Twitter, Fan Letters and the Quest for Interaction
For all of Twitter's weaknesses, it indisputably triumphs in one area: Letting the average person contact famous people with unprecedented ease. But the compulsion to cheer, goad, or yell at (mostly yell at, I suppose) our sacred celebrity cows goes back much further than the @reply. In fact, in many ways, your tweets are just the natural evolution of a process as old as broadcasting itself.
A new kind of intimacy entered the entertainment business in the early and mid-20th century. Fresh technologies like radio and television allowed for the words and faces of the famous to reach into our homes—a place that was once considered more or less private. Suddenly, you might have musicians, actors and any number of newfangled "personalities" dazzling you in your living room thanks to broadcasting tech.
But while the public invited these strangers into their homes, there was no way to immediately talk back; no way to channel the (sometimes overwhelming) emotions one might have for these public figures who were seemingly performing just for them.
Enter the fan letter. The fan letter certainly wasn't a 20th century invention, nor were they only sent to the stars of broadcasting. But these new ways of enjoying entertainment in the privacy of your own home contributed to the dramatic rise of fan mail. In the first week of November, 1956 alone, Liberace received 11,368 letters. That's over 11,000 people in a single week who sat down and tried to establish some connection with a man who regularly showed up on TV and radio in the mid-1950s.
And it wasn't just shiny new technologies like radio and TV that made stars of people like Liberace. Older technologies were essential to this exchange. The fan letter itself is a bit of technology that wouldn't have existed in the 20th century without things like a modern postal service, the ubiquity of cheap writing tools and a literate population.
Pens, pencils and typewriters may not seem like "technology" to people of the 21st century. But they were undeniably the facilitators of interactivity. Of the over 11,000 letters Liberace received during that single week in 1956, 61% were written with a pen, while 36% were written with a pencil, and just 3% were composed with a typewriter.
But reaching out to achieve that interactivity, no matter the mode of technology, wasn't immediately seen as positive. As one study from 1939 explained, people who wrote fan letters didn't have the best reputation in broadcasting's early years:
In recent years fan-letter writers have been thought to be the neurotics, the deviates, the abnormal among the listeners, and so it has been cautioned that fan mail should be disregarded as an index of anything. As an answer to this, the theory has been proposed that fan-letter writers were not neurotic in what they thought, but in the fact that they wrote at all. They merely expressed attitudes held by other listeners, but differed from them in their ability to transgress the barrier between themselves and the impersonal broadcasting company.
But the technologies that killed the fan letter don't do a great job of dispelling the assumption that our modern letter writers are the most level-headed people around. All-caps pleas for connection in the form of a follow-back or some basic acknowledgement of the fan's existence swamp communication services like Twitter—services that ostensibly break down barriers to the old broadcasting model.
Search the @replies of any celebrity on Twitter and you'll find a steady stream of people hoping to "connect" with the mass media personalities to whom they feel so close.
Lady Gaga, no doubt, doesn't see the thousands of replies she receives from her 37.7 million followers each day. But sometimes the perception of interactivity is all that matters. For instance, back in 1995 the NBC's Nightly News started putting an email address on the screen, encouraging viewers to express their opinion. Nightly News didn't bother responding to a single email, but it provided a sense of connection not unlike the fan letters of the 20th century. As one researcher noted in 2009 about the mid-'90s Nightly News experiment: "While many viewers acknowledged there was little chance of getting a response, they still hoped that their messages might influence the NBC producers."
Today, it seems many techno-utopians still see more interaction as the way of the future. Tech that breaks down the walls that keep people from "interacting" with entertainers is a hot selling point in 21st century Silicon Valley. But until we grow out of the broadcasting model of personality-based entertainment (something that seems unlikely, despite so many promises to the contrary), it seems we may as well be pleading with Liberace to follow us back on Twitter.
Image from the Library of Congress: Fan mail piling up February 26, 1929