The Affordances of Paper Mail

The decline of paper as a preferred medium for personal and organisational communication has been much heralded. In the 1960s, the British Government told the Post Office that phones and faxes would put it out of business by the mid 1970s. Yet it is now delivering more letters than ever before. However, there is a new threat from digital technologies. 

This research set out to identify:

  • those properties of paper mail that lead to its continuing acceptance;
  • conversely, those properties of other media which encourage people to adopt new ways of dealing with mail;
  • users' perceptions of paper mail and digital media.

The research was done in three stages

  • An ethnographic study was undertaken to explore what letters people read and when and how they were shared within the household
  • A small experiment was conducted to study how people sorted through their mail
  • A small survey was undertaken, using a questionnaire based on what had been learnt from the ethnographic work.

The study demonstrated the dramatic chain of events that are set in motion when mail arrives on your doormat. The humble letter is far from being an innocent bystander when it comes to relationships in the home. For instance parents with teenage children leave telephone bills outside their bedroom doors to ensure they see the costs. The study also found that women are controlling the mail flow throughout the house, placing bills where their husbands will see them and then after a day or two removing them and paying the balance. In this way men think they are in charge but it is in fact women who do all the work!

One of the key advantages that incoming letters has over email, is that they also help us to foster relationships with those around us and stop us from retreating into our own little cocoons. Letter mail tends to get shared around people of a household whereas email is inherently private and so tends to make people think in a more individualistic way.

  • Do you think we will ever see a "paperless society"?
  • What has this study revealed about the way we interact with each other?
  • Do women truly control the household finances?
  • How do you explain the enduring appeal of the letter?

The results are presented in The Future of Paper-mail in the Digital Age by Richard Harper with materials provided by Venetia Evergeti, Lynne Hamill, Neville Moray and Dave Watson. (A copy is in the University of Surrey library.)  Results are also in Paper-mail in the 21st century: an analysis of the future of paper-mail and implications for the design of electronic alternatives by Richard Harper, Venetia Evergeti, Lynne Hamill and John Strain presented at the Oikos 2001 workshop, Denmark, March 2001

The work was undertaken between 1999 and 2002.

The Research Team

Richard Harper led the work, assisted by Venetia Evergeti, Lynne Hamill, Neville Moray and Dave Watson.