The “death of newsletters”?

John Gruber from Daring Fire-Ball whines:

Apple should do something similar: identify and block spy trackers in email by default, and route all other images through an anonymizing proxy service.1 And, like Hey, they should flag all emails containing known trackers with a shame badge. It’s a disgraceful practice that has grown to be accepted industry-wide as standard procedure, because the vast majority of users have no idea it’s even going on. Through reverse IP address geolocation, newsletter and marketing email services track not just that you opened their messages, but when you opened them, and where you were (to the extent that your IP address reveals your location).

He’s right, but not entirely right. He made an impassioned plea to Apple to consider this “feature” and as a fanboy, he’s explicitly blind to many other technology innovations which otherwise escape his radar by being completely blindsided by the promise of “privacy by default”. The tracking pixels are available by default in some paid mail applications and are critical to understand the read-receipts. Newsletters, as an industry, is a different ball game altogether.

By default, most newsletters send “tracking pixels” – ones that track the users (as above) through a remote server. It is combined in aggregate by unknown data brokers, but it isn’t the only source of tracking. Browser fingerprinting is more sinister, and Apple has always made subpar mediocre software (browser and mail application). By relying on its unreliable “cloud syncing solution”, it makes a mess.

Here’s something interesting how Substack does it:

Substack has the most unfriendly and user-hostile tracking links that I’ve seen. It’s a single undecipherable blob. Here’s an example:

http://email.substack1.exponentialview.co/c/eJxdkEuOhCAQhk_TLI1VIOqCxWz6GoZHaZOx0WDZPc7pB9vdJARSCfU_Pm-ZpiUfZl02Fuc18LGSSfTeZmKmLPaN8hCDwU43UmsUwbTglEIRt2HMRE8bZ8N5J7Hubo7eclzSZwMbFA8DUtV9b0MgqJUf0bmuRtQBGvQtBXfZ2j1ESp4MvSgfSyIxmwfzepNfN7yXw-945qn88iyT_S3GIhqsEYpaUW7apq-gsqOuNYFVspG-gXEEX7sAnXQokWR_U_W2u42t_4aKftbilDja-RXpXbRFNo7SxDZB-Tmd3U7Hs9pQ3ueeIh8DJetmCldrvuB9OAwTJcoFahgsG9Agu06qrut1e9UsWCS2CIWlKDnCUraS-ZfjD2RriM4

At some point, I discover that these links aren’t generated by Substack but by Mailgun. Mailgun is an outbound email provider that companies use to send out email. Mailgun is a wholesaler and its customers, such as Substack, are retailers.

So substack is just one service spin-off and does not even own the critical part of it’s technology. It means that they are either relying on some long-term arrangement with the third party tracking company or have something which they aren’t public about.

Why should this be important for the readers here? Subscription business is about owning the subscribers and the billing relationships. Apple is valuable precisely for this and not the fancy hardware it announces “every-fall”. It is precisely, the ability to lock up the users in the ecosystem without escape (and without any credible alternatives) that will make the users pay more and more. So instead of many third party companies that insurance companies have to deal with, Apple is slowly aggregating and leveraging those metrics for the next “health-care application” and defining ways to get “proof-of-metrics” of engagement. Have a look at the weekly reports it pushes out weekly. Do you think it cares about your time spent interacting with the devices? It is the first iteration, and I am betting on this to become better. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out it’s machinations. Just connect the dots.

Let me come back to the central question- will it be the death of the newsletters? In the fragmented attention economy, the one with the loudest bugle stands out. Creator economy ensures that meritocracy wins but it’s only the top 1% who make the money (because they are influencers); everyone must follow the long tail towards monetisation. It also means you need not only to own the medium, but also have a way to export out. That’s why I remain committed to the idea of data federation. Possibly, the death of newsletters is an exaggaeration. However, Apple will take the centre stage to define what can stay relevant.