Christmas '97: Net surfers send e-mail cards and virtual snowballs

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The Independent Online
It's Christmas Eve, you've got a hangover and have forgotten to send cards or presents. Fear not! Help is at hand. Glenda Cooper, Consumer Affairs Correspondent, looks at the joys of a virtual Christmas.

Internet traffic increases by one-fifth in the weeks running up to Christmas, according to the service provider Direct Connections. The reason they give is simple: people panicking that they have missed posting dates are turning to the Net to e-mail their greetings across.

If you are the sort of person who begins Christmas shopping late on Christmas Eve, a growing number of web sites are springing up to ensure that you can keep Mum, Dad and Grandma happy without having to move from your computer.

The first stop is of course the virtual Christmas card, for all those who forgot last posting date. Ben Elman, managing director of Mersinet, one of the providers which offers people the chance to send virtual cards free, says that he has seen increased interest in the concept.

Visitors to Mersinet's site (www.mersinet.co.uk/xmas) can choose a design from more than 20 offered including snowbunnies and traditional Christmas scenes. They can then add a personal greeting of their own. The way it works is that an e-mail is sent to the recipient informing them to go to an Internet site where the "card" can be picked up.

"Some people like to send Christmas cards to wish others happy Christmas," said Mr Elman. "They can go the day before - you don't have to be supremely organised. We're not like post offices - we never go to sleep, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

Claire Marston, 27, a communications marketing assistant, says that because she has three sisters - one who lives in Hong Kong, one who lives in San Francisco and one in Grimsby - she now relies on virtual communications to make sure everything gets there in time.

She said: "I'm not very organised over things like posting dates and birthdays, so virtual cards are really useful for me. When one of my brothers- in-law got a new job I managed to buy him a virtual pint over the Internet. I also like sending virtual flowers. It's a good way of keeping in touch if you're living far apart and especially if you're living in a different time zone."

So if you somehow missed the shops, then there's always virtual presents (www.virtualpresents.com) or virtual flowers (www.virtualflowers.com). Virtual flowers could be seen as a particularly good way of calming down a romantic partner who was hoping to receive the real thing. Again, the recipient receives an e-mail from the virtual bouquets robot telling them that their partner has sent them flowers and they can view them at the web site.

But Dr Roy Bailey, psychologist and clinical director of the New Row Clinic, Buckingham, said that the growth of virtual Christmas was more than just disorganisation but was the beginning of a new festive ritual

"It is a reinvention of Christmas, to help make sense of it today," he said. "Virtual Christmas allows us to refresh the Christmas we know ... Paradoxically, it's bringing Christmas closer. Computers are often seen as depersonalising but things like this actually make it more personal as the internet is used for expressing sentiments. I think it's actually quite iconoclastic."

Ben Knox, marketing director of Direct Communications said: "Over the past three years we have noticed an increase in Internet traffic of about 20 per cent in the two weeks leading up to Christmas. Although we have no way of knowing, my guess is that this is due to people realising they have missed the posting dates for Christmas and so are sending e-mail Christmas cards, children e-mailing Santa and people sending junk mail, like the e-mail snowballs which seemed to be in vogue last year."

Ah yes. Now this is a site for the truly lazy. If you can't even be bothered to get up from your chair to throw a snowball then you can access www.snowpark.ch/snowball.

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