paper trail

words anna weber


Humans have a compulsion to leave something behind. To make a mark. To leave a legacy. With the advent of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and many other social media platforms, that compulsion hasn't changed—in fact, it's gotten stronger. Social media is simply the twenty-first century's new and improved way of making sure everyone knows that we are here. We present a public self for all to see, and our lives unfold in the cloud. We were traveling through a country where we didn't speak the language. We were eating food we didn't know how to pronounce or describe. We were making friends we knew we'd never see again. We were here. 

There's nothing wrong with this; it's how communication works these days. We update, upvote, like. We post and repost, share and reshare, comment, emoji. There's no need to #unplug, to delete, to deactivate, to turn off. But there are parts of ourselves that can get lost in the static of the internet—the parts that comprise the private self, the space inside us where we take notes, form thoughts, arrive at interpretations and conclusions, observe, ponder, muse, wonder. We make choices about what we share and don't share, and there are some things that are unshareable. What are the sensations and ideas that don't make the cut? Where do they go? What do we keep for ourselves? What do we save, put aside, covet for a select, cherished few?

Joan Didion states in Why I Write, "In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind." In other words, that writing is the original, tangible social medium, and remains the base of social media as we know them.

I have a chronically empty mailbox. I have changed addresses two or three times a year for the past five or six—it's normal that my family and friends might have trouble keeping up. So I've started to fill it by sending letters—one has to give to receive, after all. The gratification one gets from reading a personal account on paper, in pen ink, free of ads, free of notifications, is rare and rich. I don't just write to my immediate family and closest friends—I write to people I talk to once a year, people I know through friends of friends, even people I've never met. The content of the letter depends on the person to whom I'm writing; some are commentaries on something I read in a paper or in a book, some are accounts of things my students or colleagues said or did, some are sensory observations of a place in time, some are simply scattered thoughts I've tried to thread together. Some are journal entries I've rewritten, and some become entries I copy into my journal. Personal record-keeping goes hand-in-hand with letter writing.

In writing these notes, I'm not looking for likes, shares, or even comments. With letters, knowing that at least one other person will read it is enough. With journals, knowing that I'm listening to my private self is gratifying enough.

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