As the Christmas season is upon us an interesting phenomenon takes grip upon most of us. We all start posting things. Throughout the entirety of the year we almost all email, phone or instant message. I can’t remember the last time I actually wrote a letter, put a stamp on it and posted it (excluding birthday cards). The only letters we get through our door are bills, and even they are online now…and yet December hits us and we all rush out to buy seasonally festooned cards. We then remortgage our house in order to afford the stamps, get a bad back from leaning over the table and hand cramp from writing out 8 million cards by hand, and then spend 20 minutes trying to make the massive wodge of envelopes fit into the already overflowing post box. But why?
Perhaps it is the tangible nature of Christmas cards that drives us to do it. Certainly this is the last stand of the postal form, which otherwise suffers along throughout the year held up by the corporate market. But will it last much longer and what will replace it? My guess is that it can’t go on much longer. The reality is that is becoming prohibitively expensive to post things and in the fast moving world that we live in we simply don’t want to make time for it either.
Take my household. Christmas cards was both a ritual and a chore in the past. You spend ages making a list of the people you should send them to. “Should we send one to Johnny, they didn’t send us one last year?” “What about Mary, she did send us one last year but we haven’t actually spoken to them this millennium”. But last year was the final straw for us. Having written out the hundred or so cards we were going to send we trundled down to the supermarket to buy stamps. Typically it had to be first class if we were going to get them all delivered by Christmas…the bill? Well over £50. It was completely unpalatable. So last year we drew a line. We emailed everyone with a Christmas message of cheer and explained that it was simply too expensive to post them all cards this year and that we apologized. After all, if it is a choice between your Christmas dinner or buying stamps then quite frankly I like food too much…besides, no one seemed all that bothered.
So the reality is that for reasons of cost and laziness posting letters and cards is fast becoming a thing of the past. And you can’t really blame the postal service too much for this. It is a downward spiral – the costs increase because less people use the service, so less people use the service because the costs increase. But what will replace it? Well at the moment the electronic equivalent of the letter is the email and that is certainly how a lot of our modern communication in the corporate world is done. The problem with that is that you can’t put an email on your mantle piece…it doesn’t have the same decorative flair. In terms of Christmas it simple doesn’t cut the mustard. An idea I came up with a while ago is an electronic Christmas card that you could put on the mantle piece that would receive and automatically display e-Christmas cards. You simply send your e-card to your friend and the frame receives it and cycles through them. A Christmas decoration and card all in one. There is a business idea there I think!
But the latest gossip suggests that even emails are on the way out, to be replaced by instant messaging. Will this be the case? In the long run very possibly. We already use skype (other instant messaging services are available) in the business world a lot and our social communication is more tending towards instant messaging or ‘posts’ on walls than emails. But I don’t think the email is done just yet.
They had someone talking on the radio the other day. His argument was the creation of a letter involves sitting down and planning, thinking through and taking your time over a letter which simply doesn’t happen in email or instant messaging. He said this is why letter writing is unique. My problem with this supposition is that it is simple incorrect when it comes to email. Certainly when I compose emails for work I spend quite a lot of time over some of them, making sure that the tone is write, the language is write, the flow of the message is constructed in the correct way. My problem with his theory is that he clearly had a bias towards non-electronic formats and his basis for this seemed to be that if you sit at a desk to write something with a pen and paper then it automatically has more thought than anything online. That is simply naive.
The reality of the situation is that we don’t write letters anymore because it isn’t as convenient as electronic messaging. We require up to the minute communication ability these days and from any location, something which letters do not offer us. Emails are the new letter, but will they be replaced by instant messaging? For some types of communication I think it will. The back and forth conversation type interactions will be instant, as long as the people are available. But for something that needs to be ‘on the record’ – lets say a brief for a project or an acceptance of a quote – these will remain on email for the foreseeable future. Email enables us to keep the formality that business requires, to lay out succinct arguments and points and to apply a level of pre-planned structure that instant messaging simply doesn’t offer. Instant messaging is a flow of consciousness, mimicking a conversation. Emails often require thought and then response rather than free flowing replies. For that reason alone the future of the email (or email type) communication will endure.
So what of our dear old letter? What will become of it? I think that the most likely cause of the demise will be the cost to deliver it. We will get to a point where national postal services are simply not an affordable prospect for businesses to offer. Despite their lovely, tangible nature the future of letters will be in hand delivery. They will become a quaint thing of the pats; a romantic notion withheld for the most of special occasions or for the highest impact. I, for one, will miss them…I will miss the experience of receiving and opening a letter… but I won’t miss the hand ache that now comes with writing them!