Electronic greeting cards for WSJ

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Electronic Greeting Cards
– By Shoba Narayan

From Bangalore to Auckland, kin are enjoined to speak no ill of the dead.

(This article originally appeared in August 1999)
Here is how you used to receive a holiday greeting card in the eighties: The postman brought a gratifyingly heavy load of lavender and pink envelopes. You glanced at the panoply of stamps from different countries. A smiling Elvis or a profiled Kennedy told you that the card was from Aunt Maud in Minneapolis. An explosion of blossoms under the word ‘Nippon’ told you that the card was from your eccentric Japanese friend. A stamp of Mahatma Gandhi told you that the card was from Cousin Henry who was working for the Peace Corps in India.

You ripped open the envelopes and scanned through the scrawled signatures, the hastily written notes of greeting, the requisite photograph of a happy family clustered around a Christmas tree and occasionally, the year-end letter updating one and all about family news, events, births, deaths and promotions. Best of all, you could string the colorful greeting cards into a screaming chorus line of your friends and relatives. Anyone who stepped into your home could see exactly how many people cared enough to send you a holiday greeting. It was a testament of your universe.

Here is how you receive a greeting card in the nineties. The mechanical voice from your computer announces, “You’ve Got Mail.” You open your email messages and see an announcement telling you that “Maud Shaw has sent you an electronic greeting card.” You click on the requisite URL and wait. And wait. Sometimes your computer crashes because the browser carries viruses. You curse, reboot and click again, shedding all vestiges of holiday cheer and bonhomie. After a while, a computer-generated image of reindeer prances across your screen, while your tinny speakers play honky-tonk Christmas music. Underneath is a typewritten message from Aunt Maud wishing you a happy holiday season. No scrawled signature to decipher if her penmanship is still strong or shows the telltale shake of aging. No photograph, no letter, no clue to Aunt Maud’s current status in life. Just prancing reindeer across your fluorescent screen.

Now that the holiday season has started in earnest, electronic greeting cards are whizzing around the Internet. From Tokyo to Katmandu, from Bangalore to Bahrain, from Saskatoon to San Francisco, millions of people are sending Christmas cheer to their friends and relatives through cyberspace.

While these electronic messengers are quick and efficient, they offer little pleasure to the receiver. In fact, they are quite a pain. In the last week, I have received 20 messages from friends wishing me a ‘Prosperous Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas and a Happy Year 2000’ all in one grand stroke, or should I say click. The ignominy is that even these impersonal greetings aren’t individual. With electronic greetings, it is possible to mass-mail Christmas cheer. You could pick one holiday message, list all your friends and relatives, and with a single click, send the greeting to the 100-odd people in your acquaintance.

Where will it end? Emailed letters to Santa Claus at Santa@northpole.com? Filling out a ‘condolence template’ so that you only need to change the name when a family member dies? Designing birth announcements electronically, especially if you plan on having several kids? Sending an electronic greeting is easy, to be sure. No stationary to choose, no stamps to lick, no addresses to find from your tattered written-over address book, no labels to print out. The environmentalists would even argue that you are saving trees by sending electronic greeting cards. But at what cost? Saving a tree at the cost of civilization and all the refinement that the word embodies?

Cyberspace has it uses but sending electronic greeting cards is not one of them. A greeting card is like a handshake. It is a supremely courteous act that connects one person to another. Just as a handshake gives you clues about the person, a greeting card offers clues about the sender’s current state of affairs. Sending a card electronically robs the gesture of its intimacy and imbues it with a cold veneer. You can read an electronic greeting card but you can’t savor it like a real one. You can’t pick it out and share it with friends. You can’t file it away in a box to be cherished for generations.

To all those who send electronic greeting cards this holiday season, I say. Use the computer for transferring banal accounting information through efficient Excel files. Send a terse email memo to your entire office, by all means. But if you want to send a message that captures the warmth and joie de vivre of this season, turn off your computer.

This article originally appeared in August 1999.
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