February 15, 2005

An open letter to people who write open letters

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Dear "open letter" writers:

Please stop writing "open letters." They're a poor way to distribute your ideas, almost as bad as online petitions. There are more effective ways to make your point.Here's a typical open letter:

Dear Darl McBride:

SCO sucks. So do you. Please stop sucking.

Sincerely,

- Al Advocate

If this was an online petition instead of an open letter it would have a whole lot more signatures, but it would still say basically the same thing.

The funny thing is, someone at SCO will read this. Besides Google Alerts, there are dozens of services that monitor Web sites and other media for mentions of subscribing companies' names.

Obviously, this letter is going to get passed up the SCO chain to Darl, who will read it and say to himself, "Well, gosh darn it. This letter has changed my mind. I am going to withdraw all those lawsuits and make sure SCO stops sucking immediately."

No?

What if the letter is signed by umpty-zillion people?

Trust me: Darl already knows umpty-zillion people think he sucks. Unless most of the people mentioned on this page are among the letter/petition's signers, he won't care what you say about him.

Bill Gates knows you don't like Microsoft. Jonathan Schwartz knows you think Java should be open source. What's-his-name -- you know who I mean, the analyst guy -- already knows you think he's a paid tool of Microsoft. And so on. Letters and petitions aren't going to change these people's minds.

So why are you writing letters to people you know aren't interested in what you have to say?

I know, you're writing them so other people will read them.

Then why are you pretending to address your writing to someone whose mind you aren't going to change? Why not just write a commentary piece?

Most newspapers and news Web sites -- including NewsForge -- happily publish well-written commentary pieces on topics they believe will interest their readers.

If Sun's president wants to write to IBM's CEO, why doesn't he send him an email or (gasp) an old-fashioned letter in an envelope with a stamp on it? What's the point of writing something that looks like it's meant to be private correspondence -- but really isn't?

The "open letter" format was an attention-grabber the first few times it was used. The first few online petitions were novelties, too. But now both of these devices have played out their usefulness. They have become as trite as football announcers using the phrase, "shy of a first down," which was an elegant turn of phrase the first few times it was used but is now used -- overused -- during every televised game.

So next time you're thinking about writing an "open letter" or starting an "online petition," try to stop shy of actually doing it.

Instead, write a good, honest, from-the-heart statement of belief backed by facts and logic, and publish it on your blog, NewsForge, CNET, the New York Times op-ed page, or wherever else it belongs.

As long as you have something new, interesting, and original to say, you don't need gimmicks to get your point across. And if what you have to say is not interesting and original, all the gimmicks in the world won't help convert people to your cause.

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