The medium is the message. Part I of II. - Istillwritecards

February 10, 2017

The medium is the message.
How postcards win in a competition for attention against cat videos and electronic messages. A few arguments for romantics and pragmatics.

(Part I of II)

God and Adam extend hands to mirror a postcard exchangeMichelangelo's 'The Creation of Adam'. Some form of communication is happening here. In this article you will find out how this painting is connected to postcards. (Image source: Wikimedia. Public Domain.)

The great Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan argued that the form and properties of a medium are often more important than its content. The medium itself heavily influences the effect a message has on its recipient. To describe this insight, McLuhan coined the famous phrase: “The medium is the message”.

Building on this observation, we can gain a better understanding of modern communication media. Subsequently we are also able to see the uncontested advantages classic (and in our case, also classy) postcards still have, even in an age of digital communication.

McLuhan was a highly controversial figure who, to give an example, claimed to start ‘serious’ books on page 69 and to read only the right hand pages to keep his brain engaged by having to fill the gaps. In his honor it seems appropriate to offer you a few ways of looking at postcards that you most definitely haven’t come across before - ever. Some of these ideas might at first surprise, even bewilder you, but hopefully at the end of this little essay you will have gained a wholly new appreciation of the fabulous medium that is the postcard.

A young Marshall McLuhan, probably pondering postcards.A young Marshall McLuhan, who hasn't been called an "intellectual dandy" without reason.
(Image: Library and Archives Canada / Josephine Smith. Public Domain.)

Here’s a colorful itinerary for you: We will examine why cards can be understood as a kind of 'Twitter of the postal system' and what they have in common with a friendly handshake as well as with a well-known masterpiece painted by Michelangelo. It will be revealed that the activities involved in writing and posting a card closely resemble the structure of a ceremony and that a postcard possesses the mysterious power to catch the recipient’s attention, even if she would rather watch videos of cute kittens. You will also find out why it is an erroneous notion to assume that writing a card is too much of a hassle to be bothered with. Both romantics and pragmatics can indeed benefit from sending postcards.

Sounds promising, doesn’t it? In any case, you can be sure that I am not going to waste your time by telling you things you already know. So please buckle up for one nutty ride…

Understanding media. One example: Facebook is casual. ‘Yes’ means ‘maybe’.

If you have at some point observed how people react to events promoted on Facebook, you will probably have noticed that there is usually a fair number of people who pledge to attend an event but in the end don’t actually show up.

Apparently a ‘yes’ in many cases needs to be interpreted as ‘maybe’ if uttered in the context of a social network. Once you have figured this out, you can easily avoid potentially harmful misunderstandings. Unfortunately, however, this phenomenon sometimes makes a few of the less experienced users of social media mess up their party plans: A host who trusts virtual confirmations too much and bases her grocery shopping on them, will most likely still have to eat leftover pasta salad from the party buffet several days later.

It’s pretty easy to figure out the problem: The naive host makes the grave mistake of believing that a certain message always has the same meaning, no matter which medium is used to convey it. This opinion couldn’t be further from the truth, as media theorist Marshall McLuhan asserted. McLuhan suggested that we need to understand the medium to make sense of the message.

In our case this means: We have to comprehend that social networks are media of informal communication. They are ‘casual’: A user moves her index finger a few millimeters and a friendship begins or ends. The recipient of your message makes about 5000 mouse clicks per day and one of those clicks is the ‘Going’-button to your party invitation. This one click doesn’t mean more to her than the other 4999, however. Therefore ‘yes’ means ‘maybe’.

A painted party scene. Are they celebrating postcards?A party in 19th century Denmark, painted by Peder Severin Krøyer. Simpler times when you didn't have to wrap your head around the mechanics and politics of Social Media and everybody looked elegant without having to put any effort into it.
(Image: Wikimedia / UFA66. Public Domain.)

The postcard is ‘casual’ too but elegant at the same time. (Sounds paradoxical, but it’s true.)

Let’s avoid a potential misunderstanding: I’m not out to fundamentally criticize digital media. Undoubtedly new technologies hold many sweet promises. Yet it is always beneficial to have a closer look at the tools one utilizes, especially if they are comparatively recent developments. If for nothing else, then at least so you don’t end up with too much pasta salad - even if it tastes delicious.

Furthermore, a better understanding of different media enables us to see their pros and cons. For example, it becomes apparent that the straightforward and uncomplicated nature of electronic messaging is also a strong suit of postcards. A postcard doesn’t require any elaborate planning as a letter might, since letters are ‘open ended’ in terms of length. Instead, the postcard offers a well-defined text area and thereby a clear structure to help frame your thoughts in a concise manner, without having to be afraid that you might be forced to say more than you wish to.

“Cards are the Twitter of the postal system.”

When we attempt to compare the postcard with other means of communication, its firmly outlined composition bears a striking resemblance to the character limit set by some electronic media. It seems fitting to state that ‘cards are the Twitter of the postal system’.

“The postcard is a mix between a text message and a letter.”

Considering its convenient usability and simultaneous elegance, the postcard could also be characterized as a ‘mix between a text message and a letter’. Cards signify a short and snappy message, but through the personal handwriting and stunning artwork on the front they transmit this message in a tasteful way. A postcard is far more than just one click among 5000. Its stamp and postmark almost lend it the aura of important official correspondence, just like, in the past, a red wax seal on a letter used to do.

So you see: The postcard combines the virtues of various media. It is personal and at the same time trouble-free.

Card writing as an activity. A pragmatic objection: Too much trouble!

If you are more of a pragmatic than a romantic, you probably can’t help thinking that, despite all these flowery descriptions, writing and posting a card still takes more work than sending an e-mail does, which just requires you to press a few keys and make a couple of mouse clicks.

In this case it might be good to face your doubts with an argument in favor of postcards that is in its core, also pragmatic. (However, you will presently learn that it coincides with a romantic point of view).

First: The additional effort is in fact quite small. Yes, it is true that electronic communication is so passive that through your daily mouse clicks you only burn about the calories contained in a baby carrot. Still, sticking a stamp on a card and making the gymnastic move of stretching your arm to put the card in a mailbox isn’t a high performance sport either. Especially, since we deliver our postcards right to your doorstep. You can trust me on that because otherwise I would be trying to sweet-talk you into accepting card writing as a miracle method for a healthier and longer life. Even so, of course, it is absolutely a real scientific fact that people who write postcards are exceptionally good-looking.

Second and more important: The tiny amount of activity you have to invest in ‘creating’ a postcard generates a huge reward, with perks for both sender and receiver. Indeed the ‘magic of a postcard’ is conjured by the very fact that we are dealing with a real activity here in a way electronic communication isn’t.

Let me explain…

- End Part I of II. To proceed to Part 2, please click here. -

Well, how am I going to wiggle my way out of this one? How will I disperse any suspicions that card writing might be a hassle? And what's up with the Michelangelo-picture I have chosen as a title image for this blog entry? To find out, please have a look at the coming post, where I will extend my hand to help you climb on that cliff I leave you hanging from right now. Because, as you will find out, sending postcards is all about extending hands and saving people from falling off perilous cliffs.

Warmest regards in the meantime,
David Weger.

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