old school social media: friendship books (FBs) and penpals


Photo Credit: Unsplash

When I was small, I became aware of the spaces between people. A fence separated the building where I lived and the girls who played jump rope next door, a physical barrier that was no match for a religious one. They wore skirts that grazed their ankles and blouses that cinched at the wrists, and I wondered if they could feel the heat. One summer I wore a mint-green short-set until it was threadbare and when I asked the girls next door if they wanted to play, they ignored me. We occupied the same space — why were they unfazed by the hot sun bearing down? Why wouldn’t they play with me? Days later, a small boy would tell me that they weren’t allowed to speak to “people like me”, much less share a rope.

It was summer and I was friendless with only a stack of library books and squirrels scavenging through the trees to keep me company. Everyone seemed to have a crew, a pack of friends with whom they played double-dutch or swam in the 4-ft pool at Sunset Park. I don’t remember how I discovered Friendship Books (FBs) or how I found my first pen-pal, but that summer I finally befriended dozens of girls my age and was awed by the places in which they lived. Ohio, Pennsylvania, California, Canada (!!!) — I considered these faraway lands exotic countries because the farthest I’d ever traveled was to downtown Manhattan. No longer did I spend my days alone! That summer, I spent hours buying Lisa Frank and Ms. Grossman stickers, colored markers, and construction paper with the small amount of money I’d saved — all in an effort to make me desirable, because who could resist an eleven-year-old from Brooklyn who hoarded iridescent unicorn stickers?

Soon I mastered the acronyms:

AA — Answer All
AM — Answer Most
AS — Answer Some
AVF — Answer Very Few
SNNP — Sorry No New Pals
NNP — No New Pals
SNNS—Sorry No New Swappers
NPW — New Pals Welcome
NSW— New Swappers Welcome
LLP— Long Letter Pal

Within a year, I migrated from “AA” to “NNP”, a status that would fluctuate until I stopped “palling” when I was seventeen. Trading sheets of stickers, stationery, and glitter pens would evolve into trading clips from popular teen magazines: Bop, Big Bopper, Teen Machine, and Sassy. Even though foreign penpals meant more stamps to lick and calculations to navigate, glossy spreads of my favorite teen stars (Corey Haim, Robert Downey Jr., Kirk Cameron, Andrew McCarthy, NKOTB) from magazines published in languages foreign to me were worth the trips to the post office. And I had friends! Some pals were purely trading partners while others became close friends. We traded long letters about our parents, all the ways we didn’t fit in at school, and the movies we watched and books we read because we were lonely kids and teenagers and we desperately wanted to feel less alone. Mail was something to look forward to, and I’d stare out my window breathlessly awaiting the men dressed in blue to make their way to my building, and when they left I raced down the stairs and cradled my bounty back to my room. Sometimes I’d open the fat envelopes midway up the stairs, giddy. Other times I’d spend long afternoons writing letters in neat cursive and decorating my small piece of real estate in the FB I’d received.

When I was 16 and 17 I rode a Greyhound bus to Washington state and California to meet my best pals in person, and we snapped photos with our 110 cameras and ordered late-night pizzas. It never occurred to me that I had to travel thousands of miles to do the kind of things ordinary girls did with friends who lived within a 5-mile radius.

This morning, I read a remarkable post about a woman who’s made hundreds of friends through social media. Ella Risbridger writes:

We write online — tweets, DMs, emails — and we write to each other offline, too. Sometimes I picture our correspondences criss-crossing the globe, like those maps of trade routes: old copies of the New Yorker and pictures of cats, postcards, platonic love letters, stickers with lions, little lovely things that might make our disparate lives a little better, a little closer, the world (in the very best sense) a little smaller.

1-lon_HLCqSNYm4G93Xun7cwHer words put me to thinking of space. There was a time when if you wanted to contact someone you had to phone them, write them, or show up at that doorstep screaming their name from the street. There was a time when they only way you could escape the world you lived in was to write your way to a new one through the art of pen palling. FBs were the original social profiles and calling cards, ways in which we could showcase our plumage and find friends who closed the spaces between people. My new pals might have lived thousands of miles away but they felt closer to me than the girls playing rope next door or the cheerleaders in high school who routinely ignored or made fun of me.

