Why I made Pastcards.

Pastcards came from the collision of two ideas.

The first started to percolate when I moved home a few times in relatively quick succession and realised my collection of physical photos ended sometime in the early 2000s. I had boxes full of tangible memories from my earlier life, but hardly any from my early 20s onwards. I started to think about how digital photography and Flickr, followed by the smartphone and things like Facebook and Instagram, had replaced the physical act of taking a photograph, even borrowing the language of analogue photography in the oh-so-skeuomorphic sampled shutter click. However, the actual output of that act is something entirely different. Instead of a physical, keepable print, the photos we now take become fleeting little posts that last for a few days in our friends’ timelines and then march off into the past, replaced by an endless stream of newer stuff. Photos have been transmuted from something physical and lasting, slivers of memory that fill up boxes, into ephemeral, disposable items of content.

The second was a much simpler observation: it’s nice to get nice things through the post. Especially when those nice things are a bit unexpected.

I started to build Pastcards last year, and did an early alpha with a small group of testers over the summer. The results of that test were promising. People liked their cards; they liked these little reminders of their recent history, and they liked getting them semi-unexpectedly as a nice surprise. Two things that didn’t go down so well were the text on the back, and the quality of the card itself.

An early version of the back of the card.

I had a hunch that adding additional little reminders of the moment in which the photo had been taken — date, time, place and so on — would be nice little extra cues to jog a memory of that moment. So I extracted as much data as I could from the photo and tried to use it to generate a message on the back of the card, written from the point of view of a ghost version of you that’s trapped in the internet. It didn’t really work, despite some nice touches (“hope it’s nice when you are!”) — no-one knows your own writing style better than you, so to get a strange message that was sort-of-from-you but not, and definitely not in your own voice was jarring. It didn’t help that I had no control over the design of the back of the card at this stage, and the layout and font choices weren’t helping the feel of the card. I learned not to over-egg this particular pudding, and keep it to the basics. The simpler you make something, the more space you leave for the reader to add their own detail.

The quality of the card itself became really important quite quickly. For the alpha, I used a print-on-demand service which usually does mailshots for postal marketing companies. As a result, the card felt like a mailshot — a few of the testers almost threw it out while sifting through their mail, their muscle memory miscategorising it as junk. So it became clear that the card itself needed to be weighty, meaningful as a thing. Especially if I wanted to get people to pay for it regularly. I ended up talking to Tim Milne of ARTOMATIC (via John Willshire), and we’ve been in a enjoyable dialogue ever since about how to make the cards stand up as pleasing artefacts in their own right. I like working with people outside of my usual sphere, and it’s been interesting to work with Tim on printing the cards, who is very into the meaning of materials and objects; the thingness of things.

The really exciting thing about Pastcards for me — as a technologist and interaction designer — is that the key point of interaction isn’t on a computer, or phone, or any digital device. It’s not even a moment I’ve got much control over. It’s the moment when a subscriber discovers their postcard in their mail — a postcard they’ve kind of been expecting but sort of forgotten about — which reminds them of a happy, or silly, or otherwise emotionally resonant moment in their recent history. That’s what I’ve been engineering for, and that’s why I’ve been spending time with Tim thinking about the card itself, and the postal service as a delivery mechanism.

Pastcards also embodies a few experiments in how I build things.

Like a lot of people who like making stuff, I’ve got many more unfinished projects lying around than finished ones. I was determined to break this habit and see something through with Pastcards. Certainly a year-plus is something of a record for me, especially for a personal project. It’s not taken a year’s worth of hours to make — not even close — but part of seeing it through was allowing myself to pace it out. A marathon, not a sprint. This way, I haven’t burnt out on it, and I’ve been able to do a lot of other things alongside it, some not even involving computer.

It’s also an experiment in how to run a thing. A lot of the daft web things I’ve made in the past have been pretty cheap to run — often free, if you can keep within the free tier limits — but Pastcards is different. Because it’s physical, it costs. Atoms, for the time being, are still inconveniently more expensive than bits. This means charging for subscriptions, and dealing with payments. Luckily Stripe abstracts most of that away, but I’m still left with the fact Pastcards needs a cashflow to run. If I was a different kind of person, at this point I might well have considered spinning it off as a small startup. However, I’m not that kind of person — to be honest, I like my day job — and as a result, I’ve been able to keep developing Pastcards at my own pace, under my own terms.

If anything, Pastcards is a pleasant hobby. Service-as-a-hobby, if you like. SaaH. Now it’s public, I can’t let it fall onto the unfinished projects pile, and I’m quite happy to let this thing grow at its own, sustainable pace and see where it goes.