Why Are There So Many Open Letters on the Internet?

Open letters. Not written in books, but on the internetz. From Temptalia.com
Open letters. Not written in books, but on the internetz. From Temptalia.com

Has anyone noticed the number of “open letters” floating around the internet lately? It seems every second blog post/magazine website/news website has an open letter written to someone who has caused offence to the writer either directly or through some careless comments. I must admit, I have always found them odd and never really understood the term “open letter”? Isn’t that an oxymoron, like “dry ocean” or “delicious brocolli”?

Open letters. Not written in books, but on the internetz. From Temptalia.com

Are they a relatively new phenomenon because of the internet, I wondered? I Googled. According to the Macmillan dictionary, an open letter is “a letter that is addressed to a particular person or organization but is published in a newspaper so that everyone can read it“.  That definition, combined with the fact that I see that they were occasionally published in magazines in the 70s says they are not a new concept. But they are everywhere on the internet. Have they experience a surge in popularity? I’m confused. In fact, I find open letters quite baffling. There’s no Wikipedia page explaining the open letter to me. All that came up was a bunch of open letters and the above definition! That answered nothing!

Before the internet, I think it would have been a bit hard to write one and have it published knowing that the intended recipient would probably read it. If you wrote one in a national newspaper/magazine, there is a fair chance the recipient might not see it if they don’t buy the paper. If you wrote it and posted it to them, then it just would have been a letter, not an open letter, right? If you write one now, with Twitter, Facebook, blogs and so on, the recipient’s attention will be brought to it. Probably. Unless the recipient is living under an internet-free rock.

Where did the idea of an open letter come from? Seriously, who sat down one day and thought, “I’m going to express my views to this person by publishing my letter instead of walking down to the mail box and posting it” – did they write it for publication in case writing an actual letter got lost in the mail? Did they write it openly because it would save on a trip to the post office? That can’t be right, because they would have had to post it to the editor of the newspaper or magazine! Did the first open letter set the tone of criticism?

If the open letter is critical of the recipient, is it upsetting to be the recipient? I would be upset. Would it be less upsetting if the open letter was an ordinary letter or an article/blog post about why/what/where the recipient went wrong or was disagreeable?

What prompts the author to want to write about something as an open letter instead of an article/post, etc? Is it because it can be in first person? Does that then prompt the recipient to write an open letter back? In which case, it becomes a series of open letters, when they could have just had a coffee (with cake on the side) and sorted it all out.

All these questions! See how it can be confusing? Or am I over thinking it? I probably am. I do that. Often. Still, I haven’t worked out why people write open letters and post them on the internet. I actually find them quite mean and know that I’m going to read something critical and harsh when opening a link to one. Does anyone have the answer as to why people write open letters? Anyone?!

Do you write open letters? Do you know why people do? Any particularly good ones to share?

  • http://music.johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

    An Open Letter to Whippersnapper

    Whippersnapper, I think you’re missing the point about “open letters”. You are correct that they existed prior to the Internet. In fact, open letters have appeared in the print media pretty much since newspapers came into existence (not just the 1970s). Some of the most important documents in history have been “open letters” such as The Declaration of Independence which was reprinted in newspapers across the thirteen states of America. I’d also argue that when Martin Luther posted the “ninety-five theses” on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, he was in fact posting an open letter. It too was reprinted and distributed widely.

    I myself have written an open letter to Malcolm Turnbull. I chose to write it in the form of “an open letter” purely for aesthetic reasons. I just thought it worked better as “an open letter” than as an opinion piece. It was simply an editorial decision, like choosing to either write in first or third person when writing fiction. For me, that post just worked better in the “open letter” form. It allowed me to speak to him directly, allowing me to express myself more honestly than if I had chosen to write about him in an opinion piece.

    I disagree with you that “open letters”, by their nature, are more critical and hurtful than a standard opinion piece. Opinion pieces can be just as hurtful and abusive. You’re also assuming that all “open letters” are critical. They’re not. Open letters of “thanks” are also regularly published.

    Also, I think you’re treating “open letters” as if they are the same as a “letter” written and posted to an individual. They are different things altogether. When you write an open letter, you write it from the perspective that it is a public document. This is not a case of publishing a private letter publicly. An open letter is purely a different style of public document from an opinion piece.

