For one month, journalist Giles Turnbull explored this question in his Twitter By Post experiment, which replaced digital tweets with physical post cards.
“Twitter is the contemporary postcard – social updates that are limited by size, but not imagination”
Turnbull used the conventions of Twitter to share updates with fifteen friends via a stack of postcards and stamps. He shared comments, links, videos and pictures, exchanged @replies, re-tweeted some updates and favourited others. The Fail Whale even made an appearance!
When reflecting on the project, he noted: “We write long letters now because we hardly write letters at all, so we feel obliged to make them something special…This makes them long and tedious to write, which means we’re disinclined to write letters; so we don’t write any at all, and post on Facebook instead.”
He compared this to letters from the early 20th century, which were “often kept short and to the point… a bit like social media updates.” This was also true of the earlier correspondence of the 18th century. We often have romanticised, Austen-esque vision of letter writing during this period, but again, letters of the time were often very short. The materials of writing and the postage costs involved in sending more than a single sheet of paper made it prohibitively expensive for anyone other than the very wealthy to send a long letter. Again, there was effectively a limit on the length of a written communication imposed by the technology of the day.
As well as highlighting the historical prescendent for short social messages, Turnbull also reflected on the physicality of the project:
“Now I have a pile of conversations on my desk. I can touch them, or shuffle them.”
Not only is it a tangible conversation, but it comes complete with glue and staples attaching other physical objects to those conversations. This experiment effectively makes concrete what we are doing in a more abstracted way on Twitter. As a method of examining our internet interactions this certainly has appeal and highlights the imagination required to “attach” something and send it across the globe in a digital form.
As Giles reflects in his conclusion to the experiment: “Tweeting by post made me appreciate the online and the offline.”
Photo credit: @gilest