friends live in. For a year and a half, I swore off Facebook altogether but found myself wanting to return as graduation grew close.It’s kept me in touch with a few people that I might not have otherwise kept in touch with. My most meaningful communications, however, have never happened via Facebook. It’s always been face-to-face conversation, private Skype video-calls, Gchats, emails and phone calls with my closest of friends that I feel the most vulnerable and sincere.
And sincerity is what’s desperately missing from online communication. There’s an unhealthy fixation of landing on Reddit’s top-rated, Youtube’s most watched, or the most RTs on Twitter/likes on Facebook. Communication has become competitive. It matters less what you say than how you say it. The operative: be witty, be interesting, be contrary for contrary’s sake. If it’s not flashy or fun, it’s not worth anyone’s time.
Somewhere in that hot mess of an open letter or “witty essay” you were writing was a grain of truth.
Communication meant to be taken seriously starts with that. Perhaps you only mean to be to funny, but it’s only funny if there’s some truth in what you’ve said. So often, we’ve lost sight of that essential building block. Open letters or “public communications” become games for audiences thirsty for catharsis. I’m not going to lie and say I haven’t read something because it vindicated me. Because suddenly, yes, I’m allowed to be a total asshole, but I don’t have to take any responsibility for it.
Open letters are the “extreme” of that. We don’t have to take any responsibility for what we’ve said because we have the audience to back us up. Cue the unmoderated comments! Long live the Internet trolls with nothing better to do than say the most heinous things possible. As the writer, you feel like everything you’ve said is genius — hell, look at all those people supporting you! But it took absolutely no courage to say the things you did.
As the recipient, you are undoubtedly pissed. You deserve better. You’re a human being, after all and nobody likes being condescended to with the Internet audiences watching. Even if what you said and/or did deserves media attention, open letters signify that attention becoming personal. But what’s personal about a publicly posted letter? Absolutely nothing.
The Internet has become the new Coliseum. The gladiators? The writers. The audience? Anyone with Internet access. The more brutal and bloody the fight, the better.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Open letters are the latest in “what’s wrong with the Internet these days,” and I’m not saying that as an old person who’s jaded and not “with it.” I say this because we, as humans beings with you know, real feelings, deserve better. The Internet doesn’t have to make us feel less human.
Here’s to being sincere. Isn’t that what you end your letters with? Sincerely yours.