Forget sliding into DMs, TikTok teens are writing pen pals to save the USPS

The wholesome summer camp activity has been radicalized in an attempt to save the Post Office – one stamp at a time.

by Caroline Edwards
26 August 2020, 1:00pm

Photo via @sincerelycharlyn and @famous_neighbors.

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been full of unexpected and old school trends, but the latest wholesome craze taking over our feeds is fully analog. In a world of sliding into DMs and sending voice notes, what’s old is new again, and sending snail mail to a pen pal is the cutest new hobby taking over social media.

The latest take on pen palling returns to a pre-Internet era of creating collages, making friendship bracelets and putting together the perfect mix CD to include with a hand-written letter. Recently, the act has taken on a new political role as part of the campaign to save the United States Postal Service (USPS), which many believe is being openly dismantled by President Trump to rig the upcoming 2020 election.

“Writing to my first penpal” reads the opening text on one of TikTok’s thousands of #penpal videos, which have over 59.7 million views. Sitting at her desk, a girl writes a long letter to a stranger with an instrumental rendition of Billie Holiday’s “Until The Real Thing Comes Along” playing in the background. A montage of clips depict the thoughtfulness that goes into the hobby — from the detailed letter with precise penmanship (adorned calligraphy and doodles) to the addition of pressed flowers, stickers and trinkets. Everything gets wrapped in a neat parcel, finished with a bit of string, before finally being enclosed in a homemade envelope and sealed with a wax stamp.

The resurgence of the traditional summer camp activity has appeared on Tumblr and Pinterest over the years, but it gained traction right before lockdown, with hundreds of videos and accounts about the subject popping up under the tags on Instagram and TikTok. Ziona, a 17-year-old from Illinois, began pen palling in February and is one of the hundreds of teens and twentysomethings who recently joined the community to build human connections and fight loneliness in isolation. “It was something that definitely kept me sane and also gave me a routine, too,” she explains, noting that others felt the same and her account quickly racked up 7,000 followers over the past couple months. “It set a schedule [of writing] one letter a day at least so that I could get back to people and still be communicating with people in some way.”

Ziona connected with her first pen pal, a teen girl in California, back in February on one of the many “find a pen pal” posts. After DMing for safety reasons, the two decided to start exchanging notes because they seemed like a good match. “In the letter, we did go back and kind of introduce ourselves again, but we also went in-depth about our interests and discussed what makes us, us,” she shares. Along with a letter, Ziona includes a neutral-toned array of vintage goodies, ranging from playlists to washi tape and collages, and has completed 144 letters to date.

Pen palling is far more than scribbling some thoughts down on a Hallmark card or on a scrap piece of notebook paper — it’s closer to a care package or mini-scrapbook. Kaitlyn, a 21-year-old veteran pen pal, explains, “The whole purpose is to form true, deep connections with people who you don’t see, who live continents away,” she says. Kaitlyn first joined the community six years ago when she struggled to make friends at school, but found she could connect with teens around the world. “You’re reminded of just how real and human these people are when you receive their own words, written down on paper, in your mailbox,” she explains.

Kaitlyn’s TikTok is one of the few accounts on the app that has a page dedicated solely to pen palling, where she creates strawberry or 90s-themed “pen pal with me” videos, opens letters and gives tips on how to join the community, hoping to inspire others to take part. “From the time I downloaded TikTok at the beginning of the lockdown, it was so cool to see the idea of ‘quarantine pen pals’ pick up more and more traction over the next months,” she explains. “It’s exciting to see videos about mail when they crop up. Hopefully, as my followers’ pen pal hobbies grow, some of them will start posting more and more snail mail content.”

Snail mail’s renaissance is partly due to the ongoing pandemic as people started searching for a wholesome and heartfelt activity to fill their time, but it’s also been gaining traction as a political hobby. The USPS’ crucial role in the November election has made it one of the hottest talking point of recent weeks, as Trump continues to spread conspiracy theories about mail-in voting and threatens to dismantle the vital service by blocking the $25 billion emergency bail out. With a lack of funding and resources to keep the agency afloat, the USPS is warning voters that mail-in ballots might not arrive by election day, November 3.

“The Postal Service receives no tax dollars for operating expenses and relies on the sale of postage, products and services to fund its operations,” explains Sara Martin, senior public relations representative at USPS Corporate Communications. As part of #SaveTheUSPS, countless TikTok users are doubling down on their efforts to find pen pals, so they have a reason to buy stamps, send letters and support the agency directly.

In the pen pal community on Instagram, pages like @thesnailmailbox and @writtenconnections were established to raise support for the USPS. They also match and connect people to new pen pals, since it can be intimidating for newcomers to the community. “We were inspired to start Written Connections after a late-night video call turned into a discussion about how vital a service USPS is, and how heavily we rely on them to deliver our pen pal letters to friends all around the world,” says Breana, one of the page’s three co-founders. With the newfound interest in the hobby, the collective had 400 sign-ups from around the world, which the team matched by grouping pen pals based on age groups and interests. “Our hope is that we can help our participants form genuine connections and friendships through good ole snail mail,” adds another co-founder, Tiffany. “It’s been really heartwarming seeing people’s excitement when they share on social media that they sent or received a letter.”

But it’s not just gen Z pen pal-ers who are creating snail mail collectives, it’s artists of all ages, too. Christina Massey, a mixed-media artist who created Artists for the USPS in April, is putting a creative spin on snail mail and pen palling. The project was inspired by the Artists Support Pledge in Europe and is a collaboration between two artists—one starting an artwork then sending it through the USPS for the other to finish.

“I live in NYC, and at the time it was really intense, our hospitals didn’t have the equipment they needed, and I felt a strong desire to do something for the community at large,” Massey explains. “I think it was NPR that first started encouraging people to start buying stamps, and I had one of those lightbulb moments where I thought, ‘Oh, I know what artists can do!” With over 600 collaborations so far, pieces range from sculptures to mixed media and painting, and some are even shown at exhibitions. “As artists send artworks to each other, then send them again to the galleries, which then mail them again to collectors or to the next exhibition, one piece of art actually raises a decent amount for [the USPS].”

Sending a text or liking someone’s Tweet might be the easiest way to get someone’s attention, but pen palling can truly make a difference for the USPS — and it’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez-approved. “I’ve seen more and more people online buying stamps and sending mail to help out the USPS, which has caused the pen pal community to grow even more,” Kaitlyn says. “Saving the USPS isn’t about saving pen palling so much as it is about preserving American democracy. It just so happens that the pen pal community cares about both.”

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2020 election
Pen Pals