    As you know, I’ve encouraged you to write an “open letter” to Tony Abbott about his position on Gay Marriage. I still think you should. Even if you don’t publish it, you might discover the power of the “open letter” format through the experience of writing one.

    “Open Letters” are not the lazy tool of mean writers. They are a completely valid form of debate, and an interesting variation on the standard “opinion piece” format.

    Yours sincerely,

    John Anthony James

    • Whippersnapper

      Actually, John, the Declaration of Independence was not an open letter. I’m baffled as to how you could even draw that analogy. It is a political document, that was published and redistributed to affirm the freedom of the Americans from the British. They did not write “Dear British, we’re now a free country, and here is our declaration, piss off”. They wrote the declaration as an important political and social document about the freedom of the American people.

      Secondly, I NEVER said that it was a “lazy tool of mean writers” those are your words, not mine. I never even suggested that. I said that I don’t understand them and find them completely baffling. I also, realise that not all open letters are critical (see open letter to Ryan Gosling floating around), but many that are widely published on the internet, in my opinion, are.

      Lastly, I find you publishing in the comments section “An Open Letter to Whippersnapper” and the tone of your comment to be patronising and rude. This was supposed to be a light piece about why *I* find open letters confusing and you seem to have taken it as an opportunity to respond in a patronising and overly critical way.

  • Monique Fischle

    As I told you this morning, I was actually going to write an open letter to the creators of How I Met Your Mother about how I just want to meet the mother (the post I published yesterday) but changed my mind after seeing you were posting this. But not in a bad way, I’m actually glad I changed it. Literally all I would have said in that open letter was “please, I just want to meet the mother” and it probably would have been like a sentence long.

    There are so many open letters and while I don’t mind them (for the most part, especially the Ryan Gosling one because it just reminds me how ridiculously amazing he is) there are some that I just don’t understand and would be just as effective as an opinion piece.

    I have once written an open letter to wearers of jeggings and tights as pants but have since not posted as I don’t want to be Internet-stoned (like with actual stones).

    • Valentina B

      please post it Monique! As Blair said early in season 1 of Gossip Girl “Tights are not pants!”

      • Monique Fischle

        I will be slaughtered though! Many people feel very strongly about this and I may or may not have been very harsh in my “open letter” that has since been deleted from my computer.

        • Whippersnapper

          Yes, remember the “open letter to Mia Freedman” that Fatheffalump wrote in response to Mia’s article about leggings as pants? She told Mia she was ableist, judgey, hated fat people, etc. I felt quite ill reading it.

          • Monique Fischle

            Hence why there is no way I will ever post it!

          • Valentina B

            oh my, she’s written alot of open letters to Mia.

  • Claire Wallace

    The first guest post I wrote on this site was an open letter. It was a positive one though. Why did I choose to write it in this form? Because I thought that by directing what I was saying towards my subject (Gok Wan) it would allow me to be more expressive in describing how I felt about him.

    I’m not under any illusions that he would actually read the letter (although with the wonders of social media, you never know!) but I guess for me, it served a dual purpose. The first was that I actually wanted to thank him, so writing *to* him seemed appropriate. The second was that I wanted to share the impact he had on me with other people – hence the ‘open’ part.

    I think open letters are a good thing and are an interesting variation of opinion pieces. In terms of critical open letters, I don’t have a problem with these either. I haven’t written one myself, but if I was angry about something a public figure had said/done I think responding to it in an open letter would be more satisfying than writing an opinion piece and/or a direct letter. I’d feel like, “You may never read or respond to this, but at least other people will”. I think they’re quite cathartic!

  • Ingrid N

    I very much understand where you are coming from Jane. I often feel like it can be very beneficial for the author to release the open letter (I think at least 10 different versions were directed at Jackie O during the Kyle scandal) and they gain a lot of interest and publicity. It can be a bit of a pack-mentality in place. It can’t be easy to have someone write an open letter to you because you didn’t react the same way I would have or because there is a disagreement in place. I do also think that one of the reasons the open letter is so popular is because “everyone” has a blog these days and it’s easy to press the publishing button.