Letter Writing May Be On The Decline, But It's Definitely Not Dead

04/12/2015 4:21 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
Jupiterimages via Getty Images
Woman writing postcards at table

When was the last time you received a letter in the mail that wasn't a bill?

Yeah, exactly.

In today's digital age, most of our personal correspondence tends to be via email or social media. But even though letter writing might not be as popular as it once was, it is by no means fading into obscurity.

Take Global Penfriends, for example. Started by Australian Stuart Bourne in 1995, the site aims to function as a secure place whereby people can meet new friends from around the world.

Though communication is available via both email and post, Bourne says, of his 200,000-plus active users, over 70,000 selected to correspond via snail mail.

"It surprises me sometimes, how popular it still is," Bourne told The Huffington Post Australia.

"Our club split into two main factions -- there’s the postal side and there’s the electronic side.

"Though our focus has always been with the 'snail mail' side, we also cater for those interested in communicating electronically, especially with some of the younger kids [signing up], you have to provide that option.

"But generally, the feedback we get is people tend to prefer the tactile nature of snail mail. People still enjoy getting letters in the post.

"I know myself, I love getting letters in the post that aren’t bills and aren’t rates. It’s something special. You look at that letter and know someone sat there and wrote it out, they chose the stationery with you in mind.

"I think there’s a lot of thought and effort that goes into it and you can’t replicate that electronically."

It's a sentiment echoed by Esther Milne, Associate Professor of Media at Swinburne University and author of the book 'Letters, Postcards, Email: Technologies of Presence' (Routledge 2010).

"I think there is a resurgence and a renewed interest in letter writing," Milne told HuffPost Australia. "And we're seeing it across a whole range of different areas.

"Mail art, for instance. That in itself has quite a long history -- from at least the 1960s and maybe even before. That is absolutely still going strong.

"Basically, mail art is projects where people use the post office or the mail system to create art. Either it might be incredibly decorative envelopes, or playful artworks where you might be sending mail that is anonymous.

"There are lots of different projects which use the post as an anchor."

Both Milne and Bourne are of the opinion nostalgia as a general theme is becoming more popular, with Milne listing the popularity of vintage and handmade marketplace Etsy as an example.

"Nostalgia itself is quite fashionable," Milne said. "The interest in letter writing could even tie in with resurgence of really beautiful handwriting paper.

"It's feeding into that nostalgia for paper. You can see similar things happening with Frankie magazine and Etsy. A lot of those aesthetics are feeding into a nostalgia for mail.

"I also think there is something still very resonant about the post office and how it works. Obviously receiving mail is somehow magical and art projects feed into that."

In terms of the demographic who are interested in pen-palling, Bourne says it's across the board.

"On our site, the average is about 40 to 44 years of age," Bourne said. "But we’ve got members registered that are between five years of age, going through their parents, through to 109 years of age.

"We see a lot of people curious about other cultures and I think, though the common [countries of registered users] are the US, the UK, Australia and Canada -- other language-speaking countries are on the rise.

"People want to learn a second language and are keen to meet pen pals who can help them. We see a lot of that.

"In fact, a lot of our feedback is along the lines of 'I use Facebook to stay in contact with all my old friends, and I use your site to contact new friends'."

To that end, Milne says the rising popularity of social media as a communication tool won't push letter writing to extinction any time soon, and notes it isn't the first time a new invention was thought to signal the end of the letter.

"Postcards were thought to be really impersonal when they were invented in 1870," Milne said.

"Everyone was pretty scandalised that you would write something on an open piece of postcard everyone could read. It was quite class-based, in the UK especially, and people were saying 'why would you write on an open piece of post card where the servants could read it?'

"There were letters to the editor in newspapers of the time saying 'don’t support writing on postcards.' It's interesting to note that with every new communication technology, there's the freak out that comes with it.

"So while today’s social media is the latest 'thing' that’s going to kill the media we have, that was also thought to be the case way back when the postcard was invented. People were genuinely afraid it would kill letter writing, but in fact, it made more people more interested in sending post.

"I would argue the letter absolutely isn't dead. It sort of refuses to die, in a way."

More On This Topic