Before the 1830s Americans had no choice but to send news, however urgent or time sensitive, via letter. They might instruct a personal messenger to ride all day and night on horseback to deliver the missive, but the fact remained that communication of any kind was dependent upon the physical transportation of mail across a given distance. This dependence began to change with the invention of the telegraph in the 1830s—for the first time, Americans were able to send messages back and forth without physically traveling the distance between the communicating parties.
There were, however, some fundamental qualities about the telegraph that made it a welcome addition to the letter without posing a serious threat to the practice of letter writing. In the first place, in order to send a telegram, a person had to go to a telegraph office, where forms stating the desired message were filled out and given to the telegraph operator, who would send the message—when he had time. The comfort and convenience of writing a letter from home could not be duplicated in the process of sending a telegram. Also, and perhaps more importantly, senders of telegrams were charged by the word, making the telegram fairly expensive and useful only for very short messages. Long, friendly missives, meant not only to share important news but also to bring people closer together in spirit, were still the purview of the letter.
The advent of the telephone, however, changed this dynamic altogether. Though the expense involved and the initial limit on the distance over which calls could be placed were at first mitigating factors, Americans eventually adopted the telephone into their homes and lifestyles. Instantaneous communication from the comfort of home became possible for most Americans, and as the telephone’s technological prowess increased so did lengthy conversations. Telephone calls provided the intimate connection that telegrams could not, and became America’s preferred way of keeping in touch.
Though the convenience and relative affordability of the telephone allowed it to supersede the letter as the predominant form of communication in America, letter writing was still a necessary skill in some areas of life. Telephone calls, while affordable and instantaneous, leave no written record of what has been said, making them useful but not definitive in terms of concluding business transactions. The same ephemeral characteristic that makes an ordinary conversation difficult to remember applies to a telephone call, causing letter writing to remain necessary in situations where information must be sent in a more permanent, binding format.
Over the course of the twentieth century, letters went from being the preferred method of communication in America to being outstripped by the convenience of the telephone. Another of the functions traditionally performed by the letter, that of relaying news to those who were far away and might not have heard it, was absorbed first by the radio and then by the television. News from around the world is now available through these media every day, relegating the informative letter to the background.
The Internet boom of the 1990s created the first form of communication with the potential to completely overtake the letter’s place in American society: e-mail. As a written form of communication, printed e-mails have the permanence of a letter, but they can also be sent instantaneously, and can be replied to just as quickly. They blend the convenience and speed of a telephone call with the long-lasting quality of a physical message—it is no wonder that e-mail has recently become the country’s most popular form of communication.
Despite the fact that increased e-mail use means fewer physical letters, however, e-mail may actually produce a revived interest in the art of letter writing. Lisa Grunwald and Stephen J. Adler, in the preface to their book Letters of a Century, reveal the unexpected benefits of the e-mail explosion: “But if e-mail is a threat to real letters, it is nonetheless reviving certain skills of communicating that became rusty with the telephone, and it is giving anyone open-minded enough to try it the joy of putting thoughts into words they can see.” It is true that the need for physical letters has decreased with the advent of e-mail correspondence, but frequent e-mailing also means frequent practice at the art of conveying news, sentiment or simple greetings through the written word. Americans who regularly communicate by e-mail may be more likely to write a physical letter than those who prefer the telephone simply because the casual writing skills of the former group are sharpened by their electronic communications.
As technology advances, instantaneous electronic communication has become available in several different forms. Instant Messaging, a real-time cousin of e-mail, gives online users the opportunity to conduct a written conversation, with all the benefits and detriments of spoken communication. On the plus side, IM conversations happen in real time, so participants can exchange ideas almost as if they were actually speaking, instead of waiting for responses to e-mails. On the minus side, however, communication through Instant Messenger contains a lot of the poor grammar and poorly organized thinking inherent in actual conversation, and it teaches many of its younger users to write in such a way. Similar ups and downs are inherent in the newest feature of cell phone technology—the text message. Cell phones in general allow people to communicate instantaneously across long distances while on the go, and text messaging allows them to do so in writing.
While communication forums like IM and text messaging often result in poorly written messages that have the potential to decrease general writing skills, they also allow for the emergence of a new Internet slang, which is gradually making its way into mainstream America . Since IM conversations are written in real time, Internet users have developed a kind of shorthand for words or phrases they write often. Using the codes for these words or phrases allows for a quicker typing speed and the expression of sentiments that don’t need to be addressed during a spoken conversation. LOL (laughing out loud), for example, or ROTFL (rolling on the floor laughing) are both used to express humor and mirth that would be visible in a face-to-face encounter but that need to be written out on IM in order to be understood. Other shorthand symbols, like brb for “be right back,” OMG for “oh my gosh!” and btw for “by the way,” have evolved as simple ways for Internet users to save time while conducting written conversations.