Exchanging postcards - an unusual hobby?
An Interview on the Subject
A few weeks ago an email arrived from a local journalist, out of the blue, asking if I'd agree to be interviewed about my unusual hobby, Postcrossing. Although I don't think there's anything remotely unusual about exchanging postcards, which is what Postcrossing is all about, I was very happy for an excuse to talk about postcard collecting, storing them, choosing them and writing messages on the back.
The interview was necessarily rather short because I had to share the final article with three other unusual hobbyists so I felt I left all sorts of things unsaid. Now that I'm on my hobby-horse so to speak, I can write more fully here.
The picture shows part of a handmade card I made out of used stamps cut into the shape of a pillar box and stuck on to a page from an old atlas. Both were then stuck to some cardstock. It was made for someone who had particularly asked for handmade cards. Most people prefer shop bought.
Please note: All the pictures here are my own apart from the one screenshot of Postcrossing. That will take you to the Postcrossing website if you click on the caption.
Postcards connecting the world
The most basic definition of Postcrossing is that it is a random postcard exchange - you never know who you will be sending a card to nor where one will arrive from.
It works like this: you request an address, you choose and write a card, send it off and wait for it to arrive. When it arrives at its destination, the person at the other end of the journey registers it , and at that point your address is given out in its turn to someone else.
You don't have to send out only one at a time. Even as a new member you can request up to five addresses and so have five cards travelling at one time. As your numbers of successful sends rises so too does the limit on how many cards you can send. I am allowed to have 43 cards travelling but that is FAR more than enough and I have never reached that limit.
People may consider Postcrossing to be a way of collecting postcards, and often it is, but sending is obviously an equal part of the process and one that takes the most time and effort. Personally I find choosing what I hope will be exactly the right card is the best part of my hobby. I can spend a long time trying to decide on one card over another.
Of course choosing the right card depends on having plenty of choice. I buy cards wherever I see them both in local shops for the tourist type of card, and also online. Sometimes I think I go too far so I have avoided counting how many I have in my stash. It's in a big box, now that it's grown out of the drawer I used to use.
The range is almost endless and with these you have a fair chance of being able to fulfil most people's wish-lists.
Every member of Postcrossing can write a profile (although not everyone does) and that profile can list personal preferences. There is no obligation at all to fulfil these wishes - the only obligation is to send a postcard - but for me it's a challenge I enjoy. I love to feel I have made a good choice for that particular person.
There are a number of themes that are very popular. Maps, as pictured above are often on a list, as are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, various animals especially cats, children, books. By far the most common request, I would say, is for a card showing the town/area/country where you live. That might sound simple but there are parts of the world where they struggle to find a basic view-card.
Other Exchange Sites
Postcrossing is not the only way to exchange postcards, far from it. People have set up Facebook pages and YouTube channels dedicated to postcard exchange. Search and you shall find!
You could also try Sendsomething.net. It has been in beta version for as long as I remember, but don't let that put you off. It seems to work quite well and has a dedicated core of people who regularly exchange with each other. It is, however, very random.
Swap-bot is definitely more reliable and there you can swap almost anything under the sun. It's a little slow at first because many of the swaps are open only to established members but it doesn't take too long. Watch out for country-specific swaps too - they aren't all open to everyone.
There are a number of Facebook groups dedicated to exchanging postcards. You will need to make sure they are active! Search for "postcard exchange" or postcard swap".
If you are a reader, and a member of Goodreads, they have a public group called The Postcard Exchange. I haven't joined but they appear to have an organised exchange each month. There are no rules about the type of cards exchanged.
Other sites appear now and then but they tend to come and go. One I discovered by accident recently was www.postcardunited.com but so far I've received nothing. To be fair, I've risked only one card so maybe I should try harder.
if you speak/read Russian, there is also postcross.me which seems to work on the same basis as Postcrossing.
Over the years, all sorts of other ways to exchange (mainly but not exclusively) postcards have developed from the original "official" Postcrossing exchange. They remain, though, under the overall Postcrossing banner.
Beyond the basic functioning of Postcrossing, there are all sorts of possibilities to exchange postcards. On the main site, known as the "official" site, you can state in your profile that you are open to direct swaps. That means anyone can message you offering a swap.
Alternatively you can join the forum where the possibilities are almost endless. Here there are swaps organised within groups of countries or themes, swaps of handmade cards, of non-postcards such as candies or teabags. Or you can even just chat about postcards.
Many people have created blogs - including myself. :) My own blog is not merely about Postcrossing though, but any cards received or bought anywhere, vintage and modern. I try to make it as diverse as possible so that there is always something of interest and I was delighted when Google listed it as a Blog of Note (quite some time ago now). That was totally overwhelming but great fun while the interest lasted.
Online postcard sites
Particularly in countries where it's not so easy to find the variety of postcards people may like, several online sites have been developed to sell them. Even some pre-existing sites mention Postcrossing, pointing out ranges that are suitable.
One of the most exciting developments was the postage stamp issue in the Netherlands in 2011, promoting Postcrossing! Later this year Finland will be issuing four Postcrossing stamps and there is a campaign for Germany to issue some in 2015 to mark the 10th anniversary.
Writing the message
Many people consider the message to be as important as, if not more than, the picture on the front, because it's a connection, a way of communication between two people. Sometimes people write as small as possible and fill every available space on the back of the card. Others are creative and draw diagrams, little pictures, add stickers. I even had one where the message was written in a spiral starting at the centre. It looked amazing even if it was quite hard to read.
It can be a challenge sometimes to find something to say, especially if you are sending multiple cards, but in these circumstances I fall back on topics such as what I can see from my window, the weather, hobbies, a book I've read recently. But usually I can find some connection with the profile which will lead to an inspiration of something to say. It's for that reason blank profiles are not very easy for the sender.
Someone once picked up one of my Postcrossing cards and remarked that it's like a snapshot of communication. That small piece of paper represents not only a picture the sender thinks will please me, but the thoughts that went behind writing a message (maybe struggling with another language), the address (possibly very unlike their own country addresses), taking it to the mail.
What I've learnt from Postcrossing
Postcrossing at its best gives you a glimpse or even some insight into another culture and its traditions. When I started off I was interested in the normal tourist views but now I find myself fascinated in anything that gives me an idea of what it's like to live in another country formed by its history and traditions.
It can be educational in so many ways: geographical, historical, cultural.
You come across so many languages you hardly knew existed and will be amazed at how multilingual some people are. This coming winter I have decided to enrol in classes to learn some very basic Russian because Russia is one of the countries with a very active presence on Postcrossing and I am embarrassed that I can't even read the alphabet.
It's only as expensive as you make it. You have complete control over how many cards you send and how often so you don't need to spend any more than you want to. One card at a time is perfectly fine.
All in all I think the biggest and most important thing I've learnt is that the differences between people are just not as great as you might have thought before you started Postcrossing.
One Year's Postcrossing Collection (not mine)
Do you think my Postcrossing is unusual? Do you have a more unusual hobby? Please let me know what you think, or just stop long enough to say hello.