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E-mail cards just don't cut it at Christmas

'Twas the month of December

 

and my in-box was jammed

Full of Hanukkah e-vites --

I thought I'd been spammed

There were digital cards

(and one carried a virus)

Have we lost our affection

For ink on papyrus?

The mailbox no longer bulges with embossed, hand-signed holiday cards stuffed into foil-lined envelopes. Only a few hosts this season seem to be sending party invitations on paper, since e-mail and the online service Evite.com make it much easier to manage guests' replies.

Are we heading toward a paperless holiday season?

In the late 1990s, companies and individuals began using e-mail and the Web to send digital season's greetings, complete with animated reindeer and Christmas carols via streaming audio. One of the most famous, a snowball-throwing game produced by the New York design firm IconNicholson, became a sleeper hit, traversing the world almost as thoroughly as St. Nick. (You can still find the game online by doing a Google search for "Snowcraft.")

Around the same time, online invitation services like Evite and Sendomatic.com launched, allowing party organizers to fire off dozens of e-mailed invitations without paying for printing or postage, and even to assign guests to bring a particular food or beverage.

There's no arguing that e-mailed cards and invitations are less expensive -- and easier -- to send than their paper counterparts. And they're a godsend for procrastinators. But do they have as much impact?

"An electronic message does count for something, but I don't think it lingers as long," says Eric Davies, CEO of the high-tech public relations agency SparkSource in Lexington.

"Most people put Christmas cards on their desk, or post them on a bulletin board where everybody sees them. With an e-card, you look at it, you think `that's nice,' and you hit the delete key."

Davies chose to send out printed invitations and cards this year.

Martha Connors, general manager of the MIT-owned magazine Technology Review, sent her first batch of e-cards last week. The digital card featured an animated picture of the MIT campus inside a snow globe, and a short personal note from Connors.

"If there's actually a note from the person sending it, I think that works, because they actually took the time to say something," Connors says. "But if it's just generic, that feels the same as someone sending you a Christmas card with no personal signature on it, just a printed name or company name."

"To be honest, I'm petrified to open e-cards because of the possibility that there's a virus in the attachment," says Emmett Lyne, managing director of the Boston law firm Rich May.

Some digital cards and invitations get trapped in spam filters and never make it to their intended recipient, observes Brian Paik of the Boston design firm Atomic Mouse. (Because they are sent to large groups of addresses, antispam software sometimes tags the festive messages as unsolicited commercial e-mail.) Paik's firm sends out printed cards -- but each year, time permitting, he also creates a short animated film starring Santa Claus to send to friends.

One year, a dancing Santa grooved to the music of Fatboy Slim; last year, Santa was cast in the Yoda role from "Star Wars: Episode II," fighting the evil Count Dooku.

Erin Murphy, communications and policy manager at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, says that the majority of her friends use Evite when they throw parties, but that the Chamber stuck with printed invitations this year for its holiday party.

"Printed invitations make more of an impression, especially with all the spam people get in their in-boxes," she says. "It's also more appropriate to send something in the mail to high-level executives and government leaders."

Steve Meretzky, creative director of the Newton-based online gaming company WorldWinner.com, says about 80 percent of the invitations he receives these days come by e-mail, but that the vast majority of holiday cards he gets come through the US mail.

Via e-mail, he puts forward a thesis. Holiday cards, he writes, "are merely meant to convey the thought that the recipient is important to the sender; that meaning is considerably lessened if the cost and effort involved in sending the greeting card is insignifi-cant."

I agree with Meretzky: E-mailed holiday cards don't deliver much joy to the world. Unless they're exceptionally well-designed or fun, I don't pay much attention to them when they arrive.

But electronic invitations give me the same holiday buzz as do printed invites: Someone's throwing a party, there may well be egg nog, and I'm invited. I also love being able to respond `yes' or `no' quickly, although with Evite, there's always the pressure to post a witty quip ("I'll be there with reindeer bells on!") along with your RSVP.

Printers and paper-makers don't seem to feel that e-mail is gnawing away their business. Dalton-based Crane & Co. is having "a record year," according to spokesman Peter Hopkins. "We may be seeing a backlash to the sloppy and insincere use of e-mail for personal correspondence."

John McDonald, general manager of Pyramid Printing in Weymouth, says that he doesn't believe electronic cards and invites are affecting his business.

"I still think people like to send the paper," he says. Normally, Pyramid prints its own holiday cards to send to clients; this year, things were so busy that Pyramid ordered them from another company.

The general manager of Birchcraft Studios in Abington, Jason Evans, didn't sound too worried about the threat, either. Birchcraft has been printing holiday cards since 1923.

"You don't see electronic cards printed out and put on the mantle," Evans said.

Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at skirsner@verizon.net.

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