This is our truth, tell us yours
A staple of learning languages at my school was acquiring a pen friend abroad. Despite being a bog standard comp my school had a range of methods that enabled it to ape some of the methods of independent schools. Pen friends was just one of them. It also had an orchestra, a choir, and a fine tradition of enthusiastic amateur dramatics.
It also had the cane, and a potato field to which kids from the bottom streams too recalcitrant for the car maintenance workshop were exiled. I wasn’t in one of those streams.
The stream I was in required of me that I acquired pen friends; one in France, one in Germany, and one who specialized in postal chess. They each taught me new lessons, but mainly, thinking back,they taught me what a self centred process communication could be.
My German penfriend wrote very formally; each letter was sealed with sealing wax and an impression of an ornate signet; I was left, even now, with an image of a German teenager who aspired to a moustache and who read the German equivalent of Biggles, if there is such a thing. (I’ve always harboured the suspicion that Biggles, Northumberland’s most appropriate twentieth century hero, and his big brother, James Bond, both produced by deeply flawed enormously human men, are uniquely English creations.)
My French pen friend, Pascal, was far more three dimensional, not least because I can remember his name. He was, apparently, a fan of experimental music and soccer. He confused me with his references to the French music charts, but then I barely understood British music at the time. He wrote in green ink, which always baffled me.
And then there were the chess postcards from a boy in Woking who, for reasons I cannot explain, always reminded me of the boy in my class who admitted to wanking over his mother’s collection of prints of Rubens paintings, and the Grattan catalogue. How I got that impression from someone who never revealed much more about himself than that he couldn’t see a rudimentary knight fork coming I’ll never know.
All very interesting, I hear you say, but what use is this anecdote?
I use Twitter. Most of my Twitter followers are the modern equivalent of those pen friends, strangers who occasionally get to read something from me and weave their own pictures of me from the words.
In many cases, perhaps they don’t even bother. In other cases though, I know they must, because I see how they react to other people on Twitter. For an experiment once i sat and drew different pen pictures of who my pen friends might have been. Was the German boy really a rather clever satirist, sending up the way the war obsessed British see Germans? Was the French boy really rather less interesting than he seemed, but awash with pretentious ambitions and a desire to be unique in his tastes? Was the chess player really the captain of his school rugby team, too busy and involved in other things to see a simple gambit?
Pen friends were like that, absentee landlords of formal conversational structures that were just a blank screen onto which we projected our assumptions and imaginings. From my German penfriend I learned nothing more than how he liked to project himself; the whys and the question of whether he was representative of his peer group were never explored. (I told this story to a German woman in Budapest who snorted, said ‘Prussians’ and returned to arguing about Derrida.)
I don’t understand the way in which the Twitterati can so often discern who someone is in minute detail from their tweets. Twitter is not some exclusive enclave within which the normal human experiences are suspended. If you know someone is angry on Twitter that is all you know. They may be lovingly making tea for their kids while worrying about a loved one’s health; you will never know.
I often tell friends the plural of anecdote is not data. Tweets are just anecdotes. They probably tell us more about ourselves as we experience them than they ever do about their authors.