And while I miss the tactile ways in which I used to make new friends, I’ve found dozens of wonderful people through my blog and Twitter with whom I’ve formed similar bonds. We may not be trading shiny strips of stickers or pictures of cute boys in magazines, but we’re sharing words, kindness, knowledge, perspective, empathy, and, more importantly, we’re making ourselves feel less alone.

Second image credit: Geek Girl Pen Pals

14 thoughts on “old school social media: friendship books (FBs) and penpals

  1. Hi Felicia, I enjoyed reading this morning’s post. Your pain has been my pain and I am so happy to see you bounce back and take the world back. Continue seeking your path my friend. Loved this story about pen pals. Wish I would have known this existed when I was a teenager. Boy was my life lonely. My parents were new immigrants and while by brothers could go play stickball I could only sit at a window and dream. I tell friends that it explains my black elbows. But I fell in love with the World Book Encyclopedia at around the same time and developed a love for travel and maps. I devour maps of any kind!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This summer, I am meeting a friend for the first time that I “met” 10 years ago through our first blogs and have stayed connected with thru Twitter and Facebook and more recently phone calls. I can’t wait! A couple of months ago, I met up with a friend that I hadn’t seen in 15 years… I met her wife and her kids and stayed at their house and spent an afternoon drinking coffee and in our PJs catching up. It was wonderful! While many of the connections on social media feel surface, like I am merely keeping tabs and checking in on folks at arm’s length, it is possible to find ones that stick and last. I’ve found that if I hang in there and truly open myself up and connect with folks (which, “Hi, I’m an introvert. That ain’t easy!”), friendship and true connections can occur. There is a vulnerability and honesty that comes much easier with the written word sometimes than in any other way… Folks who know me and see me get that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love this! I love that it’s possible to make meaningful connections and forge real relationships as a result of social media. I’ve met several of my good friends through social and I’m forever grateful.

      So excited for your meet-up this summer!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This reminded me of one of my sisters’, who lives in Colorado, and I in Indiana, who LOVES getting snail mail! She tries encouraging the rest of my family (we are many, and widely spread across the country) to do the ‘snail mail’ thing. But with Social Media, Texting, Email, etc…. We have lost the fine art of writing a letter. And being able to save and wrap it in ribbon. I too have met, ‘in person’ a friend who I met in a chat group. Years ago, and to this day, we are still friends, and keep up with each other. Albeit through FB, but she lies in Va, and me in IN…. And I had forgotten about the pen-pal thing! 😉 Thank you again, for an enjoyable read. I have liked from afar 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think letter writing is a lost art! Ages ago I worked in book publishing and promoted a book that focused on the return to letter writing–pens, stationery, envelopes and the words we’d say to the people who matter 🙂 Your experience sounds amazing!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. When I was younger I used to have loads of Pen Pals. I loved writing letters and getting replies and finding out about life in Australia, Germany and Ireland! I still do enjoy getting letters and always think its lovely when someone writes me even a thank you note.I still enjoy sending people postcards.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I really enjoyed this post because lately I’ve been struggling with the issue of authenticity and online communication. I truly believe that online friendships can be genuine, as long as their sincere even if it’s Facebook or Twitter or Blogging. Thank you 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Agree. I think it’s more about cutting through the clutter and noise to find your tribe. Sometimes I meet them offline and there isn’t a connection (or it feels false), but it’s pretty awesome where there is a friend spark.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello, that was such a great read! When I was younger I used to watch Author, and I remember one of the episodes when he had a pen pal; and that really made me want one too, since then I’ve been obsessed. Nowadays, it seems that the art of letter writing has been lost, BUT I still love it! I feel like it is much more personal!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Perfectly said. I wouldn’t trade anyone I’ve met through social media. back when I had a larger blog several years ago i met some of the greatest friends I have ever known. It only bothered me when people would stare at me as if I were insane to make friends with perfect strangers. But in the end that’s what all friends start out as, strangers. We’re just lucky if we get past that part.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I happened to stumble across this post and I enjoyed reading it so much! I love writing letters, but it seems that most my age would rather be digital. I asked a friend to clarify her address so I could send her a birthday card last week and she seemed surprised. Despite my love for more traditional communication, I’ve made some good friends online through mutual interest and so far so good!

    Liked by 1 person

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