When Leslie Hunsinger commissioned a work from Emily Farquharson-Hall’s Etsy shop, the two women began discussing their nerdy interests through Facebook. Hunsinger discovered Farquharson-Hall was from England and of course began asking her about Spice Girls and the candy Curly Wurly.
“She said, ‘I’ll send you some’ and I said, ‘I’ll send you stuff too’ and we just came up with the idea for this club where girls from other countries could connect with other like-minded girls who have similar nerdy interests, so it was a really specific idea,” Hunsinger told Blastr. “A club for girls who are also nerds who want to send things to each other in the mail.”
The club created by that exchange is the International Geek Girl Pen Pals Club (IGGPPC). The group pairs geeks from around the world with each other as pen pals by matching them together using what each person lists as their top five geek loves. When the club first started in 2013, it began as just a form website people could fill out to join. According to co-founder Hunsinger, once it was shared on Twitter the club received a thousand people signing up in less than a day, and over the next three days an additional two thousand signed up. Now the club has more than 46,000 people registered as users on its website and it has paired 12,000 people in 78 countries. More than 60,000 geek loves have been listed.
Those who join the club have various reasons for being interested in a pen pal. Jen Giammarco signed up right away when she saw Hunsinger post online about IGGPC and eagerly applied to join its staff when the club announced they needed more help months later. Giammarco had participated in swaps on LiveJournal for craft supplies and candy with girls from around the world, so she thought getting a geeky pen pal from somewhere would be a great experience. Something, she told Blastr, that has been true since she joined. Another current staff member, Summer Sparacin, joined the club in the second round of pen pals once it first started and joined the staff a year later. Before the club, she never had a pen pal who she didn’t know from growing up.
“I liked the idea of the whole concept of just being paired with someone who has similar interests to you [but] may not live near you. I thought [that] was really cool so I was excited to try that out and see who I would get paired with,” she said. “It’s like one of those mystery grab bags. You don’t know what’s in it but you want to get it because of the excitement of finding a new friend, finding someone new and exciting that you’re going to like.”
Joanna Volavka, who joined in the third round of initial sign ups and has been on staff for about two years, had a lot of internet friends in her teens thanks to being into forum roleplays and finding more people online she shared interests with than people in real life. For her, she said joining IGGPC felt natural as the next step in the progression of what she was doing.
“As far as snail mail goes, to me there’s just something that’s so personal about that tangible thing like somebody thought of me enough to actually handwrite something and put a stamp on it and mail it,” she told Blastr. “That takes intention and there’s something about that intention that is special.”
Despite today’s digital age with almost instant communication to anyone in the world available thanks to the internet, sending and receiving letters in the mail is still appealing to many. Hunsinger, who called herself an avid online shopper who receives a lot of stuff in the mail, agrees that there’s something special about receiving mail from a pen pal that was hand picked for you and who put the effort in to learn something about you to send you something special.
“It being a physical thing is so different from this instant gratification world we live in. We’re all over YouTube and we’re all over whatever, but the fact that it’s a physical thing that got sent to you that somebody put together and they wrote a note is just very intimate in a weird way but it’s also definitely intentional,” she said. “You and this person have to try to get to know each other in a way that you can get creative and figure out what you need to send them in the mail.”
Clearly this and the other aspects of the club resonate with the many people who have joined over the last three years. Hunsinger didn’t expect IGGPPC to grow as much as it has when she first started it with Farquharson-Hall. Over the years though they’ve had to add more staff to help as the club has grown beyond its original pen pal idea. According to Hunsinger, people began to want more than just the form site that was available to sign up for a pen pal. They wanted a website where they could go to forums, have activities they could take part in, and more. They also now have events such as a birthday party, Halloween party, and camp.
The growing group’s success has not gone unnoticed in the community either. They’ve been featured in multiple outlets and were nominated in the “best website/blog” category of the Geekie Awards in 2014. Hunsinger thinks part of the growth of the club has to do with the fact “that there’s nothing like it.”
