I’ve been thinking a lot about Red Burns lately. For someone so influential, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of information or analysis of her work out there. I think I was looking for tweets where she burped out bite-sized nuggets of wisdom or maybe I wanted a memoir where she lays out her philosophies on art and technology in an easily-digestible, quickly-consumed listicle. What I got (with my limited research) instead was Big Bird and Beyond: The New Media and the Markle Foundation and a 1971 New York Times article called, “TV of the People Operating on Cable.”
Both sources talk about Burns’s work with NYU’s Alternative Media Center, which eventually morphed into the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), and Burns’s overarching philosophy that technology should empower people. Specifically the Big Bird book and NYTimes article focus on Burns’s work with public access cable and training citizens and community organizations to produce shows for public access cable. Public access cable was a platform for a community’s voice.
I grew up in rural Virginia in a town with less than 10,000 people. There was one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. There were no traffic lights. Once school was out for the year, I spent summers writing letters to my friends in other parts of the county, because calling some of them meant making a long distance phone call. Long distance calls required parental permission, and permission was granted only in special cases.
The pen pal ads divulged important and essential information about the pen pal seeker: favorite color, favorite foods, favorite movie, favorite member of New Kids on the Block. If someone sounded like a potential BFF, you picked up a pen and wrote a letter. Sometimes those lucky enough to have their ad chosen for print in the teen magazines wrote back!
I’m assuming that the kids who had their pen pal ads published in the teen magazines were swamped with letters from adolescent girls and boys. I didn’t get many responses, but there were enough for me to realize that ads for pen pals in teen magazines were just a gateway. There was a whole pen pal culture out there, and part of that culture was friendship books, which circulated with letters.
Friendship books were small books that accompanied letters. The creator of the friendship book would include his/her name and address and then pass it on to one of his/her pen pals. That pen pal would send it to another pen pal. When the past page was filled, the book was returned to the friendship book’s creator. He/she then has a passel of potential pen pals.
I wrote A LOT of people. A few of them lived overseas. Most of them lived in the states. A pen pal in Louisiana told me all about Mardi Gras and sent me a package full of Mardi Gras beads and cake babies. Jenny from South Carolina and I exchanged letters for a long time. We probably started writing to each other when I was in 10th grade. I sent my first email to her my freshman year of college. I met her for the first time when I went to tour the University of South Carolina for graduate school in 2000.
My hometown was so far away from everything. We didn’t have cable. The “local” college was 30 minutes away, so listening to the college radio station wasn’t an option (and I probably wouldn’t have known it was a thing anyway). I was at the mercy of mainstream radio and its top 40 hits. Like the Internet, exchanging letters exposed me to a lot of music and books and ideas I wouldn’t have considered mainly because I didn’t know what was out there.
Those friendship books held the names and addresses of people who contributed to the evolution of my taste in music and teenage philosophies. I found REM (which was not hard to do as all of this coincided with the release of Out of Time). I found Juliana Hatfield. I started taking guitar lessons. Somewhere along the line there was a subscription to Sassy. I found zines. Somewhere along the line I had a pen pal fight about Lollapalooza.
A pen pal once sent me a mixed tape.
I can only recall one song. It was “Oh Bondage Up Yours” by X-Ray Spex, and it was the most amazing thing I ever heard. It sounded like every show and house show I would see in graduate school and beyond (I was in Farmville for my undergrad years, and the bands that came through there sucked).
Things, of course, changed. As they do.
Physical letters stopped coming and going. I maintained some relationships for a while through email. Chat rooms and forums opened up opportunities to meet and talk to new people.
Things were more immediate, naturally. But interactions were also more fleeting like conversations with someone in an elevator. Each person was going somewhere else. Might as well chit chat along the way.
But this isn’t a “Technology is bad. I wish things were slower, and I wish people sent me mixed tapes and Mardi Gras babies” post.
Reading about Red and her work with public access cable got me thinking about my history with the Internet, which got me thinking about pen pals and the flow of information (in this case friendship books and mixed tapes) through a network of folks interested in and doing the similar stuff.