Don't Ask Me for My Email Address

These days, anyone organizing competent promotional efforts (events, organizations, themselves, etc) invests various degrees of their attentions to online efforts. One reason for this is economics: efforts to “spread the word” online has the potential to reach more people at the expense of fewer resources and, therefore, less money.

One of the most commonly-leveraged contact points has become the email inbox.

Nearly everyone has an email address, and many of us have several — one for work, one personal. I presently have four, for example.

Generally speaking, people have largely become very comfortable communicating over email. It doesn’t carry the “burden” of requiring an immediate response, unlike a phone call, and can be whatever length the author thinks is appropriate for the correspondence.

It’s also easy to share information around the conversation in emails, by including a URL that points to further information on some website, or by attaching photos or other small files. This capability allows promoters to keep their message concise (if they’re clever), and yet provide leads to supplemental information for those with interest in pursuing the deeper details of the message.

Finally, it allows the author to write up a single message that can be delivered to a (theoretically) limitless number of people.

For all these reasons, one of the most common techniques that promoters adopt is the email campaign. They focus efforts on accumulating email addresses of people that could potentially be interested in their product, services, performances, or whatever it is they’re on a mission to promote.

Some years ago, I would share my email address with people and organizations whose news I’d have interest in following: bands, artists, pro-social organizations, and more.

But after a while, I noticed my inbox just blowing up.

The more I gave my email address out, the more emails I’d have to deal with every day.

I’m not really interested in anyone’s ideas on how I can be making millions from home, offers for debt reduction, or substances that promise me the ability to drive nails through wooden boards with my penis (promise me the same for granite, however, and maybe we’ll talk).

Access Gone Awry

It got to the point where the first thing I’d do when I sat down to check in with my email was to scan each new message to determine who sent it; if the sender wasn’t a friend or some other party that I’d considered important to hear from at the moment, I’d just delete the message. Then I’d start actually reading the new messages.

How does one’s email address wind up on those lists? There’s no one answer, but they’re usually “stolen,” either from mailing list databases with lax security, or by malware that manages to infest peoples’ personal computers.

This clandestine and unauthorized collection of email addresses is a huge business. It’s also illegal in most parts of the world.

In the US, there are several laws in place intended to safeguard our email addresses. These laws require anyone conducting email promotions to be forthcoming about any intent to use the addresses they collect for promotional messaging. In fact, everyone collecting email addresses is required to completely disclose how they intend to use peoples’ email addresses, as well as provide a reliable mechanism by which people can “unsubscribe” from promotional email messaging at their sole discretion.

There are even laws that dictate the handling of email addresses.

I work at a major media company, largely doing server-side development on their websites. I occasionally have to request copies of databases from these sites in order to enhance or otherwise alter how the site works with its data; I work on copies to the risk of hosing the live site’s database. Many of our databases include the private email addresses of their users, and we are required by law to take precautions to ensure that their information is reasonably protected from theft. Typically, the user table containing the addresses might be omitted, if possible, or the email addresses may get randomized. What specifically happens depends on the data requirements around what needs to get done.

Compile and Sell

For some sites, user registrations exist for the express purpose of accumulating and selling the database of peoples’ contact information to other organizations. The good news is that it the law requires anyone doing so to completely disclose this intent to each person that provides their email address. The bad news is that not everyone follows such rules, so do be careful with whom you share your email address.

For this reason, many people have an “auxiliary” personal email address (maybe some Yahoo! or GMail account) that they use to sign up for random stuff they just want to check out, only later providing their primary email address after the quality of that membership proves valuable to them.

Theft & Harvesting

More commonly, however, the email addresses are simply stolen by hackers from insecure servers. And more common still is that email addresses are harvested from peoples’ personal computers by malware (like a trojan or virus) that makes it aboard the system, and starts to scour the computer owner’s address books and inboxes for all the email addys its greedy little algorithm can dig up.

Emails with a bazillion addresses in the _To_ or _CC_ fields are fucking gold mines for such malicious software.

This is why law-abiding email promotion campaigns do not disclose the email addresses of members to each other; each email you receive on a mailing list run by a respectable entity (whether company, organization, or professional artist) is either addressed to the promoter’s own email address, a “do not reply” address, or only to the recipient.

This safeguard strategy is nowhere near bullet-proof, but it’s the best the law can presently do. The rest is up to you.

So I’m very discretionary about giving my email address out. I certainly want my friends to have it. I’m even comfortable with the idea of my bank or utility companies having it. The benefits of certain specific people having that contact point outweighs the potential disadvantages of what might happen if it leaks out.

Of course, I consequently expect that anyone with whom I’ve shared the information will treat it respectfully; at some point you just have to take a leap of faith, or three.


But I don’t give my email out to, say, bands any more. Nor do I give it out to representatives of charity organizations, or political campaigns, or stores I like to shop at, even if I may be interested in some or all of their promotional messaging.

I prefer to modulate the degree to which I’m messaged by promoters.

Email has become an important communications medium; one that, for better or worse, I have become reliant upon. There are plenty of useful and relevant messages that come into my inbox for me to deal with, from billing statements to travel itinerary confirmations. And at work, I want to see only the email that’s relevant to my job.

