The Shopping Mall in Your Inbox

Ian Bogost writes in the Atlantic:

It feels like every company and organization I’ve ever transacted with sends me email every week. Some every day, even. Some multiple times a day.

I see this in action with my wife’s “free” email account hosted by one of the major players in the email provider space. She has another email account that sees none of this. Not because that address is unknown but because it’s hosted on a private email server that I run. Nothing gets through that isn’t specifically allowed by the postfix/spamassassin filters and lists. It’s quite simple, really. If either of us wants to do business with a company that requires an email, I create an email alias with the company’s name as the username. That alias is then assigned as a value to a “whitelist_to” key for spamassassin and entered into an virtual aliases database table for postfix to know the actual email account where the message should be delivered.

If we start getting messages from companies that don’t match the username, we know the original company either sold their list or has been compromised. When that happens, the alias assigned to the “whitelist_to” key is reassigned to a “blacklist_to” key and the alias removed from the virtual aliases database table. We never see another message sent to that alias.

In a very few cases, this also means changing the email address registered with the original vendor. But more often than not, the alias was set up as a one-time purchase and can safely be excluded. I have hundreds of these aliases set up.

The major email providers could implement a system like this. But their business model relies on advertising revenue and such a system isn’t in their interests. The people who have signed up for a “free” email account are, after all, part of their product. And why would they listen to their product and not their paying customers.

Speculating about a perfect world, Ian continues…

The algorithms churn until you’ve interacted with enough promotional emails that every store you like delivers perfectly timed messages that cater to your every need and desire. Fulfilled, happy, you purchase every item advertised to you. Of course, this is not actually what happens. The irony of people’s supposed desire to receive emails from their favorite companies is that more than half of consumers in the United States and Canada say they receive too much promotional email. Personalization is supposed to make relevant messages get through and irrelevant ones falter. But what “relevance” means is constantly changing. If I need new pants, an apparel ad might be welcome. If I don’t, it’s just annoying.

This is the downside of a push system. My email server is more aligned with a pull system. If w need or want something, we go look for it, usually at some place we’ve shopped before. It’s a minimalist mindset thing. The personal habits around this approach greatly minimize impulse purchases. The lack of stuff in our life reflects the success of this strategy – we have no debt, drive 20 year old cars, and replace phones only when the apps we need no longer work because Android no long supports them.

Ian continues…

The fundamental reason marketing emails are clogging up everyone’s inboxes is that email marketing represents the collective outcome of a company’s interactions with its customers and the mailbox services; it does not, in other words, represent me.

Indeed. Virtually all the email marketing from a vendor is opt-out once you’ve given them your email address. Research suggests there would be significant shift in the amount of follow-on marketing if everything was opt-in.

Quoting Helena Tse, the vice president of marketing at Bonobos, Ian observes:

She also told me that the company “continuously explores how to better our toolkit to automate and optimize the frequency business rules.” A professional proclamation such as this might elicit nods at an industry conference, but it casts me in the role of a generator of data rather than a paying customer—let alone a living person who doesn’t need so many invitations to partake of Riviera shorts.

As I said, when you give your “free” email address to a business, you’ve become part of the overall product.


Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash