Invoke the word epistolary, which means pertaining to
letters, and images straight out of Jane Austen spring to mind:
quill and paper, wax seals, liveried footmen delivering beautifully
scripted letters on silver platters. The epistolary literary
tradition, which dates back to Roman writers such as Ovid, Cicero,
and Pliny, enjoyed a great boom in the 18th century–producing the
first epistolary novel, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa–and
by the 19th century, letter writing was considered an art form,
with style books circulating on how to pen a proper missive. But
with the advent of the telephone, everything started to go south
for the written word. After all, why fool around with pen and paper
when picking up the phone was quicker and easier?

Technology may have killed the letter, but–ironically–it might
also be reinvigorating the epistolary tradition today. Checking and
writing e-mail is one of the main reasons we log onto the Internet
(or, for that matter, take any pleasure in showing up to work), and
many people who would blanch at the thought of writing an actual
letter shoot out several breezy missives daily. Even seniors, who
represent the tiniest demographic of Internet users, write e-mails
at the same rate as other adults.

As Rufus Griscom, co-founder of the literary magazine
Nerve.com, points out in Wired (November 2002),
e-mail has altered courtship patterns as well. There’s a
love-letter renaissance of sorts developing, in the form of online
personal ads. “Whereas the short format of print [personals] lent
itself to desperate, transactional relationships (DJM SEEKS
BI-CURIOUS SWF),” Griscom writes, “the endless space afforded
online personals is perfect for the legions of smarties who cruise
there. They can woo prospects with their fancy language skills and
quickly cut through a broad pool with Boolean searches.”

However, if you’re interested in being part of this e-epistolary
romantic renaissance, Griscom advises you to “get in there while
you can,” because with the inevitable advent of live video on the
Web, he says, it’s going to be a lot more about looks. “The online
dynamic [will be] a little more like the offline one, with
cheerleaders and jocks reascendant.”

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