Email arrives too fast and is boring, while snail mail takes time and is cool.
My proposal is to create a distributed open-source email server system as an add-on to sendmail which allows for:
1) delay in sending, from 1-day express mail to 4-6 month email-by-sea
each server has a self-designed postmark, which is attached to the message
3) A message will bounce between
several servers before arriving at its destination, accumulating postmarks along the way.
4) additional post-office-like features can be added over time
No client software is necessary; all is done on the server. The best part would be the cool postmarks people would design.
A fuller description follows.
One of the problems with email is that it arrives too quickly at its destination.
Conversations die out quickly, since you can respond to an email within seconds of its being sent. Notions of distance are erased, along with temporal delays typically associated with snail mail correspondence. Nothing happens between the time you send your email and the time your friend receives it, so you eventually run out of things to say!
Also, much of the suspense is removed with immediate communication. If your friend tells you about their upcoming date, when you get the email nothing has happened yet. On the other hand, if they write that in a letter, you know by the time you read it that the date has
already happened. This divide between what you know and what your friend knows creates
suspense. Email can be seen as communication of the present, while snail mail is communication of the past - much like stars we see at night are images of their past. Reading letters and looking at stars is like travelling backwards in time.
In addition, email has simply become boring. Everyone I know prefers receiving a letter to
an email, because of the tactile feel of the envelope that has travelled, the exotic stamps,
the postmarks, etc.
Snail-email proposes to eliminate these problems by creating an email system on top of the
current email system that emulates the much loved postal system. The first and most
important feature is that the mail will not arrive immediately, but only after a delay. The
delay is chosen by the user, but is not controlled exactly, and is subject to random variation (i.e. 1-day overnight, 2-3 days priority, 3-4 weeks parcel post, and 3-6 months for delivery by sea).
Secondly, part of the delivery system itself creates variation by distributing delivery
responsibility across a network of approved delivery agents, which add meta-content to the
message. The network works as follows:
1) Email is originally sent from the user to a local delivery agent. This can be a
centralized server, or a decentralized one - though central control may be useful at the start. This is similar to dropping the mail off at a local post office. A simple system can
be used that requires no client software. To email a snail-email to your friend at email@example.com, you would send it to foo_at_bar.com @deliveryagent.com, i.e. the final destination is encoded in the email address. Specification of delivery time, as well as
other options (return receipt, signature, certificate of mailing, COD) could be added in the subject line, in the headers, or in the first lines of the email.
2) The delivery agent would parse the email, determine the sending delay, and affix a stamp or postmark, indicating the date received and the location. Postmarks would be individually
designed by delivery agents.
3) The delivery agent can hold the email for only 1 day; after which, it will send it to another (random) delivery agent from its list (the list of valid delivery agents can be propogated in a similar way to the current DNS system).
4) After the (variable) time period has expired, the message is delivered to the final destination. The software can be set up such that delivery occurs at the same time, i.e. 2:00pm local time, so all messages for a day from various servers would arrive at once, simulating real postal delivery. A graphical 'envelope' can be created, containing the various postmarks, stamps, and routing markings the various agents in the system have
contributed along the way.
The advantage of this distributed system is that it provides for a creative process on the part of the delivery agent nodes to invent creative stamps and postmarks to affix to the mail
entrusted to their care. It also provides a more easily viewed digital record of the path
the email may make as it winds it way from A to B. Because the selection of delivery agents
is random rather than proximity based, an email from New York to California may well pass
through Ghana or Tibet on its way. This system also means that each email sent will have a
unique signature upon arrival, hopefully to the delight of the receiver.
Also, there is no need to 'sign-up' or create accounts anywhere. All work is done on the server, so you can send a snail-email to your friend before they even know what it is. It can thus spread in a viral fashion.
Of course, there will be some small probability that the email will be lost, but this is a possibility with the real postal system (and the email system!).
The project can be developed as an open source effort, perhaps as an add-on to the sendmail
server, with source and binaries provided for free. Presumably if users like it they will
add new features to simulate other properties of the actual postal system.
User groups might form around the collection of 'rare' or 'cool' postmarks or paths.
Finally, my hope is that this project, if launched and used, will inspire people to take time
in crafting lovely emails. It will also provide people with anticipation to the batched arrival of email from around the globe, to see both where it has been and what lovely prose it contains.