Now, of course, letter-writing is dead, replaced by emails, texts, and social media. But we have lost something along the way—our social media feeds are often filled with drivel and do not provide an appropriate forum for long-form, constructive conversation and disagreement. The new technology has great promise, unfulfilled so far: we use Twitter for distraction and arguments and other platforms, too, tend to degenerate into insult-throwing, while lurking trolls provoke us into redirecting our energies towards the inane and the irrelevant. Of course, these platforms have advantages too—they are not bereft of value—but they are prone to the dangers of time-wasting, narcissism and outrage porn. Emails are poor imitations of letters, mostly used to communicate formalities.
The Rathbones’ new initiative, founded with their partner Monish Parajuli, is devoted to free speech: any subject can be broached and any disagreement discussed no matter how sensitive. The public nature of the conversations on the website means that they are not only for the benefit of the correspondents but can add value to discourse generally.
Letter-writing, even in its supposedly-degraded electronic form, isn’t “dead,” as the multiple folders in my own inbox attest; most of us are just content to keep our correspondence private rather than perform for an audience. Anyway, I somehow doubt that the only thing preventing a culture-wide renaissance of letter-writing was the lack of a particular URL at which to practice. Letter appears to be an aspiring salon for would-be public intellectuals of the Quillette/Areo variety. Which, you know, fine, whatever. I am, of course, all in favor of people making a practice of thinking in depth and writing at length. I just don’t see how a public-facing “epistolary conversation” site is any different in essence from a well-moderated blog, and, as with letter-writing, blogging has been proclaimed dead countless times by those eager to sell you a replacement. I’m sure this new venture will be beneficial for some individuals looking for networking and self-promotional opportunities, but the “discourse generally” will be the same as it ever was. There are no technological shortcuts around human nature.