Pen pals

3 minutes estimated reading time

When I was a kid, I, along with with the rest of my primary school class had pen pals. We learned about life in the US from students at an elementary school in Palo Alto. I learned what root beer, a peanut butter and a grape jelly sandwich and granola tasted like. I found out how exciting it was to play Pong and how much of a drag it was to go on a road trip to the Yellowstone national park. I was shocked to hear that girls played football and found out what it was like to go to an American football match. We fell out of touch when my pen pal went to summer camp one year, tweens are fickle that way.

My Mam has used cards and occasional letters to keep in touch with former work colleagues who she worked alongside 45 years ago in a manual telephone exchange as a operator in a small Irish market town. (In those days, you didn’t dial a number directly like you did today, an operator made the connection for you operating a series of peg boards and was also involved in parts of the billing through a docketing system. Now you can dial pretty much any number around the world from a cell phone in your pocket or the Skype software on your home computer).  Despite that they are now in North America and Ireland, the pen pals keep each other abreast of major life developments and kept alive the ties that bound them together as work colleagues sharing a shift roster all them years before.

Now being a pen pal is a more adult affair. Fear of peadophiles, multi-channel television stations and the immediate commications environment of the internet has reduced pretty much all the factors that made writing to pen pals an attractive activity for kids.  If you were ten today, why communicate by letter when reality television allows you to see inside other people’s lives with your own eyes, you don’t need to wait a week or more for a letter you could chat to new-found friends on Club Penguin?

I went through the Wikipedia article on pen pals to see if I could find useful information to colour this posting with. I found out about the phenomena of prison pen pals. In the US (and most other countries) penal systems, convicts don’t have access to internet communications, so the mail system, limited phone calls and visits are their only way of communicating with their contacts. Combine that with bad boy (or girl) charm and you can understand why prison pen pals has a niche appeal (the site design is effective if dated with mid 90s GIF clip art and MIDI melodies that go with profiles: most of them seem to be fans of the musical Annie and have ‘Its a hard knock life’ as their profile music).

What does the demise of the pen pal mean that we will have a change in the kind of networks and the nature of networks that we have in the future in comparison to previous generations? I think that whilst we may have hundreds of social network friends, these networks are likely to be ‘looser’ than pen pal contacts, an exchange of letters has got to be a different interaction to wall postings and Facebook status messages.