Snowflakes fell gently from the night sky, as tall pine trees sped past. I was alone, and aloft, flying through a dense forest of tall pines. A triumphal orchestral score filled the air. The music grew louder. Soon colored rockets began to shoot skyward from the forest floor. I turned my gaze upwards to see fireworks exploding above me.
The latest Hollywood blockbuster? Hardly. This show had been designed for a much smaller group of spectators—an audience of one actually—and for a specific season. Gradually the music faded and the words “Happy Holidays” appeared on the computer screen. With a click of my mouse I closed it.
E-cards have come a long way in the two decades. In 1994, at the dawn of the commercial Internet as we know it, an MIT researcher named Judith Donath created “The Electric Postcard”, the first “online postcard service”, and a forerunner of today’s e-cards. The site allowed users to choose an image, write a message, and email a link to a recipient. By clicking on the link recipients could visit a page where they could view the image and message.
Within a few months nearly 1.7 million “postcards” had been sent, and by Christmas 1995 nearly 20,000 postcards were being sent each day. By today’s standards the service was primitive, although it did allow hyperlinking—still a novel feature at that time. Bells and whistles weren’t the objective however. Rather, it seems to have been intended as a solution to the friction of the traditional postcard—enabling people to send “postcards” instantaneously, thereby bypassing the cost of postage and the hassle of buying a postcard, finding a mail box or post office, and waiting several days for delivery.
Today e-cards do have a lot of bells and whistles, and allow users to do much more than view an image. In addition to animation and music, e-cards today may incorporate games and other complex forms of interactivity, and even allow them to send gifts in tandem with the cards. Recently PayPal announced it is allowing users to send money with its digital e-cards.
Overlooked in the newer features of e-cards is what Donath identified as a core function of the “electric postcard”, as well as postcards in general:
“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 social benefit of postcards and e-cards is the maintenance of relationships in a network, which they do by letting participants “check in”, to show recipients that they’re thinking of them. Letting them know, in short, that they’re part of their network. In that respect, the Electric Postcard was also the forerunner of today’s social media networks.
Social relationships were once difficult to maintain over long distances, and even today the bonds of friendship can wither when long silences intervene. Much like greeting cards and e-cards, social media has become adept at preventing these silences by making it easier to reaffirm connections with small low-information gestures like “likes” or “pokes”. Such actions may be the equivalent of small talk, but they help to reaffirm personal social bonds by building or maintaining familiarity and trust, when long distances make contact difficult.
Supply chains depend on familiarity and trust too; since one generally doesn’t choose to do business with an untrustworthy partner. As business exigencies encourage trade with distantly situated, and sometimes less familiar, trading partners, it’s important for businesses to have a trusted platform that lets them assume a level of confidence and assurance, regardless of how much distance separates them, and how new the relationship is. For today’s Buyers, a trusted network of Suppliers is as valuable as trusted friendships are to individuals. So while an e-invoice may lack the entertainment value of an e-card, it delivers to Buyers and Suppliers a gift with much more value—the trust on which their relationships, and their businesses, are founded.