It’s raining again in the Pacific Northwest, and with muddy trails and backed-up storm drains and all the reasons not to go outside there’s suddenly a bit more time in the day. Time, I suppose, to catch up on the nice-but-not-urgent conversations I spent all summer neglecting.
As every digital-age correspondent knows, “catching up” means navigating a crowded field of chat apps and video-conferencing tools. Depending on the nature and urgency of the message, we may text, call, Slack, Skype, Whatsapp, Hangout, Zoom, Signal, Whisper, or even email. Social and peer-to-peer, realtime and async, IP and LTE. Tack on the preferred local platforms for any conversation over international borders, ditto for anyone in InfoSec–correspondence is all of these things.
Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism has its heart in the right place: every channel comes with baggage. Video-conferences are extended, relatively formal events, though we’ll squeeze a dozen text messages in the gap before they begin. Twitter is loud, fast, and furiously interactive. Email lends itself to more thoughtful, contemplative exchange; its analog progenitor is more deliberate still.
Hold that thought.
Analog mail has plenty going against it. It takes days to deliver a single message, an eternity compared with the millisecond latencies we’re conditioned to expect over the wire. Filling a page is a daunting prospect, if not physically painful for an unpracticed hand. Then, once the letter is written, we still need to address an envelope and postage. Small wonder that we wind up trafficking in digital bits.
Still, rumors of the Postal Service’s imminent death have so far proved overblown. Some of that’s Amazon; from my observations, sample size one, much is unsolicited direct mail from marketers running end-around CAN-SPAM restrictions.
But every once in a while, real, delightful mail slips through. A postcard from a distant adventure; a letter from a friend. The sort of thing that makes it worth opening the mailbox every afternoon just to see what’s inside.
This November–Notevember, if you will (sorry)–I’m going to try a little experiment. Every day of this month, I’m going to supplement my digital this-and-that with at least one message sent through the mail. A letter, postcard, spare copies of books worth reading. Sure, it takes time, but that’s one of the great things about paper. It’s time to think fondly of distant friends, time well spent, and adventures to plan once the sun returns.
Do I have your address? Send it along and I’ll do my best to send something your way. Because everyone likes mail from a friend, right?
And did I mention? It’s raining outside.
Thirty days and so many individually-addresses pieces of mail later, I’ve concluded the experiment. In no particular order, here are a few observations made along the way:
At some point the Philatelic Society (yes, there is a Philatelic Society. Today I learned.) catches on. When you get your membership application, then you’ll know you’ve made it.
With my brain attuned to conversing on the scale of minutes (if not seconds), the weeks-long scale of epistolary exchange feels less interactive dialog than sequence of broadcasts.
Thinking of letters as a “broadcast” made this exercise feel even more self-indulgent than I’d originally imagined.
A significant swathe of my address book is incomplete and/or outdated. That sets up an embarrassing scene where I’m left trying to track down someone’s address on Twitter, email, or via their blog contact’s form, and they’re left wondering uneasily whether they should open whatever arrives.
Postcards feel less private, and consequently less personal, than a similar message inside a sealed envelope. They are, I guess, but I’d never really thought about that before.
Also: it’s hard to reply to a postcard that doesn’t have a return address.
Sometimes I find myself wanting to edit as I write. Ink isn’t as forgiving as ASCII. The jury’s still out on whether digital platforms are the right place for content creation (it’s sometimes helpful to have to commit to the idea-already-on-the-page!), but for revision? I’m a believer.