Paragraph person meets instant messaging

Think Burma Shave. Think fortune-cookie fortunes. So I keep telling myself. But I've been a paragraph person all my life. And it's been tough to get my thoughts to fit in those dinky little windows when I do instant messaging. Still, I'm learning.

The light-bulb moment (aha!) came a few weeks ago.

I suddenly realized that the size of the default window on my IM program probably bore some relationship to the size of the message I was expected to write.

Since then I've tried to make the message fit the medium. To be as terse as a Burma Shave sign. I'll write a string of brief messages if need be. When I feel a need to write actual paragraphs, or keep a trail (I can't call it a paper trail, can I?) it's easier to switch to e-mail.

Note the nuance here: Instant messaging has become the quick, brash, in-your-face little brother of contemporary communications. E-mail has become the medium that offers speed but a little space, a little distance, a little face-saving room for one not in the mood to respond just this minute.

It's like what postal mail used to be. And e-mail is where complete paragraphs find a happy home.

That's a home, though, that I no longer take for granted. Cyberspace, I realize, really isn't as big as all outdoors.

Every human relationship is fundamentally a conversation, and I find each of my close relationships has a characteristic mode of communication. Asking, "What's the best way to reach you?" is on its way to becoming part of a proper introduction.

John and Abigail Adams famously reached each other by letter during their many long separations. As he traveled through the Colonies, and even to Europe, she stayed behind tending the farm in Massachusetts. She'd sign herself "Portia," after the virtuous wife of the Roman statesman Brutus. What if they'd had instant messaging?

An early adopter of multitasking, John actually did write Abigail from the chamber of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, though not without some circumspection, as Adams biographer David McCullough reports. Imagine this as an IM:

[april 15 1776 2:37pm]JA_DearestFriend : When a man is seated in the midst of 40 people, some talking, others whispering, it is not easy to think what is proper to write. :-/

As the debate over the Declaration of Independence went on, Abigail was his sounding board. Imagine:

[may 15 1776 11:15 a.m.] Portia: A people may let a King fall, yet still remain a people.

[may 16 1776 11:16 a.m.] Portia: But if a King let his people slip from him, he is no longer a King.

[may 15 1776 11:17 a.m.] Portia: Excuse me, beloved, but the cow just knocked the device out of my hand.

[may 15 1776 11:18 a.m.] Portia: And as this is most certainly our case, why not proclaim to the world in decisive terms our own importance? :-)

[may 15 1776 11:30 a.m.] JA_DearestFriend: I think you shine as a stateswoman. XOX

Adams would have had to learn the Burma Shave thing, too; but he was definitely open to all new modes: "Is there no way for two friendly souls to converse together, although the bodies are 400 miles off. Yes, by letter. But I want a better communication."

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