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The real message of E-Cards

Posted: Friday, December 25, 2009

OK, people, what is it with the electronic greeting cards this holiday? Why are you sending me jpegs of the Himalayas accompanied by phrases I recognize from yoga class ("Peace to you and all living things ...")? Why am I being asked to download elaborate animation videos featuring singing snowmen or a Nativity scene with a manger that looks alarmingly like a tiki cabana? Why have my otherwise intelligent and dignified friends Photoshopped their faces onto the bodies of dancing Santas? Why, if I don't open these cards right away, do I have to endure auto-generated reminders that I am a thoughtless and terrible person who does not care about my friend enough to sit through 60 seconds of flash animation sugarplum fairies?

Is it that you're all environmentalists? Have you gone green and therefore paperless? Do you refuse to send a regular, old-fashioned card because you don't want to waste the resources (the jet fuel to transport airmail, the gas used by the delivery truck, the calories expended by handwriting and addressing and licking an envelope) that are savagely pilfered whenever someone cares enough to send what is apparently no longer the very best?

Or is it that you're trying to show what an early adopter you are? How willing you are to try new things? How seamlessly you're able to combine traditional holiday cheer with error messages that say "You must install Adobe"?

Maybe. But considering the number of you who (still) drive tank-sized SUVs and are so computer-wary that you don't feel safe depositing a check into an ATM, I think there's something else going on. An insidious societal scourge is at work. I think you're sending e-cards instead of paper cards for the same reason that college students now bring laptops instead of spiral notebooks to class and some people have taken to writing shopping lists on their BlackBerrys and iPhones rather than the back of an old utility-bill envelope.

It's not that you're lazy. It's not even that, like those "note-taking" college students, you enjoy being able to look at Facebook or play online poker while you're supposedly attending to the task at hand. No, it's so much simpler - and sadder - than that.

You're sending e-cards because, thanks to the keyboard-driven communication of the last 15 years or so, your penmanship has deteriorated to the point where even you can no longer read it. You're sending e-cards because, left to your own devices (that is, without the help of Helvetica or some other easy-on-the-eyes sans serif font), "Merry Christmas" looks like "Hurry Chipmunk."

Take it from me. Each year, in my quaint efforts to send out paper holiday cards with personal messages, I probably discard one for every three I actually manage to put in the mail. The reason is that my handwriting is now less legible than it was when I was in the second grade. Since it's rare that I pick up a pen for any purpose other than writing checks (which more than occasionally I have to void because the recipient's name looks like a Paleolithic cave painting), the hand-eye coordination and motor skills necessary for decent penmanship have all but completely atrophied.

Given all that, you'd think I'd be an enthusiastic sender of e-cards. But you'd be wrong.

Handwriting challenges aside, I love paper cards. I love the endless stewing involved in picking them out at the store. I love buying holiday stamps at the post office, and I love that "whoosh" sound the cards make when I drop them into the mail slot. I love how stupid I feel when I have to e-mail old friends and ask for their street addresses so I can send them a card. I love the fact that my grandmother sent me a $5 bill in a card every Christmas until I was 30 (after that, times got tough and she lowered it to $1).

And guess what? It turns out that most Americans (in other words, technology-shunning plebeians like myself) still like the real thing as much as I do. Sure, Hallmark reports that nearly 300 million e-cards are sent out every year in the U.S. (and they now have a division for mobile-device greetings). And sure, some e-cards (like those featuring illustrator Jacquie Lawson's animated animals) are pretty great. But the Hallmark data also say that more than 20 paper cards are still sent out for every e-card (and who knows how many more were discarded before being sent because of handwriting malfunctions?).

I don't know about you, but I was glad to hear that. Because not only is it impossible to stick a dollar bill in an e-card, it's hard to find a template that includes the sentiment "Hurry Chipmunk." When you get that greeting from me, you know it's for real.

• Daum is an essayist and novelist in Los Angeles.



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