In 2009, we have no lack of things and people vying for our attention throughout the day. It’s consequently become increasingly useful to protect the signal-to-noise ratio of the information vying for our attention. People won’t stop competing for it, so it’s each person’s responsibility to safeguard access to their attention to the extent appropriate for the life they want to lead.

Unfortunately, email is not a medium that affords you any control whatsoever over incoming messaging. Anyone with your email address can send you a message (or even flood you with them), and there’s next to nothing you can do to stop them.

And so there’s an implicit trust contract that underlies each decision one makes to share their email address.

Access Modulation

Because my inbox is such an important personal contact point in my life, I have little interest in finding some generic, written-for-everyone-yet-no-one-in-particular messaging when I sit down to review my inbox. Of course, there are exceptions, like a CheapTickets travel deals list I’m on 1, but I want to keep such exceptions minimal (remember: signal-to-noise ratio).

So I’m stingy with giving out my email address.

Even so, I am still interested in keeping informed about “other stuff,” like upcoming shows of my friends’ bands, news from the White House, public health advisories, and parties at my local pub. I simply prefer to have some control over when I grant this material my attention.

I want to subscribe to their news in a way that allows me to modulate their access. And I’m not alone.

I hear, more and more, people telling stories about their “rediscovery” of a mode of life in which they’re less accessible. This usually comes attached to some story about a camping trip they took to either a national park, a vacation to some island abroad where they were just too far removed from the Internet, and their cell phone service. No phone calls, no text messages, no email. And attached to each such story — without fail — is a realization that there was something about this state of inaccessibility that they had started searching for ways to return to after returning to their “normal” lives.

“Mad As Hell” at the Network

Quite like the classic film Network foretold, I believe that modern society has been approaching a tipping point at which people are increasingly starting to demanding the reclamation of control over their accessibility. Not everybody, but a non-trivial amount, nonetheless.

So what’s a promoter to do?

The good news is that there are loads of ways for promoters to accommodate this. I’ll cover three.

RSS Feeds

Let’s start with adding RSS feeds to the news or announcements you post on your website. RSS isn’t as trendy as some of the other options I’ll cover, but it’s got the lowest barrier of adoption because anyone can access it, without having to register for a user account and remember passwords.

Like email, RSS feeds are unidirectional messaging. People need to come to your website and subscribe to your feeds.

And you have no insight into information about your subscribers, unless you use a service like Feedburner, which can at least give you insight into your total number of subscriptions, how your subscriptions change over time, and their geographic dispersal.


Everyone has heard of Twitter. Some love it irrationally, while others hate it irrationally. Both of y’all need to get over this. The fact remains, however, that it’s a medium that gives promoters access to loads of people.

One thing to keep in mind, however, is that people aren’t just “listening” on Twitter; they’re also “talking.” You’ve got opportunities to have conversations with your audience. And, just like at a party, you can leverage opportunities to jump in on conversations that are going on, and get your message out. Also, like at a party, you should exercise discretion on how and when you jump into conversations unsolicited; you can still come across as just as much of a douche bag on Twitter as you can in real life.

Twitter feeds are also relatively easy to promote. You uniquely identify yourself to people using @username notation (I, for example, am @prometheas). That’s something super easy to put onto, say a flyer or sticker.

Like RSS, however, you don’t get much information about who is “following” your posts.


If you’re not promoting on Facebook, you’re dropping a serious ball. At the time of this writing, it’s got a vast number of members (and the most international members), and the highest rate of growth of any social networking community.

What you want to do is set up a Page; don’t use your personal profile for promotions (I’ll explain in a moment).

Of course, the first step would be to create a personal profile, if you don’t already have one. But personal profiles are designed to be personal, and built with privacy concerns in mind. As such, the social connections between profiles are bi-directional — “friendship” requests must be “approved” before Facebook recognizes them, to allow “sharing” of information and messaging between the parties.

Pages, by contrast, are not designed with privacy in mind. They are designed for the public dissemination of information for promotional purposes.

Connections between users and Pages are therefore uni-directional: a person becomes a “fan” of whatever person, organization, etc has organized a particular Page. It is not necessary for the users maintaining the Page to “accept” anything; the subscribing user immediately has access to all messaging produced by the people maintaining that Page.

The maintainers of a page also have access to anonymous information about the Page’s fans, such as the breakdown of their ages, their geographic dispersal, and access to page views, and more. This is all information that you can then use to run ad campaigns online (both on Facebook and other places), and build an understanding of your audience. Email will never give you this.

Let’s Make a Deal

So, I know you’re not going to stop asking me for my email address. And I know people will continue to willfully hand over their email addresses to promoters; it’s their right to do what they wish with their own information.

While I may well be interested and willing to tune in to your message, you can’t have me any old time you want me.

And so I suggest that you promoters wishing to have access to my attention (and the growing numbers of others like me) make it possible for me to follow your news on my terms, and we can both win.

  1. 1.I like to keep the possibility of that spontaneous weekend getaway theoretically open…