Sara Pauff: If you love me don’t tell the world

February 20, 2012 

A love letter from Robert Browning to his future wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning begins, “I have no words for you, my dearest, I shall never have -- You are mine, I am yours.”

If you’re looking for some romantic post-Valentine’s Day reading, Wellesley College recently posted 573 love letters between the two 19th century poets online. Browsing through them feels a little like reading someone else’s diary. They were private letters once. Now everyone can read them.

Fast forward 150 years and Emory professor Mark Bauerlein says private love letters, like those exchanged between the Brownings, are dead. Social media -- already blamed for the spread of cyber-bullying, loneliness and funny cat pictures -- has also killed true love. Genuine love is anti-social, Bauerlein says, a private thing between two people, like a love letter locked away for years. “You are mine. I am yours,” doesn’t mean as much if you tell everyone on Facebook.

I don’t know if all genuine love is anti-social or if Facebook killed the love letter, but I think Bauerlein makes one good point: Posting about your feelings online changes their meaning.

If your writing is public, you might be more careful about what you write. You could be publicly humiliated for your feelings -- or for your terrible, sappy writing. You’re taking a bigger risk. You get bonus points for bravery, though not necessarily creativity or thoughtfulness. After all, it only took you 30 seconds to type out that Facebook post.

If you’re on the receiving end of a public love letter, there’s pressure to respond with enthusiasm you may not feel. That’s why I’m not a fan of marriage proposals via Jumbotron. I think old-fashioned love letters are more romantic than most online PDA.

Regardless of whether or not you like Facebook valentines, this kind of communication is not going away. Honestly, I’m glad. Getting a kind message on your birthday, anniversary or even just a random weekday is part of what makes Facebook enjoyable. You may not keep it and savor it the way you would a love letter, but it makes your day brighter.

If you’re one of those people who favors online PDA, some advice: Keep it short. You may be writing for just your sweetheart, but remember your other 547 friends have to read it, too. Also, make it original. Whether you favor pen and paper or a keyboard, a personal and honest message always means more than a lot of flowery cliches.

And if you’re worried about opening yourself up to public scrutiny, consider this: One of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s most famous sonnets, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” was a public declaration of love. She felt her sonnets were too personal, but Robert encouraged her to publish them.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways -- and post them online.

Sara Pauff, 706-320-4469 or spauff@ledger-enquirer.com. For more commentary, read her 20-something blog at www.ledger-enquirer.com/sara.

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