Social media sites provide a platform for distant friends to stay in touch, moms to exchange parenting advice, and Twilight fans to share fan fiction. Food-lovers can offer recipes, former classmates can reminisce, and couch surfers can connect with couch owners. There is a social media site for everyone; even prisoners.
Writeaprisoner.com connects federal prison inmates with pen-pals on the outside in the hopes that this social and emotional connection may reduce recidivism. The site was founded in 2000 by Adam Lovell, an advocate for the rights of prisoners and their families. Since its founding, Writeaprisoner.com has received significant media attention for hosting profiles of controversial prisoners. In 2003, for example, a mother convicted of murdering her children created a profile requesting pen-pals and received over 6,000 letters of hate mail. Three years later, the profile of another convicted killer of an eight year old boy was taken down amid public outcry. There has been particular media interest in women falling in love with dangerous criminals through the site, a topic which was featured on an episode of 20/20 titled, “Why Are Women Marrying Murderers?” Other examples of inmates misleading the public through the site have occurred, such as inmates who misrepresent the nature of their crimes to trusting letter-writers. Some states including Florida and Missouri have banned inmate social media sites like Writeaprisoner.com in response to these events.
The history of Writeaprisoner.com has attracted public interest due to stories of deceit and romance. The site should interest public historians for these reasons and more. While Writeaprisoner.com hosts a successful online network, one that currently connects roughly 12,000 inmates with 41,000 pen-pals, the site operates contrary to many of our expectations about social media and Web 2.0. First, users are not able to actually communicate through the social network that the site provides. The site only allows users to connect with an inmate and retrieve their contact information so they can send a physical letter. This is not the fast, digital, user-friendly process that Web 2.0 promises. Second, the status of many users (federal prisoners) necessitates that the site can never be fully user-generated. The Writeaprisoner.com team often creates profiles on behalf of inmates currently behind bars, updates their information, and deletes their accounts as they see fit. Actual inmates cannot regularly access the site at all because they are incarcerated. Thus Writeaprisoner.com offers an unusual Web 2.0 case study: is this truly an example of “social media” if it limits mobility, access, and user-generated content?