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The impending demise of the picture postcard

The University bookstore doesn’t sell postcards of the University.

I like picture postcards. I like sending them, and I like getting them. This is mostly my father’s fault—he sent me postcards nearly every week for the years I was an undergraduate. I didn’t get much mail—I think most undergraduates didn’t get much mail—but I got postcards. Dozens of desert scenes, landscapes, birds and flowers and desert rodents and such. When I finally put them all up on the wall, my senior year, I discovered a couple of repeats, but very few. And, of course, whenever he travelled, he would send a postcard from there. Not exotic locales, you understand—San Diego, Los Angeles, Prescott. Places I knew, just as I knew the desert scenes. They weren’t new and exciting, they were just… postcards.

Since college, we generally send each other postcards when we travel. I used to send quite a few postcards, actually. On vacation, or even from home. For a few months, I picked up those comic advertising postcards you used to see in bars and coffeehouses, and sent them through the mail, even to people who lived nearby. It’s just nice to get mail, thought I to myself, and I still think so. It’s just nice to get mail.

Then there was a stretch shortly after my Perfect Non-Reader was born that we printed pictures of her on postcard stock and sent them through the mail. Nice to get mail, nice to get pictures of a cute kid. And not terribly difficult or time-consuming to do. I even, at one point, had address labels for some of the people who we would send them to, so as to make it even easier. Still, at some point we stopped doing that, too.

Now, I send postcards only when I travel, and then, only to two or three people. The last time I went somewhere, I think, I didn’t stop to buy postcards the first place I saw, and then it took me a while to find another place that sold them. Where was that? Texas? The Berkshires? I don’t remember. Anyway, postcards were available, but scarcer than they were. Not to mention the stamps. My father had to hunt down postcards, he said, the last hotel he stayed at not having any at all. And then, I asked at the University bookstore, and they didn’t have any postcards of the University at all. They get asked for them, two or three times a year, but they aren’t worth the space.

They probably aren’t worth the space. If I go somewhere scenic, I can take a picture of it and post it to the social network of my choice (possibly the same minute I take it, possibly from the hotel room or coffee shop later that day) and send it to all my friends simultaneously. My friends in the social network sense, of course, which means it’s a much wider group than would get actual postcards. And the photo would be my photo, of what I wanted to show off—the view out my actual window, or my children swimming in the ocean, or myself pretending to scribble on the sculpture, or the odd little thing that I found off to the side somewhere. It’s like a postcard, except of course it doesn’t carry the additional message I was thinking about you. Unless you tag someone, I suppose.

And the point, I suppose, is that social networks are better than picture postcards. Which they are. I’m glad we have them. If it’s nice to get something in the mail, then it’s nice to get something in your feed, right? And when you go to your aggregator/feed/circle/whatnot, there is very often something there. There isn’t anything in your mailbox (except bills and ads), but there’s something on your wall (in with the bills and ads), and even if it’s a lolcat, well, there were lolcat postcards, too.

And there are still picture postcards. Not as many as there were, but some. They are becoming a thing of the past, that is, a thing of their time, a response to conditions that made travel and postage cheap, but photography and long distance telephone calls (as well as other kinds of telecommunication) expensive (or laborious or difficult), a time which isn’t entirely over, but nearly. Probably. In all likelihood. But there will still be a few around for at least as long as my father will be able to get them. So that’s all right.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I think you've perfectly described why picture postcards have become obsolete, though they linger like vinyl. Yet full-color postcards are one of the most heavily promoted items from high-volume print shops, so the physical form is still popular.

I used to send postcards sometimes, but then I used to travel. I still love receiving postcards. Far more of the postcards I purchased were to keep as souvenirs, though, and I've largely stopped doing that. When I was last in Acadia, I looked at hundreds of postcards and bought none. I still love the canonical postcard image, but I enjoy trying to take that sort of photo myself. And while I still see postcards that are far better than anything I could do, I also see far too many that are worse than my own photos.

The other big drawback for postcards is their wholly unnecessary restriction to a non-digital image. It should be easy to put a unique short url on the back of a postcard which would provide a digital copy of the postcard that you could then put on your feed or send to your friends or store with your own photos of your trip. And it's not just an opportunity to enhance the benefits of buying a postcard -- it's also an opportunity to cross-sell and up-sell travelers and recipients. Want to buy other professional images of the destination after you get home? Want to order a poster of the postcard? Want to get a digital copy with your own text overlay?

These new powercards are no more expensive to produce, and the back-end infrastructure should pay for itself in poster sales. The value of a powercard is much greater, though, and people are used to paying $0.99 for convenience. The souvenir shop doesn't even have to make you take the physical copy if you don't want it.

Today we received an offer from Postagram, which will convert your cell phone photos into a printed postcard and mail them. I'm curious, but not convinced they will succeed.

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