Friday Chewable: The Diminishing Returns of Postcards

Welcome to our all-new series called Friday Chewable: Food for Thought. Once per month we will post a new topic to open your mind, challenge your ideas or just give you something to think about over the weekend.

This third installment of Food for Thought, written by Mike, deals with postcards and the value we attach to them.

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Postcards from around the world

Postcards from around the world

There is something about the tactile nature of postcards that keeps me from giving up on them completely. Perhaps it is their nostalgia? Fond memories of my years in Prague a decade ago, a cloudy haze of absinthe and pilsner-fueled days and nights. The obscene amount of postcards I would scrawl on and send off, like messages in bottles, hopeful they would find their recipient. Yet, for all my love for this correspondence, this medium as the message, they seem to be fading in the consciousness of the world.

It is hard to pinpoint why postcards are dying. As a whole, snail mail in Western cultures has been in a steady decline. Holiday cards, letters, birthday cards, the excitement of going to the mailbox has been replaced with dully checking to see if our latest Amazon order has come and, even then, it is probably not coming via the U.S. Postal Service. Instead, we have email updates when FedEx has delivered our package, and our mailbox is an afterthought. The daily disappointment of checking an empty box, or one only filled with bills, circulators or endless credit card applications has left us attaching a sad face to what used to be a great thing. (And this monotony has already enveloped email.) I suppose that if mail has a less-than-rosy glow to you, you are less apt to send anything out yourself.

At the beginning of our trip, we made sure to collect the addresses of most of our friends and family. Who wouldn’t want an Icelandic postcard? An update from Myanmar? A personal message from Namibia? Mentally, I knew our postcard budget was going to be steep. Even though the cost of postcards fluctuates from a couple pennies to hopefully nothing more than a dollar, it is the postage that can kill your budget. International post card stamps can be insanely expensive, sometimes double, triple or significantly more than the cost of the postcard itself.

Indian post drop? Time to celebrate!

Indian post drop? Time to celebrate!

I like to think someone would not be put off buying a postcard and stamp by the price, but who knows? Maybe the price will not stop them, but the hassle of everything else might. Like finding a shop that sells postcards, writing a message that goes beyond a simple, “I’m here and you’re there,” and locating a post office or maildrop to send them off. Some people don’t want to go through the “trouble.” Ultimately, when you get down to it, writing a postcard is work if you take it seriously.

Sure, you can treat it like a conveyor belt of thank-you cards. “Dear XXX, It was great to see you. Thank you for XXX. Hope we can catch up again soon. Love, XXX.” Basically, a vacuous and empty attempt at sincerity. I abhor postcards written in this way and try my best to avoid doing this. Rather, writing a letter, albeit a “miniletter,” is an intimate act of taking time out of your trip to let someone else know you care about them. Time is precious no matter where you are (Right now, I could be watching the Daily Show and then Colbert Report, finish up with a little DVR-recorded Jimmy Kimmel, before…wait, what time is it?).

For the first six months, we kept a detailed list of our “core” group of friends, family or trip supporters that we sent postcards to. This allowed us to send out cards with some amount of regularity and make sure we were not forgetting anyone. I like to think postcards are a dialogue, but the strange thing was how few people let us know they received them. We wrote the postcards out of altruism not self-centeredness. Just the same, there was a slight touch of sadness we felt when the hundred-plus postcards that we sent arrived without a word from most recipients. Is there a responsibility of postcard recipients to acknowledge they received them? We’re not quite sure what postcard etiquette is, so we did not hold a grudge. How could we? At the very same time, we were being amazed by the generosity of strangers on the road. So rather than having a kneejerk reaction of, “Forget this, let us put this money toward booze,” we opted to open our pool even larger. We went to Facebook and threw out an offer to send a postcard to anyone who wanted one. Tara and I received a fair response from friends. So postcards perhaps are not completely dead, just on life support.

The ever-exciting notification flag

The ever-exciting Facebook notification flag.

Still, this begs the question, if the postcards are barely clinging to life, what is next? Email has become the new snail mail. What used to be a thrill in opening our inbox has been replaced with boredom at the continuous influx of junk and mass forwards. In this ever-evolving landscape of communication, perhaps social media is the current answer. After all, it is apparent how popular a Facebook shoutout can be. Maybe you can even coax a celebrity to tag a friend in a tweet. Or rally strangers to get a hashtag dedicated to someone. The recipient receives instant gratification of a red notification flag popping up. A renewed excitement for a mailbox — a virtual but public one. Instead of walking down your driveway and waving to your neighbor as you pull out a letter, all of your subscribers get a notification, too. Instead of writing that postcard, let me write on your wall. That way everyone else can see it and like it, too. And it won’t cost me a thing, except time. But really, who has time for any of that anyway? What do you think? What direction do you see postcards going in the future? Feel free to keep the discussion going by commenting below.

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5 responses to “Friday Chewable: The Diminishing Returns of Postcards

  1. I loved getting your postcards!! Thank you!!! They are still hanging on our fridge. Hopefully I let you know I received them!
    Also, I really related to everything you talked about with the postcard sending process!! Like how in some countries (Kosovo comes to mind), it is damn near impossible to even find a postcard! And stamps? Also tough at times! And when you do, you pay a small fortune (Russia!) and then still have to write a thoughtful, interesting message and THEN find a mailbox! It is seriously a lot of work and I’m not sure people really understand that! So thanks for putting the word out there on behalf of those of us who are devoted postcard senders! 🙂

    • Thanks Lisa! I think it takes other postcard writers to keep you honest about writing them yourself. Without even looking at it as a quid pro quo situation, it’s still such a unique way of communicating that I hope it never goes away.

  2. Pingback: The diminishing returns of postcards | Vivienne Kennedy

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