I have a system in place for when I check my mail: I pluck the credit card offers out with one hand while I shake the catalogs with the other, looking for any stray wedding invitations or jury duty notices that got shoved in-between the pages. I then drop the catalogs and form letters directly into the recycling bin and the credit card offers onto my coffee table (I find tearing them up while I watch TV soothing). It's like an incredibly boring modern dance performance. One big, fluid movement from mailbox to trash can, repeated into infinity.
Today, mail is one of the top minor annoyances in my life, up there with movie theater-texters and getting stuck in an UberPool with someone talking on the phone about their screenplay. But it wasn't always like this. There was a time when I'd practically tackle my mail carrier in anticipation of the precious pen-pal letters or Delia's catalogs they held. Growing up in a hometown that offered few cultural activities more stimulating than trying to shoplift lipliner from Kohl's, the things I got in the mail — clothes ordered from cooler parts of the world, dispatches from pen-pals whose lives were totally different than mine — were proof of a better world outside.
But as I got older, my romance with the mail dimmed. The internet transformed from just a place to illegally download music and maintain a poorly-designed Drew Barrymore fan page to the nucleus where literally everything important — from paying your bills to going to school to feverishly attempting to tell various celebrities that you hate them — took place. Old-fashioned paper mail stopped being the lifeblood of my existence. And yet, the the old-fashioned paper mail remained.
And guys, that mail has gotten really weird. My mailbox has become a ghost town, inhabited only by catalogs for expensive rain boots and fliers suggesting that I open 45 new credit card accounts immediately. These days, the most interesting thing I receive in the mail is often a college alumni newsletter addressed to the guy who lived in my apartment in 2009.
And it never ends. I get so much of it. In fact, I currently get more mail than I got 10 years ago. And this isn't because I'm special. I mean, I am special, but the absurd amount of junk mail I get is actually on purpose. According to a 2011 report by CBS News, 59 percent of the mail in our mailboxes is "advertising mail," a category that covers everything from catalogs to mass-mailed letters from credit card companies to 2-for-1 coupons for dog yoga classes or mustache pomade.
There are a few reasons this is happening. To begin with, people use the post office way less than they used to — customer visits dropped 27 percent between 2007 and 2016. That's a huge financial hit, and one that has to be mitigated with something. And that "something" turned out to be junk mail (what people in marketing called "direct mail").
According to a 2012 New York Times article, "Faced with multibillion-dollar losses and significant declines in first-class mail, the post office is cutting deals with businesses and direct mail marketers to increase the number of sales pitches they send by standard mail." Simply put, there's never been a better time for businesses to cheaply send you a bunch of random crap.
But even if it's cheap to send random crap, that same CBS report notes that only half of advertising mail is ever read by recipients — but representatives from direct marketing companies Valpak and Money Mailer tell Bustle that, according to their research, millennials do look at their mail, and some of them even enjoy doing so.
I mean, of course people who work in the direct marketing business are going to tell you that direct marketing works. But their argument does make a sort of sense. All that junk mail fulfills its most basic function, which is getting you to go "huh, a new Crunch opened up down the street," before throwing the coupon in the trash. I can tell you that I've recently thrown out catalogs for fancy candy, faux rustic homegoods, and cute shoes that will hurt your feet if you wear them for more than 10 minutes. Even though I was annoyed by them and threw them out immediately, I could not tell you anything about the last 20,000 junk emails I've deleted.
It's negative attention, sure, but it's still attention — and god knows, I'm the last person to claim to know the difference between positive and negative attention. Today, getting someone to engage with anything face-to-face — even if they're only engaging with it by shredding it into little tiny pieces while watching Mr. Robot— is a triumph.
Plus, it does feel soothing to have at least one problem in my life that I can fix simply by popping open a recycling bin.