Millions of people now rent their movies the Netflix way. They fill out a wish list from the 50,000 titles on the company's Web site and receive the first DVDs in the mail; when they mail each one back, the next one on the list is sent.
The Netflix model has been exhaustively analyzed for its disruptive, new-economy implications. What will it mean for video stores like Blockbuster, which has, in fact, started a similar service? What will it mean for movie studios and theaters? What does it show about "long tail" businesses -- ones that amalgamate many niche markets, like Dutch movies or classic musicals, into a single large audience?
But one other major implication has barely been mentioned. What does this and other Internet-based businesses mean for that stalwart of the old economy, the US Postal Service?
Every day, some 2 million Netflix envelopes come and go as first-class mail. They are joined by millions of other shipments from online pharmacies, eBay vendors, Amazon.com and other firms that didn't exist before the Internet.
The eclipse of "snail mail" in the age of instant electronic communication has been predicted at least as often as the coming of the paperless office. But the consumption of paper keeps rising. And so, with some nuances and internal changes, does the flow of material carried by mail. On average, a US household receives twice as many pieces of mail a day as it did in the 1970s.
"Is the Internet hurting the mails, or helping?" asks Michael Critelli, a co-chairman of the public-private Mail Industry Task Force. "It's doing both."
Critelli's day job is chief executive of Pitney Bowes -- yes, that Pitney Bowes, once known for its postage meters and now a "mail and document management" company. In the last few years, it has also functioned as a research group for the mail industry, commissioning a series of studies that contain startling findings about the economic, technological and cultural forces that affect use of mail.
The harmful side of the Internet is obvious but statistically less important than many would guess. People write fewer letters when they can send e-mail messages. To leaf through a box of letters is to know what has been lost in this shift: the pretty stamps, the varying look and feel of handwritten and typed correspondence, the tangible object that was once in the sender's hands.
To stay in instant touch with parents, children and colleagues around the world is to know what has been gained.
But even before e-mail, personal letters had shrunk to a tiny share of the flow. As a consultant, Fouad Nader wrote in a Pitney Bowes study that personal mail had "long ago been reduced to a minimum with the proliferation of telephone services in the last 50 years."
Personal letters of all sorts, called "household to household" correspondence, account for less than 1 percent of the 100 billion pieces of first-class mail the Postal Service handles each year. Most of the personal mail is greeting cards, invitations, announcements and other mail with "emotional content," a category that is generally holding its own.
The higher-income households that rely the most on e-mail correspondence also send and receive the most letters. Whatever shrinkage e-mail has caused in personal correspondence, it is not likely to do much more.