In the spring of my senior year of high school, I took daily trips to the mailbox. It might have been the only time in my life when I knew for a fact that any day, letters with my name on them would appear in the mailbox from colleges that had read through my hopeful applications.
It’s this excitement that Bill McAllister, the Washington correspondent for a stamp publication called Linn’s Stamp News, calls the “mail moment.” It’s the feeling you have when mail arrives, knowing that you could be receiving a handwritten letter, or, in my case, a college acceptance.
But this moment is no longer a common experience for McAllister.
“The amount of mail — single-piece first-class mail — has dropped so dramatically that there isn’t much magic in the daily mail anymore for most people,” he says. “And that’s a rather sad thing.”
Now a new service by the U.S. Postal Service called Informed Delivery might be an attempt, he says, to get back the magic of that moment.
On April 14, the Postal Service is set to launch a nationwide service that allows users, in a sense, to peek at their mail before it arrives in their mailbox.
Users will have the option of getting an email with photos of the front of card- and letter-size mail pieces that are due to arrive that day, or a day or two later. The email is sent on days when mail is being processed and delivered. It shows up to 10 grayscale images in each email with a link at the bottom to see the rest.
Users can also view the images for seven days on their dashboard, which they can find on informeddelivery.usps.com.
Right now, the program is available to select addresses only, as shown on the map.
Bob Dixon, the executive program director of Informed Delivery, says the program was first piloted in Northern Virginia in 2014 and sprang from a program to help post office box customers know when they had something in their P.O. box.
He says participants in specific scenarios — like roommates who misplaced each other’s mail or people who traveled frequently — found the daily messages helpful.
“I and many people manage their life through a cellphone or tablet or some other digital medium,” Dixon says. “As we become busier and busier, it’s important to have things in one place.”
Scanning mail is not a new thing. Since the 1990s, the Postal Service has been taking photos of the exterior of most mail pieces to sort and route the mail. In 2013, The New York Times reported that the USPS “occasionally provides the photos to law enforcement agencies that request them as part of criminal cases.”
McAllister, who wrote a piece on this new feature in Linn’s Stamp News, says it’s hard to find usefulness in a new aspect of a product that’s not significant in one’s daily life to begin with.
“Most urgent mail or messages that you get this day tend to come by telephone or email,” he says. “That has become the way most people communicate, and letters, sadly, aren’t just as important as they used to be.”
McAllister previously wrote a stamp and coin column for The Washington Post for 19 years, where he says he covered the Postal Service as the Internet was growing.
“There were people down there who just basically thought the Internet was nothing, that it was a fad and would go away, and it wouldn’t impact mail,” he says. “But it has. It has impacted mail dramatically.”
Dixon says he knows the Postal Services’ consumers are very digitally engaged.
“We also know that mail is still one of the highest response rate channels there is for marketing messages,” he says. “It’s important for us because we want to be able to continue to demonstrate the relevance of mail but provide that convenience of a digital response channel.”
And maybe it will. Dixon, as one of Informed Delivery’s first users, says when he was traveling and was informed of a jury notice, he was able to ask his son to pull the letter out of his stack of mail that was piling up on the kitchen table in his absence.
It’s situations like these, he says, where people can use the service to plan ahead for the day.
So the reality of the service is that it might not always be magical. It’s not often that I see something in the mail that I’m genuinely excited to tear open.
But Dixon is hoping that by marrying mail with the convenience of digitized notifications, mail will at least stay relevant.
Cecilia Mazanec is an NPR digital news intern.