All hail the lowly business card. For it is the most concise chronicler of the advances in communications technology.
Despite calls for its elimination as wasteful in an era of phone bumping (or, in nerd-speak, Near Field Communication wireless data exchange) and e-mail signature cutting-and-pasting, the stats remain impressive: 10 billion printed each year in the U.S. That’s 27,397,260 per day.
At the same time, it’s frequently cited that 88% of these rectangular coasters are tossed within a week of receipt. A handful, 9%, actually make it into a digital contact database.
But reasons for continuing paper cards persist, aside from practical contact information exchange (and having a handy place to scrawl a note). These include perpetuating a comfortable and accepted ritual for initiating an introduction, providing a physical reminder of meeting, and proffering another vehicle to reinforce qualities that the card-giver wants remembered – whether that’s through an eye-catching logo, clever tag line or simply quality paper stock.
Plus, an archive of business cards over time can offer another, deeper perspective. It represents a tiny time capsule of how tech affects our business lives both by what we print on them – and what we choose to eliminate.
I happen to have seven humble, historical examples.
I had my first business cards professionally printed while I was still in junior high school for my own “speculative fiction publication” (with no phone number, since I lived at home and in those days, you had one landline phone number per house … that one’s mother might answer). Business cards had allure to me because they made one real in the working world, providing the thrill of seeing your name above a title and company and implying you were part of a team deemed official in cardboard identity.
But I got my first real business card around 1974 when, still a teen, I began to write for the monthly Santa Barbara Life tabloid. Note what’s missing: an area code. You needed an area code for long distance. And in those days, long distance phone calling was expensive and it was assumed you’d look up an area code by city name in a paper phone directory before calling. Fax? Just gaining traction. Email? Talk to the Jetsons.
In 1982, even at Seattle’s first all-news radio station, little had changed in the 2” x 3.5” world. Except now an area code more routinely was attached to the phone number, indicating the opportunity to connect across seven-digit boundaries, potentially at less expense than before. I covered technology as well as general anchor/reporter duties, but you couldn’t tell that from how you were able to reach me.
In 1987, the then-independent Apple Programmers and Developers Association was based in Renton. (Really. As part of the Apple user group, A.P.P.L.E. Co-op.) What we’d consider modern, modem-propelled email was in its infancy: Apple had its internal AppleLink system, and was working with Quantum Computer Services to create AppleLink Personal Edition. AppleLink was considered internal enough that my ID was not included on the official external-facing business card. AppleLink Personal Edition? It would go on to become America Online, or AOL.
By 1992, all that had changed. The intervening five years had seen AOL launch as a consumer service and business-oriented e-mail competitors like text-only MCI Mail became important. Even so, I had to convince the company to put the email address on the card when I joined Egghead four years earlier; a fax number was still more common.
A few months later I left Egghead to become an independent consultant, and decided to put all my email addresses on a single card – because the systems could not send to each other, and I never knew which email system my clients might have. It wasn’t unusual to see multiple, sometimes indecipherable, e-mail addresses on business cards. Mine were MCI Mail (FCatalano), AppleLink (Catalano.F), and CompuServe (76004,2222). I even had an early one for AOL, but ran out of card real estate to list it.
In 1995, the concept of a functional Internet email address for normal people was in place: someone from AOL could email someone at, say, CompuServe or an academic institution by using his or her e-mail service’s “Internet gateway.” It was awkward, but it worked. For text. And if you didn’t care how the formatting looked.
The dot-com boom was in full bloom by 1999. Want to be taken seriously on the World Wide Web? Get your own domain, ideally a .com, and trumpet it in even your corporate identity. Contact emails were expected. And don’t foist an “@aol.com” on anyone anymore in a work setting if you wanted to be taken seriously as one of the digerati. That was so, well, last year. Almost literally.
By 2008, dot-com boom had turned to bust, and the contact-info-first mission of the business card had dramatically evolved – all due to how digital devices and media had subtly interwoven themselves into our daily lives.
At one extreme, web site and e-mail addresses could fully replace mailing addresses (go visit the site for physical location info), fax numbers were passé (scan and email, please), and fewer phone numbers would suffice (thank you, landline cutting or Google Voice intelligent routing). In my case, only the city name survived as an indicator of physical location – and then, just to provide a hint of time zone if someone were to attempt a voice call.
Looking back, my collection of business cards have become a story book, neatly documenting how communication lives have changed as technological addition (area code, fax, proprietary email, web URL) gave way to subtraction (address, fax, many numbers).
So, as the credit card ad would say, what’s in your wallet? Likely it’s not merely a business card. It’s also a reminder of how far we’ve come in connecting with each other, in the span of a single working life.
Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is an independent strategist, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech (see the column archive). He knows business cards actually date back to 15th century China when they were known as “visiting cards,” and used by guests to announce their presence in a home, but none of his own survive from that era.