Thursday, December 27, 2012

The The Future of Christmas Letters in the Age of Social Media

First, a disclaimer. When I was a sneering adolescent, I didn't understand the impulse to send out a Christmas letter once a year. In some ways, my parents encouraged my disdain. One year, my father wrote a mock Christmas letter, a stunning satire, which we didn't mail, but we enjoyed helping him revise. My dad was in a dark place, workwise, which was a strain, and I remember that composing/revising process as one of sublime joy: we could still laugh together as a family. Maybe good times would come again.

One of our family Christmas rituals was looking forward to certain Christmas letters. One of my parents' friends wrote Christmas letters that contained incredible detail, down to which Bible passages her study group examined through the year. Some Christmas letters were so brief I wondered why people bothered. Some of these letter writers also wrote or called us throughout the year, so I wondered why they felt compelled to sum up their lives in a yearly Christmas letter.

Now, I feel slightly ashamed of my sneering adolescent self. Now I am older, and I treasure these Christmas letters that my friends write. I treasure them because I never get around to writing them--yet I'm thrilled to find out what my friends have been up to.

I sense a similar sneeriness that some people have towards Facebook, Twitter, and other types of social media. I hear people say that we're all too self-absorbed. Who could be interested in our puny lives in all its stupid detail?

Well, I am. Many of us aren't living lives that can be transfigured into long, chatty e-mails. And if we live fascinating lives, many of us don't have time to write long e-mails or old-fashioned letters on paper--and if all of my friends did write long, lengthy e-mails, I might have trouble finding time to read them all. In some ways, I miss that depth, that insight into people's lives. Yet, I'm always happy to read a sentence here or there about what people are up to. Tell me about your school and the tests you're studying for. Tell me what your kids are up to. Tell me what you're reading, watching, or listening to--I need suggestions! Tell me about your garden, your chickens, your leisure-time activities and all the ways in which you try to make your real life match your values, and I'll be inspired.  Give me a daily smile as I see a photo that you took that's important to you and yours.

Will these weekly and daily updates some day supplant the yearly holiday newsletter? I doubt it. I still like seeing the year-end summary, and I suspect people still like writing them. If I didn't want to be flamed by all my sociologist friends, I might even hypothesize that we're hardwired as humans to be retrospective at certain times.

Or maybe I'm the only hard-wired one. I'll certainly be looking back and looking ahead, as this year draws to a close and a new one begins. I'll be dreaming: what do I want my life to look like in one year, five years, ten years?

And then I'll write it down.  I do believe that the writing it down makes it more permanent, more likely to happen.

I'm always amazed to go back to read what I envisioned--and how often, my life calibrates towards that vision. It's a valuable exercise.

Some of what I want doesn't seem to change much:  to eat more fruits and vegetables, to exercise more, to be more intentional with my time and finances.   I want to send more of my writing out into the world.  I want to write more rough drafts.

On December 31 or January 1, I will post more specific writer's goals for the year of 2013.  And then, in a year, we'll see how I did.

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