The joy of slow communication

Communication is too fast nowadays. At the click of a button I can send people memes, message an ex, troll for sex on a hookup app, and so on. It’s taken for granted that we can instantly message and reply to people, which means many people get annoyed when you don’t immediately answer their texts or phone calls. Technology was supposed to make our life simpler, but it just made it more urgent.

When I was a teenager, I was on a website called Interpals, a place to meet penpals online. As I was a big language nerd, and loved learning about other cultures, it was perfect for me. I ended up exchanging snail mail with a Korean girl, and she sent me lots of lovely postcards and stickers and other presents, which I still remember fondly to this day.

Going on Interpals now feels weird. For one, I’m much older than a lot of the people there. But the biggest issue is, no one will want to message me if I don’t upload a picture. But if I upload a picture I’ll have to disclose that I’m trans, or risk being misgendered, and that opens up a whole can of worms. I hate this, because while it’s an important part of my identity, I don’t want it to come before everything else in getting to know someone. And realistically, if someone sees that you’re trans, whether consciously or not, it’s going to affect the way they treat you. I did actually try using interpal in this way for a while, but I lost interest after I got a message from a Russian girl saying, “Yeah, I love LGBT people!” I mean, the sentiment’s nice, but being othered isn’t a lark.

Recently I discovered an app called Slowly, and it’s everything I’ve ever wanted from a penpal exchange. You send the ‘letters’ on your phone, but the app calculates the distance between you and the person you’re sending the message to, and adds an artificial delay. So if I send a letter to someone in Europe, it might take two hours, and it might take five hours to reach someone in Mexico. I find this idea incredibly charming, as it allows the excitement of waiting for a letter, like snail mail, minus the considerable inconveniences associated with it.

The time delay shouldn’t be underestimated. It drastically changes the way you write. When you write a message that will be sent and received instantly, you write short, with no punctuation and low emotional investment. This is why I find communicating on modern chat apps frustrating and bewildering. Nobody wants to be the person who gets emotionally vulnerable with a stranger on Grindr, but if neither person does it, then it’s either going to end up in hi-how-r-u chat hell or a cold, emotionless fuck. Having even just a short delay can force you to be more introspective, more creative, and even more caring.

My favourite feature of Slowly is the lack of profile pictures. You cannot upload a profile picture and I love this. The app lets you create a cute little avatar from some prebuilt graphics, and it’s the perfect balance of expressing your identity while still allowing a degree of anonymity. Plus, it stops the place from turning into a dating app. Crucially, I can exist on this app as a trans woman without fear or being reported, harrassed, or objectified. Another great feature: you can choose between “Male / Female / Non-binary”, and the avatar options are all ungendered.

I haven’t been this excited about an app for a long time. As you can probably guess from the other posts on my blog, I’m not exactly great at normative socialising. I always loved the idea of penpals, because it allows you to meet new people while still having control over the context, but without advanced technology getting in the way. Just because we can have profile pictures and instant messaging, doesn’t mean we should. It’s a Pandora’s box. Once there is the capacity and expectation to send nudes, a platform is never the same.

A similar project which I love is FutureMe. FutureMe lets you write an email to yourself in the future. Usually this is a year ahead, but it could be five, or even ten years. The great thing is, by the time you receive it you’ve almost certainly forgotten that you wrote it in the first place. When I was in a major depressive episode a few years ago, I wrote a letter on FutureMe at beginning of every month, as a kind of therapy. While it didn’t single-handedly cure my depression, it did make me feel like I was progressing, and give me more of a handle on my emotions. Daily blogging seems to have accidentally taken on this function for me, which I’m not complaining about.

Another idea I really like is sending people voice or video messages. Again, because you can’t rapidly skim over it, the form forces both the sender and the receiver to be more caring and attentive. Plus, it can be far more personalised and emotional than a text message ever can. I know voice messages on WhatsApp are a thing now, but the prevailing style seems to be short, jokey messages that you send when you can’t type, rather than introspective messages.

Online communication can never supplant in-person interaction, but I think it can go a lot of the way there. Skype conversations can be exhausting, but there’s a lovely middle ground inbetween that plays on the delay in communication as a positive. Unfortunately, there aren’t many other people who are doing this, so if you go around sending cute little video messages to your friends, they might just think you’re weird.

Now that the social media landscape is shifting away from Facebook, I really hope more of these thoughtful platforms crop up. I know they’ll never have the mainstream, addictive appeal of other chat apps, but I know there are lots of people like me who are yearning for something a bit deeper and much, much slower.

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