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Hey Activists, Don’t Be a MailChump!
We don't need DataFarmers to send email for us
This piece is another somewhat updated version of an old favourite, published on CoActivate.org. At the time, MailChump were the sending-email-as-a-service company I ran into the most. But the criticisms here apply just as much to other for-profit mass email senders, like SendGrid and MailGun.
I strongly disagree with activist organisations using web services run by corporations. I believe it’s unethical to allow corporations to harvest and mine data about what activist causes are of interest to who, and potentially puts activists and the causes we support at risk. There is plenty of Free Code (”Open Source”) software that our organisations can use to host our own services; if you can host a website, it’s not that much more difficult to host the other web services you need. There are also various not-for-profit organisations that provide web services tailored specifically to the needs of activists.
Why does this matter? In my first few years of experimenting with using the internet to support my activism on various causes, I set up a number of email lists. Since I had no access to servers, nor knowledge of how to use them, I set up my email lists using a gratis mailing list service offered by a startup called EGroups.
Like any Silicon Valley startup, EGroups was not designed to provide long-term service to its users, but to serve as a financial speculation vehicle for venture capitalists. Within a couple of years it had merged with another startup called OneList, and then been acquired by Yahoo! After its founders and the venture capitalists who had invested in it walked away with US$432 million, Egroups was then merged with Yahoo! Clubs to create YahooGroups. Many of the email lists I had created were mangled in various ways during the transition process, but since we were the product, not the customer, Yahoo! didn’t care, and nothing got fixed.
Since then, I’ve also seen startups dangle gratis services as bait, only to start charging ongoing fees, while refusing to allow users to export their own data. I’ve learned more about how “free” services offered by internet companies are used as honeypots to track us and gather information about us, whether for marketing or even more manipulative and sinister purposes like “political marketing“. I’ve learned about “walled gardens” and the “network effect“, where people become an unwitting (and unpaid) salesperson for every web service they use, by encouraging everyone they know to use the same services, so they can connect with each other online. Noting all these issues, I have invested a lot of time and energy into finding ways for activists to either self-host our own internet services, or find ethical hosts whose priority is to serve their users, not the financial interests of a parasitic tech investor class.
So, I have watched with dismay over the last few years as more and more activist groups and other community organisations make the same mistake I did, turning to corporations like Goggle, and even worse startups like MailChump, to host their mailing lists.
Worse, I’ve even noticed open source communities using MailChump. In my mind there is no reason for an open source community running their own servers to do this.
Email mailing lists are one of the oldest “social media” forms on the net, and there are a plethora of free code packages available for running listservers or sending out email newsletters. For example, in the early 2010s, Permaculture in NZ adopted CiviCRM as their membership database. Allowing them to send out newsletters to their members without giving their members’ contact information to anyone outside the organisation.
If you need the extra-for-experts stuff that MailChump offers on top of the standard listserver features, a free code package called Mautic offers these. It can be used as a commercial service hosted by the developers, or you can follow the example of the Open Educational Resources Foundation and roll-your-own Mautic server.
For non-geek groups who don’t have the resources to run their own servers, there are plenty of hosting organisations that exist to serve their users, and that run on free code [and many more of these community-hosting services have emerged in the 6 years since this piece was originally written]. I’ve been part of activist email lists using using a number of services including RiseUp.net, OnlineGroups.net [RIP], and of course, CoActivate.org [RIP].
There is also forum software like Loomio and Discourse, which provide sufficient email integration that these can be used like mailing lists. Loomio host their own trial service at Loomio.org, and one place you can try Discourse is a gratis, privacy-respecting host called Iridescent, supported by NZOSS. As awareness continues to grow about the risks of using proprietary, corporate-run “cloud” services, tech activists have been working on creating new hosting organisations, and finding ways to make it easier for people and groups to host your own services. Watch this space.
While we’re on the subject of mass email, the “service” that seems to make MailChump so attractive is that is uses HTML to add a bunch of trackers to the email sent through its servers. Putting aside the ethics of enabling companies to use email to track people we like, I strongly discourage people from sending HTML by email. Email is designed as a text-only medium, and it works better this way. HTML email massively increases the amount of space email takes up in someone’s inbox, how much of their data allowance is used looking at it, and how much of the total resources of the internet are used by email that may not even be wanted or seen. HTML email also creates vectors for viruses and malware to spread through email, vectors which do not exist in plain text email.
If you want to show someone a page of HTML, it’s better to put that on a website, and include a link to it in a plain text email. That way people can read the email anytime, then look at the linked web pages when they are using fast, un-metered internet. This is also helpful to people still using dial-up connections, or slow rural broadband.
In summary, please, please, please, don’t use MailChump!
Now, discerning readers will notice that some of my criticisms of MailChump here also apply to SubStack, which has taken on millions of dollars in venture capital. So why am I using a VC-funded platform to host a newsletter where I routinely condemn VC-funded platforms? Fair cop.
But as I said in the intro post,
“I like the fact that writers and readers here are customers, not just eyeballs to be “engaged”, or livestock to be datafarmed for the benefits of advertisers. I’m an evangelist for social enterprises like Snikket and cooperatives like Loomio, and there are a growing number of these running platforms that work this way. But despite VC-funding being a black mark against it in my book, SubStack solves a problem few (if any) of them do, by building in a system for paid subscriptions. It would be lovely to finally get paid for some of my writing (hint, hint).
Also, SubStack seem to have woken up to the compromising nature of VC funding. They recently ran a successful equity crowdfunding campaign, allowing the community of writers and readers who use the platform to fund its next round of growth, and become co-owners.
This could be a move towards the kind of “exit to community” I want to see more of. Where instead of selling themselves to a corporation - or becoming one with an “IPO” - a startup sells itself to the people who use it. Maybe in a few years, SubStack could become another platform cooperative? I hope so, and if there’s anything we can do to nudge it in that direction, I’ll be sure to let you know.
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