As It Happens

Barcodes on British stamps draw the ire of hand-written letter aficionados

The United Kingdom's Royal Mail is revolutionizing definitive stamps by adding barcodes to them. But some are opposed to the change.

Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society laments digital incursion on a 'pure and simple' pastime

A purple postage stamp shows a classic profile of Queen Elizabeth II on the left, and a matching QR-style barcode on the right.
The U.K.'s Royal Mail is unveiling stamps with digital barcodes that will allow people to track their mail online, as well as share exclusive video content through an app. (U.K. Royal Mail)

To send a hand-written letter is to take a break from today's digital world, says Dinah Johnson. So when she heard about the U.K. Royal Mail was adding barcodes to their stamps, she wasn't exactly thrilled. 

The new stamps, unveiled earlier this year, allow correspondents to track their letters and share link photos and videos by scanning the digital barcodes with an app. 

Johnson, founder of the Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society, said she acknowledges the benefits of technology. But she feels tech is forcing itself onto an age-old pastime.

"I feel a bit affronted about my letter being tracked, because there's something so pure and simple about letter writing and then the digital world has been kind of forced on it," Johnson told As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa.

The change will only affect "definitive" stamps, which are the regular-issued stamps of a country. Collectors' stamps with art and photos will remain the same. Non-barcoded definitive stamps will remain valid until Jan. 31, 2023. After that, people can swap their old stamps for new ones. 

'The romance of it' 

The beauty of letter-sending for Johnson is not knowing exactly when your letter will reach its destination, or when you'll receive one from someone else.

"The romance of it is that you don't know whether it'll ever get there. You send it out into the world and you hope it will," she said. "You leave it in the hands of the postal services and they do this amazing job." 

What's more, Johnson says new system is a disadvantage for those who collect stamps or buy them in bulk.

"I think that some are quite annoyed because they've got to send them all back. Or people who have stockpiled stamps to save on the price hikes, they'll be the ones that will be losing out on the money," Johnson said. "It's a tricky one, really." 

The top right corner of an envelop with a stamp showing Queen Elizabeth. The right half of the stamp is covered by a sticker with a red post-box and the word '@letterappsoc.' The centre of the envelope reads, in cursive, 'Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society.'
Dinah Johnson, founder of the Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society, has been putting a little sticker over the barcode on her stamped letters. It's her way of protesting what she sees as a digital incursion into a decidedly non-digital pastime. (Dinah Johnson/Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society)

To further express her frustration with the new stamps, Johnson has been placing customized stickers over the barcodes of letters she receives so she doesn't have to look at them. 

Johnson's friend, who owns a printing press, made a design of a postbox with her organization's Twitter handle on it. In an interview with The Guardian, she called it her "mini private protest."

When Guardian reporter Simon Usborne interviewed Johnson, he suggested she try sending a letter with the covered barcode.

"I didn't want to be seen to be defacing Royal Mail stamps," she said. "I wasn't was out to do that."

But she did it, and the letter arrived at its intended location safe and sound. A Royal Mail spokesperson told the Guardian that covering the barcodes is probably fine until January 2023, but after that, it will be "an essential part of the stamp."

A 'more efficient' mail service

Johnson was so determined to hear from the CEO of the Royal Mail that she wrote to him — in the form of a hand-written letter, of course. But she never heard back. 

"I guess I just wanted to know that he wrote letters," she said. 

An outdoor selfie of a smiling woman with a short brown pixie cut
Dinah Johnson is the founder of the Handwritten Letter Appreciation Society. (Submitted by Dinah Johnson)

In an emailed statement to As It Happens, Royal Mail spokesperson Natasha Ayivor stood behind the stamp innovation, stating that "stamps are entering a new era." 

"Royal Mail is constantly looking at ways to become more efficient and to improve our services for customers," she wrote. "It is anticipated that over time this new technology will provide benefits in the way we process and deliver mail."

But despite the changing world, Johnson encourages people to never give up the beauty of letter-writing. 

"Just to sit with a piece of paper and a pen, and even the bit of the effort you have to go to find an address and then find a stamp and walk down to the postbox," she said. 

"But it's all of the whole thing that I know is so wholesome, but it's different from being online and being bombarded by that the whole time."

Written by Keena Alwahaidi. Interview with Dinah Johnson produced by Aloysius Wong.