This is Part 2 of a two-part series. To read Part 1, please click here.
Composing a postcard mirrors a small ceremony. At the beginning there is this private moment when you are merrily scribbling away with your pen, in the light of your desk lamp or in the morning sun at your kitchen table or on your knees in a break at work. Unlike a text message, which you often type absentmindedly while eating lunch with a friend or waiting for the bus, the postcard receives your undivided attention.
Next follows the satisfying part where you add the stamp. A bit later on the stamp will be garnished with a postmark that officially ties your message to a specific place and time. The stamp can be seen as a seal of quality: It guarantees a certain standard. The card’s future reader can count on this standard because you have taken the time to send her a handwritten text.
Finally comes the ritual of dropping your postcard in the mailbox so it can be delivered. You extend your arm, not unlike when you give your vote in an election. With its own characteristic sound, usually fairly metallic, the mailbox swallows your card. The same motion is mirrored by the recipient: She opens her personal mailbox, sometimes with a metallic clunk, sticks her arm in and pulls out your card.
Marshall McLuhan loved to view technologies as extensions of the human body and its senses: A telephone, for example, increases the reach of your voice or your ear’s capacity to hear distant sounds. Cutlery becomes an extension of your arms. Using this approach, we can almost interpret the above described transfer of your postcard from sender to receiver as a kind of handshake.
Then again, the fingertips of both individuals involved in this transfer miss each other by a very short distance. So maybe it is more adequate to apply the comparison with a famous fresco painted by Michelangelo on the Sistine Chapel's ceiling. In his masterpiece named ‘The Creation of Adam’, two people extend their hands towards each other, but their outstretched arms fall short by a hair’s breadth (or by a paper-thin postcard!). This gap is bridged by your postcard: While the fingers of sender and receiver strictly speaking don’t touch each other, they actually do, mediated through the delicate paper. Both people run their fingers over the paper, decorated with handwriting, and their sense of touch is satisfied because the postcard gives it the sensation it craves.
Here is a short comic strip to illustrate this idea:
Oh, it all sounds so romantic, right? Yet I did promise you a pragmatic argument, so here goes:
The receiver knows all of this. She knows that you have performed an exceptional activity for her. She also knows that you have taken the time to compose a postcard and to extend your arm to drop it in the mailbox. Your little ceremony of card writing is – literally and figuratively - a gesture that is embodied in the medium. You have created an ‘artifact’. A present containing all your good intentions forever and unmistakably visible to the reader: The medium is the message.
Social networks and instant messaging have at times attempted to imitate physical gestures. Terms like ‘Poke’ or ‘Nudge’ have appeared in online communication software. As you can see, the postcard can only smile benignly at such paradoxical attempts to reproduce body language in electronic form. The card is a medium that really caters to all senses and involves a multitude of bodily motions – be it the scratching noises of your pen, the sound and sensations the paper generates when you run your fingers over it, or the amicable act of extending your arm towards the mailbox to send your card on its merry way.
And there is still one further merit the postcard has:
As somebody who has probably spent a fair amount of time on the internet, you will undoubtedly have noticed that it is full of cute kittens. Whoever wants to get a message across to her readers will have to compete with those kittens for people’s attention like older siblings for their parent’s love in a household with a newborn baby.
The average reader of your electronic message dedicates about 5 seconds to it – you know, those 5 seconds it takes until she can skip the initial advertisement in the cat video she totally has to watch on YouTube right now. And when she is done with that video, she reads the first 10 lines of a blog about postcards until another distraction catches her fickle attention – she doesn’t read a lot, but just enough to override the two lines you sent her on social media and thus to forget your message.
Many years before the advent of the internet, Marshall McLuhan made an observation that is essential for our Information Age: In print media, like a book, we engage with data consecutively - one page at a time, one after another. In electronic information transfer, on the other hand, everything happens simultaneously in the perception of its recipients.
Since there are so many distractions, the competition for attention is very, very tough as long as this rivalry takes place in one shared electronic medium (like on the internet or on the screen of a smartphone). That’s what makes the postcard such a stroke of genius: As a physical object it stands out from the uniformity of digital communication. The postcard is a separate medium of its own with no immediate challengers.
The addressee actively pulls your card from her mailbox in a way, opening an e-mail through the 5000th mouse click on this day can never be. The postcard gets the receiver’s full attention because it stands alone as something special.
This is also one of the many reasons why electronic greeting cards can not procure the effect a real postcard has – they don’t set themselves apart from the endless number of images and texts they have to share the medium of digital communication with.
A classy postcard, however, combines the merits of text messages and letters. It will appeal to romantics and pragmatics alike.
The postcard, to paint a final picture, has an element of surprise to it. It is a papery dedication to a valued person, placed in a mailbox only she can unlock. Supported by a delightful painting on one side of the card, your unique handwriting spreads like a tiny firework across the other side and immediately dazzles and shines in a way the monotonous typography of electronic media won’t.
The postcard stands out as part of a small ceremony that proves: The medium is the message.
- Finis -