The appeal of open letters and what it says about us
Ultimately, open letters are about getting attention
The Internet does not do subtlety. It does not know nuance. Impassioned debates about loose llamas or the color of a dress send the Web into a frenzy. And lately, an onslaught of open letters — posted to blogs and social media accounts — are doing the same.
On Feb. 19, Yelp employee Talia Ben-Ora, 25, called out the head of the company on Medium to complain about her meager pay, her debt, and her inability to afford groceries. Writing under the name Talia Jane, she titled the piece "An Open Letter To My CEO."
"Every single one of my coworkers is struggling," Ben-Ora wrote. "They're taking side jobs, they're living at home. One of them started a GoFundMe because she couldn't pay her rent."
The post got thousands of views. Ben-Ora got fired shortly after writing it.
The outpouring of concern was, at first, swift. There were tweets, retweets, Facebook posts, and a stranger who started a campaign called "Help a Yelper EAT." Most empathized and offeredadvice, job opportunities, and their own stories.
Then came the backlash.
New open letters followed, full of scorn, praise, and ridicule. The Internet found a new champion on Medium a day later when Stefanie Williams, a freelance writer in New York, posted "An Open Letter to Millennials Like Talia. . ."
"Work ethic is not something that develops from entitlement," she wrote. "Quite the opposite, in fact. It develops when you realize there are a million other people who could perform your job and you are lucky to have one. It comes from sucking up the bad aspects and focusing on the good and above all it comes from humility. It comes from modesty. And those are two things, based on your article, that you clearly do not possess."
Williams's response has been both criticized and extolled (and now, of course, there's an open letter responding to it). There's now a website thatsalotofrice.com with images that seem to be from Ben-Ora's Instagram account, refuting her claims of poverty. Internet trolls tarred both women with slurs. The original discussion, about what constitutes a living wage, veered off course.
Internet researchers have questioned whether this tendency to dissect and disseminate intimate details of our lives is a new phenomenon or a digital version of something humans have done since the beginning of time.
"We don't know if the scale of the chatter is different. We do know that the scale of observation of chatter is way bigger than it's ever been," said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science, and technology research at the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C. "There's no way to measure if there's more of this back and forth jousting about people's moral standing and the way they live."
The open letter is not new, of course. French novelist Émile Zola penned one of the most famous in 1898 during the Dreyfus Affair, when he spoke up in defense of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew and military officer wrongly convicted of treason.
Zola's open letter to the president of France ran on the front page of the newspaper L'Aurore with the headline "J'accuse. . . !" ("I accuse.")
Nearly 120 years later, open letters are usually not focused on rehabilitating someone’s reputation. People still accuse, argue, and occasionally agree in open letters, but the digital missives may be on topics as mundane as Khloe Kardashian’s 31st birthday, a lousy ex-boyfriend, even fictional TV character Olivia Pope of “Scandal.” The issues may not be vital, but they stir up emotions — often negative ones.
"We have found that people are less likely to share joy unless they know that person," said Ryan Martin, associate professor and chairman of the psychology department at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who has studied Internet rage. "But they'll share the angry post no matter who that person is. . . ."
The Internet is Kanye West. It likes attention. It's Donald Trump. It take a strange delight in shaming people it deems unworthy. One day it likes you. The next day, you're fired.
Meanwhile, the rejoinders continue until someone posts another open letter that the Internet considers worthy of substantial conversation.
Until then, enjoy the satire. On Feb. 23, GQ published a piece titled "A Millennial's Open Letter to Millennials Writing Open Letters." And a writer in San Francisco who goes by EMey on Twitter produced the ultra-meta "Self-righteous open letter to people who write self-righteous open letters to people who write self-righteous open letters."
His points include: "Your life experience is probably irrelevant" and "Your advice is probably useless."
"The reason people want to [write open letters] is because we think at a point unless we make a really, really loud noise it gets ignored," said Martin of the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. "By making it public and making a really big splash, you get attention."
And more and more, that's all that seems to matter.
Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.