“It’s really super niche. It’s super unique and weird and the other part of it is it’s like this perfect demographic of women who are on the internet who are already seeking companionship with other women in kind of a safe space cause I know we can all find the internet to be kind of a scary place,” she said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of making people feel like they will always find good people in this club and they don’t have to worry about going onto the forums and seeing trolls and hate and this and that. You know who’s in the community and you know they’re all cool so you can trust people who have decided to join the club because chances are they’re like minded.”
This has led to the staff hearing first hand from members what the experience of the IGGPPC has meant to them. Giammarco has run into girls at conventions in Toronto who are members of the club and are excited to talk to her about it. She’s also had positive moments with those who are just discovering the club at these conventions. Her best memory is from a convention where a mother with her teenage daughter approached the IGGPPC table and read a postcard about the club. The mother told her daughter the club sounded like something she would be into and the daughter told Giammarco that at school she didn’t really have friends and that she’s made fun of because of what she’s interested in.
“She was like ‘this sounds like so much fun. I could meet somebody who likes some of the same things as me’ and I was like ‘yea for sure. Sign up. If you have any questions, send us an email. We can try to get you paired with someone great’ and I was blown away by her excitement and enthusiasm when she read and heard what we could do for her and hopefully introduce her to some great people around the world,” she said.
Hunsinger also has received emails from people thanking them for the club and saying they are socially anxious or have depression or something else, and the club gives them support, strength, and friendship to break from their shell or make a friend or have the courage to try something.
“That feels so good because that really wasn’t the intention when we first started it and to see that it’s impacted people’s lives in such a cool way and such an awesome way, like not even people who need a little bit of help and extra loving, but so many people have traveled to meet each other,” she said. “We had two pen pals from across the pond. I think they’re from Australia and Florida, and they flew across the planet to meet each other and they met through the club. I obviously have met a lot of the staff. Joanna and Summer and I went to C2E2 and I would consider the girls on the staff all my best friends. We’ve gotten so close. It’s just really cool.”
It’s not just one type of geek who is benefiting from the club either. Volavka said they have a range of ages that participate. Each age group is sorted into one of four Houses on the website. People are paired within their age group and each House even has its own common room. According to Volavka, they have an active 35 and plus group with women in their 40s, 50s and older who participate and find community with others.
“Now in a way pop culturally it’s almost cool to be a geek or to at least have that kind of aesthetic. But when they were teenagers in the ‘70s, ‘80s it really wasn’t and they’re finding each other now and it’s really neat to see,” she said.
The club may have started out as a place for just women, but has opened up since then. Hunsinger said they didn’t think guys would be interested in signing up but as soon as they expressed interest the club began pairing them as well. For the first two years they only paired men with men and women with women but in January they opened up to cross pairing and having other gender identification options.
According to Sparacin, 10 months of the year they match pen pals together so anyone interested can sign up between the 15th and the end of those months. In the next two weeks after that, during the first two weeks of the month, they’ll be paired with a pen pal. Those that don’t want to wait to get involved can also just join the website and participate in community activities, forums, and other things they have going on. The community members, called IGGLES, are also active on social media like Twitter if you want to join the conversation there.
IGGPPC certainly adds a unique way for geeks to connect in the community, embracing an old, beloved form of communication that doesn’t receive enough attention these days. Whether you want to stay offline or embrace the digital aspects as well, the community built by IGGPPC seems to be one safe for all kinds of geeks in a world where geek culture can sometimes still be hostile to some. While everyone in the group has various hopes for its future, it’s clear whatever changes happen to the club is in the hands of those that participate and not just the founders and staff.
“I think it will continue to go as far as people want it to and people have had such good experiences with it and made such good friends, have such good memories, I think that’s why everybody is telling everybody about it,” Hunsinger said. “It’s not just us marketing [it] ourselves, it’s people join the site or they become members and then they tell their friends about it so I think that’s really going to help us spread with all the positive experiences people continue to have with the club.”
You can find out more about IGGPPC and register for a pen pal on their website.