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2015, Charing Cross Road


Do you remember having a pen pal? I do. It seemed like such a unique concept at the time. This was back in the 1980s, when I was in elementary school. Not exactly sure of what year it was, but we were each given another child to write to. I think mine was in France (though he obviously knew enough English to correspond). There were perhaps only two letters exchanged between us, but that was enough. It felt exciting to wrote back & forth with someone so far away.

I thought of that brief friend from France, whose face I never saw and whose name now escapes memory, as I wished a happy birthday to someone who lives in New York City a few days ago. You might think I met him on the occasion I traveled to NYC in 1995. You would be mistaken. We met (if you can call it that) online, via Facebook. In fact, I know several folks solely online. We've never met in-person, and some of us don't even live on the same continent.

What used to be a special circumstance is now, due to the wonder of the Internet, an everyday, commonplace occurrence. Indeed, it used to be so unique that books and movies were made about it. Of course, writing takes many different forms. The fact that, in the 1980s it took the form of letters and now, some thirty years later, takes the form of Facebook, online forums and e-mail, doesn't change what it is, and always has been: written communication.

It's always befuddling when certain people seem to cast social media as some sort of weird, new beast, something that we've heretofore never encountered. In reality, it's just communication, but in a newer format. For example, some folks consider a person's online status updates to be a feeding of their ego, but how different is it from sending an e-mail to your friends, letting them know the latest in your life, and catching-up on theirs?

Will we ever meet, my online friends and I? What of the recent birthday boy in NYC? Alas, the answer, if we're being honest, is 'probably not.' There are several members of the cult TV forum I frequent whom I'd love to meet in real life, and it sometimes depresses me to think that it will likely never happen, with many of them living in the United Kingdom. And for those who live here in the United States, there is still not a high likelihood of ever meeting in-person.

And so, some thirty years after corresponding with my first pen pal, it is curious to find that, while the medium may have changed (along with the frequency of communication), the end result is still the same. We develop relationships with people whose lives we become aware of, whom we care about, who share in our stories and our interests, yet whom we will never physically meet. Does that diminish the friendship we share? I don't think so, not really. It certainly doesn't prevent a Happy Birthday message, does it?


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