Trust betrayed: a story of modern email

March 12, 2011

Recently, I was in the market for some moving supplies. I found an Internet supplier with good rates and made an order. Being an Internet place they wanted an email address, so I gave them one. Of course when I filled in their forms I made sure to unselect (and not select) any tick-box that said 'please send me promotional offers etc etc'. They shipped my stuff, I was happy, that was it.

Of course, you can guess what showed up in my email recently; a special promotion offer (for something completely unrelated to what I ordered and for which I have no interest and no use). It had unsubscribe instructions; since this was legitimate company, I gritted my teeth and followed them. Well, tried to follow them, because the attempt to reach their unsubscribe address bounced with 'no such subdomain'.

There's nothing special about my story. It's happened to everyone, sooner or later, and it is one of the fundamental reasons why modern email sucks. These days, giving people your email address involves extending trust to them, trust that they will not misuse the information that they've been given. And relatively frequently, that trust is betrayed. Is it any wonder that a lot of people are moving away from email when they can?

(There's probably not anything special about the company either, but I still can't recommend as a source for, well, anything. In fact I have to recommend against them, and do use an expendable email address in all communications with them.)

You can work in an environment where trust is routinely betrayed. You can take precautions, such as giving companies unique expendable email addresses and then canceling them when your trust is betrayed (as I did in this case). But this is fundamentally a workaround, not a solution, no matter how easy you make it on a technical level, because working in an environment of betrayal is fundamentally draining and not something that people like.

(I believe that this is the fundamental reason that various services for expendable email addresses have never caught on widely. People simply don't want to do things in an environment of betrayal; they would rather leave entirely.)

Written on 12 March 2011.
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Last modified: Sat Mar 12 00:10:04 2011
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