Do you still write letters? I have been doing so since I first learned to hold a pen. Of course, these days I use e-mail to send my letters; nearly everyone has an e-mail account, and I doubt that I've sent a letter by post in the past five years.
I don't think there's much difference between a longhand letter and a thoughtful e-mail. Perhaps it is only that I am too young to wax nostalgic about the loss of the physical medium of paper, but I have always had poor handwriting, so for my own part I am glad that communication has by and large gone digital.
However, for many people text messaging is replacing e-mails, and I am not so comfortable with this trend. The length of an e-mail is limited only by the patience of the recipient. The length of a text message, however, is a mere 160 characters.
I know I am naturally verbose, but I doubt I am the only one who feels that not much can be said in 160 characters.
Of course, Japan is the country that gave birth to haiku, which is perhaps the world's shortest form of poetry. Not a single haiku exceeds the text message length limit. So I could very well be wrong on this point.
In fact, for quickly communicating with people you already know well, text messages are great. After all, "I love you!" is only 11 characters, and that phrase can express quite a lot despite its brevity. But to get to know new people? Text messages are too short. And although mobile phone keyboards have improved in recent years, text entry is still not what I would call a pleasant experience.
Similarly, many social networking and dating websites offer chat features. However, chat requires both parties to be logged in to the same website at the same time. Further, when chatting with someone new, it's often unclear what the expectations are. The other person may be chatting with other people at the same time, taking care of his or her children, or answering e-mails. Also, for whatever reason, chat services seem to bring out the worst in men, leading to general bad behavior and frequent solicitations.
Chat can also be a problem for beginning language learners. It's a lot of pressure to check a dictionary when you know the other person is waiting on your response. And live translation technologies, while improving, are not yet at a level where they can really enable communication between two people who do not share a common tongue.
For these reasons, Oh My Japan does not provide a chat feature. Instead, we offer long-form messaging, similar to e-mail. This has the following advantages.
- Messages can be as long as the author and recipient feel is appropriate.
- Members have the chance to read and write messages on their own schedules. The expectation is clear that members will reply to one another as their schedules permit, so no one has to feel pressured to respond quickly or log in to the site at a specific time.
- Short messages tend to result in people asking the same questions again and again-- "Where are you from?" "How long have you been in Japan?" On Oh My Japan, this information is already in each user's profile. For this reason, messages can focus on the interests that members actually share with one another rather than repeating the same questions one is always asked.
- Once members feel comfortable exchanging messages with one another, they may, if they both wish, exchange contact information to send e-mails or text messages to one another, to chat online (using Skype, MSN, etc.) or to meet in real life.
Although people may write fewer letters (or long e-mails) than they used to, I think there are many people who wish that they wrote more. Writing letters is a great way to get to know people and to make friends for the long term. Certainly, compared to other forms of communication, writing letters takes time. However, an investment of one's time now can pay big dividends later.
If you're the letter-writing type, I hope you consider joining Oh My Japan and enjoy thoughtful conversations with our members.