“I hope this gets to you the right way. It's the only way I know to do it,” Justin Timberlake wrote in an open letter to his fans on January 13, 2013. Timberlake could've erected a billboard on the 405 or taken over MTV for the day or written an op-ed in the New York Times, but get this: the open letter was the only way he knew how to address his fans. For real, JT?
The letter, published on his website, was really just a blog post advertising his new album, but it single-handedly kick-started the open letter writing spree of 2013. Pretty soon, everybody was writing open letters to everyone, even though they just as easily could've emailed, texted, tweeted, Facebook messaged, or maybe sent them a cute memo on Tinder or Snapchat. Blog posts and press releases disguised as open letters weren't really even letters at all.
Pre-Internet, open letters were written by underdogs everywhere. The German monk and Protestant reformer Martin Luther penned an open letter urging non-violence in the Peasants' Revolt of the 16th Century. French writer Emile Zola accused his government of anti-Semitism in an open letter published in an 1898 newspaper. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated for nonviolent resistance to racism in a letter from Birmingham City Jail. It was scrawled on scraps of newspaper and had to be completely re-assembled like a puzzle.
That was when writing an open letter was one of the only ways to communicate to a mass audience. But nowadays, even though public messages can be sent in so many ways, people on the internet use the term “open letter” to give their musing a cachet and sense of importance that helps it cut through the noise.
Last year, open letters were all the rage. In October, Sinead O'Connor published the open letter heard 'round the world. It was written “in the spirit of motherliness and with love” – because mothers sometimes write letters to their loved ones and then publish them on the Internet for all to read and comment on, right? Anyway, the gist of it was that O'Connor didn't think it was cool that Cyrus was riding around naked on wrecking balls, licking sledgehammers in her videos. Rightly so – this kind of reckless behavior is most likely in violation of several OSHA regulations and personal hygiene standards. But why not tell it to Cyrus directly?
O'Connor later deleted the letter from her website, but not before Amanda Palmer could respond. Most critical open letters, including this one, follow this template: an outpouring of positivity (I love you… . I grew up worshipping your music), followed by a paragraph describing the writer's own merits (I'm writing this on my cell phone in a plane on the way to Dallas, TX to play a benefit tonight for a group called Girls Rock Dallas), followed by a paragraph describing how the writer and the reader(s) are alike (you and I are no strangers to controversy) and finally hitting upon the criticism (Miley is, from what I can gather, in charge of her own show).
Dozens of bloggers, vloggers and others then responded to the chain of letters while Cyrus tweeted some nasty things at O'Connor. It's kind of like being cc'd on an email with a bunch of other people you don't know, and everyone hits reply all to send you increasingly disparate gifs, memes and article links that have virtually nothing to do with the original thread. When does an open letter finally become closed? Sometimes open letters are completing exhausting.
Other times, open letters are nit-picky and thus borderline irritating. Like when Sufjan Stevens got the last laugh by offering grammar advice to Cyrus in open letter that references both William Faulkner and Mike Tyson. Or when a copy editor named Nicole Jones got the last laugh of all when she corrected Stevens' grammar in his own letter about grammar. But it seemed nobody was nit-picky enough to respond to Jones' letter.
Open letters were funny and personal in 2013. L.A. comedian Jen Kirkman wrote an open letter to a guy she went on two dates with and blew off. Her bottom line? “You're probably wondering why I made out with you in the parking lot. I don't know. I guess because I couldn't find my keys in my purse fast enough and the silence was awkward.” Surely other women can use this letter as a template to craft similar letters to their own failed dates.
Marcus Cox, a 30-year-old with a receding hairline, wrote an open letter to Dave Grohl to invite him to his wedding. The real thesis is this: “If your heart desires an outdoor wedding with a reception to boot (all in the same place; I got you) that will have the finest draft beer, then I'd say we've got you covered.” How could Grohl refuse? When Cox's brother posted the letter to Reddit, commenters agreed: Not only did Cox have “balls of steel,” but he also “has a great email address.”
Open letters were written not to other humans, but to major institutions, in 2013. Vice writer Jamie Lee Curtis Taete wanted the Guinness World Record Museum on Hollywood Boulevard to know that he was not impressed with what he saw, nor did he believe that Hillary Duff was the highest paid child actor of all time (It's actually Angus T. Jones, he discovered.) Surely an open letter was an appropriate way to air these grievances, which the museum perhaps otherwise would've ignored. On another occasion, the author writes an open letter to the Hollywood Wax Museum, claiming exceptional disappointment.
In 2013, mere mortals wrote open letters to famous bullies, presumably because they couldn't find their contact info online to send them a more personal note. Then those relatively-unknown letter writers became celebs themselves, if only for a fleeting moment. Like in December, Brimfield, Ohio Police Chief David Oliver took a break from his usual Facebook rants about how most police officers don't actually eat donuts to pen an open letter to Kanye West. The letter came in response to the rapper's comment that performing on stage was as dangerous and risky as the duties of a police officer. Oliver writes sarcastically: “I want to thank you for putting your life on the line for all of us every day. I know that being a rapper is tough work.” He ends the letter by quoting rapper Ice Cube: “Check yourself, before you wreck yourself.”
(Oliver is such an avid letter writing that he's even written an open letter to his “dimwit” Facebook followers who accuse him of posting on Facebook during “work time.” Here's what he has to say to ya'll: “We engage in social media. Social media in law enforcement is a relatively new thing for many departments. Not us. We are a 'real time' agency.”)
No exception to the trend, this paper published its fair share of open letters in 2013. Wall Street victims stood up to celebrity bullies, like when Christina McDowell called out so-called liberal filmmaker Martin Scorsese for his glorification of Jordan Belfort. Fed-up readers attacked the media, like when Alex Mizrahi begged Huffington Post to stop sticking question marks at the end of their tweets. Others egged on celebrities, as when Amy Nicholson kicked off 2014 by urging James Franco to do Double Dick Dude. Like the valiant open letter writers that came before them, these little guys stood up to the big guys the only way they knew how to. For all we know, Franco is wining and dining Double Dick Dude as we speak. For the sake of art, of course. A powerful open letter can be a movement in the making.
In 2013, movie directors stepped away from their movie directing and took a moment to add their own open letters into the vast canon. Woody Allen penned an open letter in The Hollywood Reporter, urging The Academy to consider the vital role played by casting directors. “I owe a big part of the success of my films to this scrupulous casting process which I must say if left to my own devices would never have happened,” he says, citing his introduction to then-unknown actors like Meryl Streep and Jeff Daniels.
Even into 2014, Scorsese is keeping the letter-writing trend alive. He ignored McDowell's open letter completely, instead writing an open letter to his daughter Francesca about the “bright” future of filmmaking. But perhaps it would've been more personal if Scorsese had given the letter directly to his daughter to keep in a locket or put in her pocket until the letter became withered and old. Unless of course, he really just wanted to write an essay and call it an open letter so others would open it. Open it they did.
To the future open letter writers of 2014: If you're not looking to incite a movement, consider alternate methods of posting your message. Try a direct message on Twitter, an email, or a Snapchat that disappears. (So that no one can weigh in on it!) Just imagine what our forefathers of open letter writing would've done with all this technology. Why not pull a LaBeouf and plagiarize his version of an open letter: Write your letter in skywriting or on a banner attached to a plane.
Before publishing that open letter to your website, dear open letter writers of 2014, remember the words of Police Chief Oliver: Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Otherwise, heed the comments section and get ready for a dozen other letters to be written in response. Now that's an open letter that keeps on giving.