When Ivan Cash began a month-long side project last summer to convert emails sent from one stranger to another into custom, hand-written letters, he was hardly expecting the nichey idea to go viral. But on the fourth day of "Snail Mail My Email" (SMME)—which offered to transcribe on paper and send anyone’s email anywhere in the world, for free—he received 1,000 emails. And over the course of just one month, Cash got nearly 10,000 more, forcing him to assemble a volunteer staff to manage more than 200 volunteer letter writers around the world.
Like many Internet-based projects, SMME ended as quickly as it began. But the wave of enthusiasm now lives on in a new book compilation of the most beautiful and interesting letters created during the project. Those include a thank-you letter from a rookie teacher to his childhood math teacher, folded up as a paper airplane; a bird-shaped card declaring one friend’s awesomeness; and a barrage of adorable or sappy love notes, depending on your level of cynicism.
In honor of the book release, Cash and his informal staff decided to bring SMME back for just one more week, so while your letter won’t make it into the book, you can still give the experience a whirl until November 18. The one rule is that letters must be 100 words or less. Email writers can request one embellishment, like a doodle or lipstick kiss.
Cash, a San Francisco artist with a background in advertising, says he hopes the project will "serve as an ad campaign for letter writing in general" and inspire participants to take up the dying art in an age when talk is cheap and text is cheaper, shot around the world instantly on countless digital platforms.
According to Cash, round two of the project has received an even more eager response—on Monday, the first day of the project’s return, he received 1,000 emails. And while Cash sees the project as an admirable way of forging "dynamic and forced collaboration between strangers," it’s hard for him to articulate the project’s peculiar appeal: Handmade communication is inherently personal, but what about when it’s a stranger that’s doing it?
Each letter is a product of "someone’s undivided attention going into this communication that essentially says ‘I care,’" he tells me. "It changes a little bit when a stranger’s doing it, and I’m definitely aware of that, and I think it’s kind of interesting. Last round we had some marriage proposals, which is cool and interesting, but also, you’re receiving a marriage proposal from a volunteer."
Check out the book, published by Sourcebooks, here.