Can exchanging postcards change the world?

There are over 642,000 people exchanging postcards with random people that they will never meet. What motivates them? Is it their desire to learn and connect with other cultures? Postcrossing.com attempts to answer this question.

Paulo Magalhães and a friend enjoying postcards.

Paulo Magalhães and a friend enjoying postcards.

Community Development takes many shapes and forms. It can be a small project that includes a tiny subset of people or it can include very large amount of people working to solve a big problem. One definition is a process where community members come together to take collective action and generate solutions to common problems.

The postcrossing project is an example of a large amount of people taking collective action to learn about each other’s way of life to reduce cultural barriers. It began simply enough as a pet project by Paulo Magalhães who loved to receive mail, especially postcards. And knowing there were more people with the same preference, he decided to find a way that the world could exchange postcards using the internet as the platform for this offline hobby.

“The element of surprise of receiving postcards from different places in the world (many of which you’d probably never have heard of) can turn your mailbox into a box of surprises – and who wouldn’t like that?” - Paulo Magalhães, Founder of Postcrossing

After finishing school in 2005, Magalhães began running Postcrossing out of his clothes closet. Within three years using word of mouth and the internet to promote the project one million postcards had been exchanged. But that was just the beginning; eleven year later almost 38 million postcards had been exchanged. According the Postcrossing website that is almost 120 billion miles in total distance traveled!

The result is a project that is used by people from 8 to 80 years old, across many different cultures, religions and backgrounds. The main idea is that if a member sends a postcard he or she will receive at least one postcard back from a random postcrosser somewhere in the world.

“Postcrossing transforms this big and chaotic planet into a cozy village. Read less bad news, write more friendly cards!” - Nicolas von Lettow-Vorbeck, Germany

The first step is to request to send a postcard. The member mails a postcard to a randomly selected postcrosser and writes the postcard ID on it. The postcrosser receives the postcard and registers it online using the postcard ID that is on the postcard. At this point, the sender is put in the queue to receive a postcard from a different postcrosser.

Initially, each member can send up to five postcards at once. Every time one of the sent postcards is registered, that postcrosser can request another address. The number of postcards allowed to travel at any single time increases the more postcards a member sends.

“There is nothing like a postcard in your letterbox to let you know you’re not alone, and bring a smile to your face. It’s great to overcome barriers of race and religion and just reach out to each other in the spirit of Friendship. All the world should do postcrossing, we’d be a much calmer, friendlier place.” - Jo, Australia

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To date, there are over 642,000 users from 211 countries and 37 places designated as dependent territories or special areas of geological interest. The top four countries that participate are Germany, Russia, USA and Netherlands. There is no charge to be a member and all aspects of the service is managed online at postcrossing.com.

Each postcrosser has a profile that allows them to indicate the types of cards they are interested in receiving, whether they are interested in “direct swaps”, share other information about themselves that they would like, and it allows the member to show the image of each card that has been sent and received. The fun part is looking to see what each person is interested in receiving and trying and fulfill their wish list. Amazingly, early adopters can have received up to 11,000 postcards already!

The most remarkable are the ones that work the hardest to reach their destination. For example, there’s a woman in Guinea, Africa, who has to get her mail delivered by a small bike. A friend of hers comes and picks up her mail, then drops it off to a bus driver who then drives 600 kilometers to ‘nearby’ Kissidougou each week. How she even discovered this would be a story worth learning about.

As a member of postcrossing for four years, the most unique postcard I have received came from Curaçao, which is one of five island territories of the former Netherlands Antilles. They only have 7 members who have sent a total of 230 postcards, so to have received a card from this island territory was pretty special. That is part of the joy of this project, too!

I suppose the ultimate success comes with the report of at least one wedding — an Aussie man and a Finish woman who met through Postcrossing. That seems to take “the cake” in the definition of community building. The joining of two cultures from opposite hemispheres to merge in the union of one, that seems to be a fine definition of community building, too.

“There are so many conflicts in our world and postcrossing is a great way to show that we are not prejudiced against strangers but want to make friends all over the world.” - Heli, Germany

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