It is quite fitting that after indulging in Susanne Sundfor’s therapeutical songs of amorous disappointment, that I discover that personal communication between artists and the masses that are geographically remote has vanished, or at least has been forgotten with few clues to its disappearance.
Twitter and a plethora of other social media on the internet bridged the gap between the idols and fans in our age; this is true. But deeply personal communication, such as real mail, has become outdated. I remember the catalogs at the back of books or inside DVD boxes or addresses of publishers you could write to if you wished to express gratitude, praise or criticism, or request the purchase of books from their catalogs. But since the digital age, these dim paths of handwritten communication have disappeared. Why?
It is strange that at the advent of the internet, snail mail was still prominent. Even today, we write a copious amount of letters: Wedding invitations, postcards, and Christmas cards are all sent via real mail and not with a computer. In Switzerland, bank statements, taxes, voting materials, and official writings are also all communicated by mail (this might change soon, with a recent vote), and not by television, phone call, or rudest of all, email. So why did fan mail disappear?
Security of arrival seems an excuse, seeing that wedding invitations are arguably of utmost importance. Then again, these are sometimes the only form in which invitations are communicated. Speed is also not the reason, as this problem is mitigated with a little patience or foreplanning. In fact, in most cases, we don’t even want responses to emails of hours past. We just simply don’t have the energy to redirect our attention every few minutes to every communication that we might receive.
Cost might be another factor; however, if one isn’t willing to pay a franc/dollar fee for the service, a response from an idol might not be worth much to the fan in the first place. Therefore, if security, timing, and cost don’t explain the phenomenon, convenience seems to the culprit that devastated fan mail. Despite its speed, everyone has email. Anyone can express their opinion quickly, get it to the recipient, and move on. With the increasing acceptance of social media in the latter half of the 2000s, it became even easier to get one’s word out to the desired people.
As mentioned, before that time, one could write to the publishers of books or the record companies that published music. There were also dedicated services that allowed for one to contact actors/actresses, models, etc. This book from the 90s, for example, listed plenty of addresses and email addresses of celebrities for people to write to. Funnily enough, some of them are still working, which means you can still send them fan mail if you wish.
Yet, today it is frowned upon. Judging by the amount of drug abuse, pedophilia, stalking, and other nefarious happenings that have come to light from outspoken people and how self-serving and narcissistic people have become celebrities have become more pronounced idols of worship than before instead of the unique human beings that hide behind the facade of stylish clothing, talent, or money. Stephen Kings Misery and the anime Perfect Blue have foreseen this trend and showcase these idol-hungry people.
Perhaps this is what made fan mail a thing of the twentieth century. In the US, the attack on the World Trade Center towers was followed by mail laced with anthrax, which made opening fan mail even more questionable (almost literally like opening emails of unknown origin). With these factors, society has created the unfortunate effect that idols now had good reason not to meet their fans, and not just the converse, which is for fans not to meet their idols. It is fitting then that the book I mentioned went out of publishing in 2005, a few years after 2001, and when social media started taking off.
A dedicated online address book and forum for fan mail writers sprung up a year before as well, that allowed for people to contact their idols through the addresses of agencies and firms where they work/have worked. While still active, with a bit of archaeology, one finds that the website is severely outdated, a testament to how fan mail has aged, and is one of the final remnants of this time, before social media imperialism took over.
With these unfortunate events, fan mail went out of fashion, and on the whole, died an inconsequential death. Since then, finding a connection with celebrities has become easier for sure, but also more superficial than before. Privacy has become a commodity, so any smart public figure will hesitate to place much information about themselves onto the internet. Little stops anyone from posting a snippet onto their Facebook or Insta pages or a mention on their Twitter accounts however.
With enough (obsessive) desire, one can probably still get a letter out to one’s idols, regardless. However, it is an uninvited communication that is unusual enough that people shouldn’t do it out of respect to the idol’s time and energy, even if the people opening the letters are people hired to do so. Shirley Jackson, for example, threw much of her fan mail away. Taylor Swift did the same. Robert Pattinson initially tried to reply to all fan mail only to realize it was an impossible task and gave up at some point as well.
If people’s letters don’t get answered, and people are using mail less and less, perhaps this practice will soon die out for good. With the encroachment of effective technologies that are now all over the internet, we might just not even need fan mail to express our opinions, admirations, and illusory forms of connection to our idols anymore. Whether this is a good thing, I leave as an exercise for the reader.