I was smitten a few days ago when I read a passage that articulated exactly what I enjoyed about writing. In “Mortality” Christopher Hitchens writes, “The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed.”
For me, this causes an insatiable thirst to reach the souls of my readers through abstracted thoughts. In the past, only writers — or people who had a distribution method — would have to wrestle with this problem. But now virtually anyone can broadcast, and we all try to “personally address” with the things we output.
Problem is, we suck at it. There’s two ways to look at this:
First off, we’re still learning how to do this. We see evidence of this in a few places. On Facebook and Twitter, people broadcast things that are written to a specific audience, with little consideration for everyone else. On The Listserve, many feel overwhelmed by a large audience, so they end up defaulting to a high school graduation speech. We can’t seem to find the right balance. We mimic to fit in, which is the opposite of “personally addressing.”
Secondly, we’re hyper-aware of messages that personally address us — and perhaps even more aware of messages that don’t. My friend, Greg Dorsainville, directed me to this passage from Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody,” which reads:
We place considerable value on messages that are addressed to us personally, and we are good at distinguishing between messages meant for us individually (like love letters) and those meant for people like us (like those coming from late-night preachers and pitchmen). An entire industry, direct mail, sprang up around trying to trick people into believing that mass messages were really addressed to them personally.
The way Hitchens and Shirky use the term “personally address” is different. For Hitchens, it’s about connecting with a person about a message. For Shirky, it’s about directly talking to a person. But there is a connection between the two.
Relationships progress when two parties find out more about each other. When a friend tells me about the terribly hard time he’s been having in a new city, it makes me empathize with him — and, because he’s shared that with me, it makes me feel closer to him. In that exchange, he has given something.
Writers like Hitchens or Joan Didion never tried to trick anyone into thinking the message was for a specific reader. Instead, they were looking to give something. It was neither too specific or too broad. It’s something in between — or maybe something totally different. It requires, I think, a willingness to be vulnerabile, the patience to be empathetic and the vigor to be logical.
I still have a hard time writing to the abstract concept of an “audience,” as small as it may be. For a very long time, I would secretly write to a specific person. In college, I imagined writing to the anonymous girl in my journalism class because, just one time, I caught her reading my column and laughing. There was one blog post I wrote to my cousin Grace, who reads my blog, but of course she had no idea it was written to her because that’s not the point. Writing to these people helped me open up. They helped me think about someone else, and not myself. These messages may not have been for them, but it was to them.
As a writer, this is great. But as a reader, I want more than vulnerability from the writer. When I read something that personally addresses me, I want it to be mine. But we’re becoming more aware that nothing that is broadcast is ours, or at least not in the way we used to be able to find an obscure passage in a book and own it. Our relationship with content is changing. But maybe that’s a good thing.
About a year ago I was in a class with Alan Kay, and our assignment was to e-mail him an essay each week — and, from there, we could occassionally develop a back-and-forth. One conversation I had with him was about what constituted a human being, or life. I wrote about the argument that humans are purely physical matter — a cluster of atoms.
Alan, one of the most thoughtful people I've encountered, pointed out that the atoms that make us up are actually entirely replaced about every seven years. He added: “We are a process that moves through time and space picking up energy and matter and reorganizing it continuously into us and leaving less organized matter and energy behind.”
In other words, what’s important isn’t the atoms themselves, but the system of atoms — how they relate to each other (and stop relating), and how they act and stop acting.
In this output-oriented age, maybe we’re making a trade: We are giving up the illusion of being personally addressed — of being able to own content, in a romantic sense. But we are gaining the ability to send outputs back and forth to each other. In short, broadcast is evolving into a conversation; the relationships between the abstract thoughts are what’s important, and not the thoughts themselves.
When I first read this Hitchens passage and started writing about it, I didn’t expect to reach this conclusion. It’s maybe too rounded, and I may be conflating some things. If I said, “Conversation is now being broadcast,” it may be an obvious statement. But it seems not-too-obvious the other way around.
Let me end with this: The most fulfilling part of The Listserve has not been the e-mails sent out by the winners. Instead it has been the one-on-one conversations generated by the e-mails. As the winners who send out the e-mails will tell you, the most powerful part of their winning day is not when their e-mail was sent out; it was when the flood of personal e-mails started coming back in — each of them personally addressed to the sender, but more importantly each of them an an invitation to talk.