"maybe it's 'cuz 'cuz
we're all gonna die die"

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Bacn, go away

Over the past 48 hours or so, I went through one of my periodic cleaning-out-my-inbox frenzies, and this time I decided that I had to do something about all the junk that was accumulating in order that this process not be quite so overwhelming in the future. A little background on my email habits. I don't like email much. I hate using it for personal communications. I'd much rather talk on the phone. I'm also a natural-born procrastinator and ADDer. At the same time, I have a gluttonous appetite for information, in a way that I think is probably not all that good for my mental hygiene. What this adds up to is that I tend to sign up for every newsletter, alert, and update list that sounds like it might be interesting, and then let the emails pile up and bury the stuff that I really need to see. Once a month or so I go on a tear and erase everything. I hate doing this because I always discover emails that required me to take some action, like, two weeks prior.

This time, though, I created a new folder in Outlook (yes, I use Outlook) called "Unsubscribe" and put one copy of every ad, newsletter, and alert into it. Since then -- this was maybe Thursday -- I have been systematically going through that folder, finding the unsubscribe instructions in each message, and trying to get myself off the list. This turned out to be kind of an interesting experience and I thought I'd share some of my observations.

First, to my happy surprise, most of them make it pretty easy to unsubscribe these days. Most of the commercial emails now include something like a "safe unsubscribe" link, a URL with a long hashed argument, that will take you off the list with a single click. That makes the process pretty painless. Others, however, make you sign in and "manage your email preferences." That's annoying, especially since I usually couldn't remember the password, so I had to go through the process of requesting a reminder and resetting it and so forth. The toughest ones to deal with were, I think, Borders.com and Washingtonpost.com. (In the case of the latter, I'm still not actually sure I've unsubscribed.) But all in all, I'd guess that 75% of the messages could be dealt with very quickly.

The most irritating, unexpected problem to arise (and it's my own fault): over the years, I've signed up for things with four or five different addresses, and it's not always obvious from the email which address they're being sent to. I had to remember to check the headers to make sure I was unsubscribing the right address. This was especially problematic with old-fashioned listservs, since you control your subscription to those via email addresses and it takes a few minutes before the server lets you know whether your command was successful. I'd send a message like SIGNOFF POD to the list management address, then three minutes later I'd get two messages, one telling me my command had failed, the other one telling me that my address was not subscribed. You get the picture.

The lesson there is that I suppose you really need a simple "email policy" if you have multiple addresses. One address for all nonpersonal updates. I used to use different addresses based on how concerned I was about privacy -- i.e., one of several addresses that didn't suggest my name for mailing lists that I feared might sell my information, a freebie mail-forwarding service for lists that I thought might spam me. I used my work email for professional mailing lists and my Gmail account for stuff that had no professional connection. Etc. Well, not any more. I created a new address for all bacn. From now on, when I subscribe to anything (and I'll try to do it as little as possible), I'll use that. Everything sent to that address is going to get filtered so I don't see it unless I go looking for it. Probably the important principle to derive from this is: assume that every time you give your email address to a corporate entity, you'll start getting email from them in some quantity, and since you probably don't want to continue receiving those emails until you die, you'll probably want to unsubscribe someday. So think of a strategy (I'm not sure what the best strategy should be) now for making that unsubscribing process as painless as possible, or, failing that, at least avoid ways of making it more painful than it needs to be (like I have by using a welter of different addresses).

What was more interesting was that the process was really an object lesson in the "attention economy" concept. Going to one website after another to remove myself from their mailing lists brought home to me in a very concrete way how many corporations there are out there to whom I've voluntarily given some amount of personal information about my interests (as well as my demographic data). I unsubscribed from somewhere between 200 and 250 lists over the past couple days, and I think at least half were simple commercial messages.

Even odder, though, was the fact that I found it difficult, even painful. Like I said above, I'm something of a glutton when it comes to information. I behave with email updates more or less the same as I do at a cheap buffet restaurant -- I want to make sure I take one of everything, lest I inadvertently miss out on something good. I've never bought anything as a result of one of those marketing plugs from Circuit City or Babystyle or whatever, but I kind of had to steel myself to make the decision that I wouldn't even have the chance to know anymore when they were having their sales (not that I had even been reading the emails previously). This was even more true with information that I really like having at my disposal, even though I hadn't been taking advantage of it -- updates from Orion Magazine, headlines from the Washington Post, and the newsletter from the Simple Living Network (all excellent publications, in my view, but ... they were just sitting in my inbox for a month and then getting deleted). I kept having to repress this irrational fear of not knowing about something. (Luckily most of these publish feeds now, so I could placate those anxieties relatively easily.) My intuition tells me that the economics of the web plays on this fear pretty heavily. I also tend not to think that checking the box that says "notify me of promotions" for some business that I actually patronize might cost more, in terms of wasted time and energy, than it's worth.

