My postcard experiment

Vintagepostcards1

Some of the vintage postcards that my friends might — or might not — have received recently.


To indulge my new fetish for slow media, I just sent a few dozen postcards to friends and family this weekend. For some reason, it felt like an experiment. I'm interested in seeing how, or whether, people respond to them. It's probably somewhat rare these days for any of them to find a postcard — especially one from me, in any case — in their mailboxes. Also, it seemed like it would be fun to send this small collection of humorous vintage postcards that I bought back in 1993 (above). It seemed like it was time to finally use them.

I must say, preparing those postcards to mail was kind of a pain. One post office was out of postcard stamps and there was a long line at the other one, which didn't have a stamp vending machine (just realized I could have ordered them online!). It took almost a week to get them out. I got writer's cramp. It was tedious repeating slight variations of the same message on all those cards. My handwriting is terrible when I write that much that quickly, so people will probably struggle to read the messages. The space constraint felt unfamiliar; one of the blessings/curses of postcards, of course, is that you can only write a few lines. That wasn't nearly enough room to accommodate everything I wanted to say to some friends, while short messages left conspicuously blank space on other cards.

I recently moved to a new city, so the premise for corresponding with everyone was conveying the new address. I could have done this by e-mail and avoided the space constraint. Also, ironically, I had to check Facebook profiles for several people to make sure they still lived where I thought they did. (They didn't! One family from North Carolina just moved to West Virginia, another friend from Louisiana seems to be in Florida now, etc. Guess there's little impetus now to inform people of new whereabouts since they can always find you online regardless of where you live.) Although several people send me Christmas and birthday cards, the rest probably won't use my snail mail for anything, anyway.

Basically, I'm never doing that again. Unless I get a lot of positive feedback from recipients that makes it seem worthwhile — feedback that would have been facilitated if I had sent e-mails and people could have replied at the click of a few buttons. Will people contact me to comment on the unusual postcard, or respond in kind somehow? Will the postcard get delivered to the right place, since USPS probably doesn't either forward them to new addresses or bounce them back to the sender? Will anyone even notice the cards in his or her neglected mailbox, mixed in with bills and catalogs and junk-mail? If the postcards do arrive, however, there's a chance that recipients will enjoy and display and share the postcard more than they would an e-mail message.

Media & Culture class

Students in the “Media & Culture” class (JOU 109) at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University will be contributing to this blog during the Fall 2009 semester, to share their thoughts on some of our readings, assignments and experiments.

One of the experiments we did this month was a Media Abstinence Day, where everyone was supposed to avoid cellphones, computers, TV, etc. for a whole day. Some students reported that they managed to do it! Some got through most of the day, perhaps with minor slip-ups when they checked a text message out of habit or accidentally started watching some TV when someone else in their house turned it on. A few people said they were miserably bored and made a conscious choice to give up the experiment early.

The people who did best on this assignment were those who picked an avoidance day when they had something else to keep them busy, like playing a game of softball or working at a job that doesn’t involve computers. They also found it helpful to warn friends and family in advance that they would be unavailable, so they didn’t feel as much external pressure. (Though at least one student said that his friends taunted him with their smartphones and laptops, trying to bump him off the wagon.)

Members of the class will be posting their essays about the Media Abstinence Day below.

Students should click here to give midterm feedback.

Is there a “Slow Media Movement,” or is it just me?

"South Park" creators Matt Stone & Trey Parker made this animation, featuring Zen philosopher Alan Watts, that criticizes the culture of busy-ness.


Communication is a zero-sum game, to me. Since there are only 24 hours in a day, all the time I spend with one medium is time I can't really commit to another. People like to think that they can multi-task, but a lot of limitations come into play. You can listen to NPR while you type your blog (as I'm doing now) but blogging can't be performed simultaneously with writing a postcard (my next task). Also, the quality of my attention to the radio is pretty low right now; Terry Gross' guest sounds vaguely like Arianna Huffington but I couldn't tell you what the topic is.

To appease my longing for analog media, I've started toying with the idea of doing a digital media fast. All the time I spend online now will be devoted instead to postcards, letters, and whatnot. This will require a lot of substitution: landline for cellphone, fax for e-mail, record player for i-Pod, etc. Essentially, I'm going to pretend that it's 1989. In trying to come up with a term for this category of media that I'm trying to reinvigorate, I came up with "analog" and "anachronistic" before settling on Slow Media, in the spirit of Slow Food and the attendant Slow, or Slow Living, Philosophy.

As it happens, a quick Google search for "slow media" shows that other people have spontaneously generated the same concept and made the same connection. Helen de Michiel, a filmmaker who produced "Turn Here Sweet Corn" in 2001, links community-supported agriculture to the "slow media practice" that she espouses. Matt Shepherd, who seems to be a comic-books kind of guy, asked last year whether Slow Media was "a movement or a menace" and concluded that it was neither. He considers hand-written letters,
books/comics ("especially local authors"–analogous to "food miles," perhaps?), conversation groups, theatre,
and live music to be slow whereas fast would mean "cell phones, movies, the Internet, recorded
music and Clear Channel-type radio." I have my own ideas about where this boundary should be, so 'll have to get back to this definition in a future post.

I've mentioned my digital media fast to people a few times, and most of them seem to think that I'll be depriving myself of the Internet and cellphones. But it feels more like liberation than deprivation. As Matt Shepherd noted in his blog, "Saying 'Hey, cell phones suck' is not nearly as interesting to somebody as presenting a positive alternative." He also points out the irony of fostering a Slow Media Movement online but hey, what else are we gonna do?

From my contrarian, technoskeptical, alienated perspective

Mycellphone

Six years and counting! My trusty cellphone-slash-pet might be old and doesn't have a text plan — but it still holds a full charge and has never been lost, stolen or broken.


Letters, postcards, landlines… I've been feeling nostalgic for the media of my youth — or at least of my formative years, circa late 1980s or early 1990s. Doesn't feel that long ago, but the spectrum of communication technologies has expanded in the intervening couple of decades. When I want to get in touch with a friend, I can vacillate for hours now deciding whether I should call them or text them or g-chat them or e-mail them, etc. What's the proper medium for the information I want to convey, or for the type of interaction I want to have? 

If they're at work, then I don't want to call and disturb them; I should probably text. But the details are too complicated, so I could always e-mail or g-chat. But maybe they're not near a computer, or by the time they reply, I might be away from mine. I want to have a live two-way convo anyway, because there's information to exchange or decisions to make, so if they don't answer the phone, I'll just leave a voice-mail. But, they probably wouldn't hear the phone message anyway; they're likely to just call back without listening, right? Or they'll just reply to my call with a text and I'll have to call them again or text them back: "Um, call me, geez!" Maybe I'll forgo the message and just let them see my number on their recent call list. But maybe they're in the subway, and my incoming call won't register; then I'll think they're not responding when really they didn't know I phoned. Or maybe…

Yes, these are the thoughts that run through my head every time I consider contacting a friend. Sometimes I wind up just not getting in touch with the friend at all due to paralysis induced by too many media choices. This state of being results in part from my disenchantment with digital media. It also contributes to my disenchantment, I know 

But, dear friends, even if I do call and you do answer the phone, chances are good that one of us will lose our signal, or our connection will be bad so we can't understand each other and I'll get frustrated repeating "What was that? I didn't hear you," or
you'll be in the middle of something so you'll have to call me back, or one of us will be driving and doesn't want to get a ticket or cause an accident, or I'm at a store/doctor's office/restaurant and other people are glaring at me for rambling on the cellphone in public. It's easier just not to call. Though digital media are supposed to be making us more connected, somehow I feel the opposite. 

Also, it might help to know that this is my phone (above). Not conducive to speedy texting, folks.

The Ministry of Melancholic Nostalgia for Thing-ness

Gorey

For Edward Gorey, even letters to Mom featured whimsical illustrations from his morbid imagination. (Photo copyright Goreyography.com)  


I found myself captivated this summer by an exhibit at the Brandywine River Museum of Edward Gorey illustrations
that included some exquisite hand-drawn envelopes for letters he had
written to his mother, Helen. Even more than the other beautiful, amusing and slightly macabre work
on display, those drawings got me thinking about the loss of material
artifacts that comes with digital communication and its insinuation
into every nook of daily life. Librarians and historians and curators
certainly must rue this turn of events, but so do I.

Digging
through my parents' garage, I recently unearthed a shoebox stuffed with
letters from an old long-distance flame of mine. Some day far in the
future, when I'm feeling nostalgic or working on my memoirs, I'll enjoy
reading those heartfelt missives and laughing (or cringing) at
reminders of the British life I used to lead. It's saddening that I
won't be able to do the same for my lovely and amazing boyfriend now,
because the flurry of romantic texts and e-mail and chat messages he
sends me aren't sitting safely in a box anywhere.

If a museum
ever mounted a retrospective on my life, the curators would be stymied
trying to exhibit anything after 1997-1998, when I sent my parents a
parcel of letters from Beijing that now serve as my main diary of that
Chinese escapade. (Note: The letters feature an unfortunate lack of
resemblance to Gorey's. I accepted the fact a long time ago that drawing does not count among my talents.) To represent the past decade, they'd have to
turn to my Facebook profile… and anyone could read that at home without heading
to the museum. Where's the fun in that? People would miss out on not only crystallizing moments — such as the Brandywine one, which led me to launch
this blog — but also gift shops.