Ten years ago, Lenny Jones was in the throes of getting his Master’s in computer science at the University of Utah. It was the era of PS, I Love You (2006) and The Lake House (2007), movies that glorified sending snail mail into the future. Inspired, he created Letter Me Later, a website that made it possible to schedule email delivery years ahead.
In February 2014, a weird thing happened to Jones: hundreds of messages written in a hodgepodge of Tagalog and English started to flood his inbox. “At first I thought that someone had come up with a bot, because there were so many that I thought there’s just no way this is natural,” he says. “Plus, it’s all in some weird language.”
Unbeknown to Jones, thousands of miles away, the Filipino writers of a hit rom-com, Starting Over Again, had decided to incorporate a time-delayed email service into the plot of their film. They called it Letterlater. After the film came out, heartbroken Filipinos flocked to Jones’ Letter Me Later, a search result Google delivered when people typed “Letterlater.” The results were staggering. In January 2014, only 17,000 unique visitors went to the site, but the next month, the number jumped to 84,000.
The Letter Me Later forum, too, began to be flooded with messages from anguished and anxious Filipino singles. Topic titles, which continue to be posted to this day, tend towards the dramatic. Some have three question marks (i.e. “forbidden love???”). Others are in all caps (i.e. “FALLING OUT OF LOVE”). Then, there are those that seem like they belong in Craigslist’s personals (i.e. “Looking for a temporary bf for 1 month”). Many provide prescriptive advice on how to survive a breakup (i.e. “tips on how to “let go” your BF.”). The forum calls to mind the subreddit “Ex No Contact,” with the one big difference that most of these folks send their proverbial letters and don’t sit on them.
Starting Over Again isn’t exactly an endorsement of time-delayed email. After a painful breakup, the film’s male protagonist, Marco Antonio Villanueva III, desperately sends a message four years into the future to his ex, Ginny Gonzales. In his message, he writes, “I’ll wait for you Ginny. I’ll wait knowing one day, I’ll be back in your life.” Predictably, when we catch up with Marco, he’s moved on—he’s starting his own restaurant and preparing to marry his longtime fiancée.
When Ginny learns of her ex’s engagement, she pulls up the email and shouts, “This email isn’t true. I have to delete you. I have to delete you from my life.” But, she struggles; she can’t do it. She can’t handle the present; she tries to woo him back and ultimately fails.
The film’s plot didn’t surprise Letter Me Later founder Lenny Jones at all. He thought the movie “was good,” he says, but “was a little shocked at how slimy [Ginny] was.”
Jones does not, however, believe his site can do much for the broken hearted.
“I think in most cases, if you get something from four or five years ago, the person has likely changed, and it’s not at all relevant,” he adds. “Usually, someone doesn’t keep feelings like that for someone for so long.”
Lyks Mamauag, a Filipino student, had a different take. After watching Starting Over Again, she turned to Letter Me Later to send her ex-boyfriend a message. Even though he never responded, Mamauag reflected, “When I sent the email, I felt a certain relief in my heart. It felt great to be able to release all of my emotions in one email.” She has some advice for the future users of Letter Me Later: “I would tell them to simply write (or in this case, type) with their whole heart.”
Despite its success, Letter Me Later isn’t for everyone. Take Lenny Jones. Apart from testing the site, he hasn’t ever actually used it. “I don’t do well thinking into the future, which is my problem, I know,” he says.” I can’t even think of what would be interesting to write to myself or to anyone else in the future.”
But don’t worry, brokenhearted, Lenny Jones isn’t going anywhere, and he’s committed to the cause. “I haven’t had reason to think that I’d ever shut it down. It could go forever.”
Update (12/9): We initially used the word “Filipino” to refer to the language used in the Philippines. We meant Tagalog.