The Early Days of E-Cards

PostOfficeClaim.small.gifIf in this year of 2011 you neglected to get your holiday cards in the mail in time for Christmas delivery, or just never got around to buying the right gift, there are plenty of e-options that can work in a pinch. Today, Amazon is prominently displaying its e-gift cards on its homepage, customizable with a range of images and themes. Or, if you just want to send someone something to make them laugh, there's the always-delightful, which is featuring thoughtful well-wishes such as "Just wanted to help spread hope, peace, joy, and other marketing buzzwords," and "Sending paperless Christmas cards is a great way to feel better about the murdered tree in your living room."

But the e-card market was not always so refined, so choiceful (another marketing buzzword). The quality and quantity of options are a sign of a maturing Internet, left behind are simpler times, the days when a site called The Electric Postcard thrived.

The Electric Postcard was created by then-MIT doctoral candidate Judith Donath in 1994. She described it in her 1996 thesis, "Inhabiting the Virtual City":

The Electric Postcard is a simple concept. On the postcard site there are a number of images (famous paintings, urban photographs, drawings of insects, etc.). You choose an image, write a message, fill in the recipients email address, and send it off. The recipient is automatically notified, by email, that [a] card awaits. Upon going to the site and giving the claim number to the postmaster, the recipient is presented with a page showing the chosen picture and the message.

The site went online in December 1994. At first it handled about 10 to 20 messages a day, but it soon caught on. By the spring of 1996, nearly 1.7 million had been sent, peaking around Christmas 1995 with 19,000 postcards sent on some days. The technology was slow, much slower than sending an email. Why did people like it so much, Donath wondered. She wrote:

When I built the Postcard server, I thought that the fact that the message contents can be hypertext would be a big appeal. Images and sounds can be interspersed with the text and one can send, along with one's words, links to anything within the Web's vast store of information and arcana. Yet it turns out that relatively few people use this capacity, perhaps 1 in 15-20 cards has some HTML embedded in the message. The appeal appears to be more social.


The most significant function of the postcard, and the reason, I believe, for the great popularity of The Electric Postcard, is that they allow people to keep in touch without having to actually say anything. A notable thing about postcards is how trite the messages often are: "The weather is great. Wish you were here." A letter like that would be ludicrous, even rude. Yet the main point of a postcard is its subtext: I'm thinking of you, just checking in, making the rounds remotely. The picture on the card takes the place of the message. It lets the sender express a bit of his or her taste (for humor or for the macabre or, most popularly, for Impressionist prints), like sending a little gift.

Ecards may have become more sophisticated since then -- and, in the process, lost some of their charm -- but that impulse at the core of their purpose remains.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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