I was also amazed to discover just how long I've been putting up with some of this stuff. Until last night, I was getting promotions at least monthly from DataViz because I am a registered user of MacLink Plus. I used that program with my old gray Powerbook, which I bought for grad school in 1995. I probably used it with my tangerine iBook, which I bought in 1999. I retired that computer four years ago and haven't used an Apple product with any regularity since then. (Nothing against Apple; I'm just broke.) I have also been getting promotions from Williams Sonoma, where I am sure I will never buy anything -- I stopped into their mall store once a few years ago and bought, for six bucks, a bunch of dishtowels that were on clearance, and when checking out I supplied my email address, and voilĂ .

The other thing that struck me was the vast range of uses to which we've put email, particularly authenticating identity. Almost every time I had to log in to a site to get myself off their list, it was a site where I'd created and then forgotten a password. Why bother remembering passwords when you can always just have it emailed to you? So instead of authenticating my identity via some unique piece of information in my head (password), I'm authenticating my identity as the human who uniquely has access to a particular email address. In a sense, then, my secure access to my various email addresses becomes the master authentication framework for all my other web-based identities. I guess it works O.K., but it doesn't seem like the smartest way to use email. Presumably other people have commented on this phenomenon too.

Another thing I had started using Gmail for was archiving my own content. I use a number of services that generate feeds, and I was using RSSFwd to create an automatically-updated, searchable archive of blog posts, CiteULike entries, and even del.icio.us links. Here again I decided that this was more trouble than it was worth. I have never actually used those archives for anything and they just cost time and energy to process. Sure, I could have set up filters, and maybe I still will, but I want to see if I actually want to after a few weeks.

Beyond this, there's the email-as-broadcasting model. I had created various of my own custom newsletters and newsradars using SimplyHeadlines (a great service if you don't know about it), squeet (now apparently offline), RSSFwd, R-mail, Google Alerts, and FeedBlitz. I had also signed up to get daily headlines from the Washington Post. Then there were all the listservs for things I was curious about: Christian Peacemaker teams (via mennolink.org), the National Security Archive, FICINO, the Relocalize network, A.Word.A.Day, and the Simple Living Network. Then there were the Google and Yahoo groups, the successors (in a way) to Usenet: groups for TiddlyWiki users, for patrons of the Phoenixville Farmers Market, and for Freecycle of Chester County, PA. I had also signed myself up for Google's news and web alerts for various topics, plus I was monitoring half a dozen web pages for changes using WatchThatPage (an astoundingly full-featured, reliable free service. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Go check it out).

Some of this stuff I just junked. I didn't have the time to read it anyway. Everything with a feed I put in my feed reader under the tag "feeds on probation," to see if I would ever actually look at it again. I didn't figure out what to do about sites that offer email newsletters but no RSS feeds. Is there an agreed-upon best model for handling those? I've tried various mail-to-rss solutions, like Mail2RSS.org and Mailbucket, but both do peculiar things to HTML-formatted messages, and plus it seems like a hack. For the moment, I'm going to subscribe to them in my new bacn-only address, but that seems like even more of a hack.

For the moment, I continue to subscribe to a number of fairly high-volume email lists from H-Net and other professional groups. I filter them into their own mailboxes and, to be honest, hardly ever read them. But for the most part, I expect to get a tiny fraction of the email that I used to get. I hope. Now, I suppose, we'll see if all these unsubscribe requests actually "took." As I was writing this entry, I got an ad from Circuit City, which I thought I'd unsubscribed from. I guess I'll try again. I also got a message from one of my mailing lists in my inbox, when I thought I'd set up a filter to divert all that stuff to my bacn box. I guess I'm not done yet. But I hope soon to have an inbox blissfully free of "earn more miles" schemes, Amazon.com new product announcements, weekend car rental deals, "free" VistaPrint offers, BlogCatalog notices, "free shipping when you spend ten thousand dollars" at this or that online retailer, etc. Wish me luck.

No comments: