Today, let’s talk about one of Apple’s many announcements this week at the World Developer Conference, which some see as a possible threat to the rise of email journalism. If that sounds smug, given that it comes from a journalist who spreads his work by email, I apologize. But it touches on so many topics that interest us here – the technology giant’s ability to reshape markets to its liking; how journalism will orient itself in the era of the platform; what we mean when we talk about privacy – that I hope to arouse your interest at least a little.
Start with the ad. On Monday, WWDC announced Apple̵
In the Mail application, Privacy Privacy Protection stops senders from using invisible pixels to collect information about the user. The new feature helps users prevent senders from knowing when to open an email and masks their IP address so that it cannot be linked to other online activity or used to determine their location.
When you finally update your iPhone to iOS 15 this fall, you’ll see a screen inviting you to join at launch.
Suppose most Apple Mail users turn on. How much data is needed to build an email-based business? I have read and heard many disagreements over the past day.
A brief reference for intruders who are not by email. E-mail merchants have long begun to include invisible pixels in the emails they send you; when you open their messages, these pixels are loaded, telling the sender that you have read their message, and you can also lock your location from your IP address.
Collectively, the percentage of people who actually open emails is known as the opening rate, and this is one of the most important metrics that senders measure to assess the effectiveness of what they are doing. It gives you an idea of how engaged your audience is and how that commitment changes over time.
At the same time, there is a long tradition of people finding this sinister. Email startup Superhuman had to apologize in 2019 after a viral blog post explained how the company tracks when, where and how often people open emails sent through its service. The marking, a non-profit edition that often focuses on data privacy issues, turned down eight potential e-mail providers before finding one that would agree to turn off traceability.
Last year, when Basecamp launched the Hey email service, it made tracking pixel blocking a marking feature. In today’s blog post, Basecamp co-founder David Heinmeier Hanson – no Apple fan at all! – Declared victory against tracking pixels. He wrote:
Given Apple’s monopoly advantage with their pre-installed mail application, we don’t need much of what they call Mail Privacy Protection to break the dam of spy pixels. You really can’t say anything authoritative about opening prices if 5-10-30-50% of your recipients are protected against eavesdropping, because you won’t know if that’s why your spy pixel doesn’t work or because they just don’t. you open your email.
There is also simply no way for consumers to voluntarily accept the premise of spy pixels if Apple presents the dangers to privacy as clearly and as honestly as we did at HEY. Apple has already shown that in their quest to block unique ad IDs for tracking different apps in iOS 14.5: 96% of US users have refused to allow apps to track them that way! And spy email pixels are far worse and much scarier.
Let’s clarify a few things in front. One, most people still don’t know that these spy pixels exist. Two, if they do, most people probably won’t let them if given a choice. Third, most of these spy pixels are used for marketing purposes – efforts to better target you for e-commerce. I don’t think it’s at all irrational to look at the way things are the way Apple did it and say it to hell.
At the same time, e-mail publishing is one of the few highlights for journalism in recent years. (Of course, it was a bright place for me!) Media companies from Facebook to Twitter to New York Times now invest heavily in newsletter strategies; new email-based publishers appear every week. Much of this happened after the success of Substack, which I use to publish Platformer (see disclosure).
So it’s no surprise that some observers look at the privacy protection of mail and see a threat. “This is another sign that Apple’s war against targeted advertising is not just about fucking Facebook,” Joshua Benton wrote in the Nieman Lab. “They also come for your Substack.”
Benton carries several powerful numbers to support his concerns: “The latest Litmus market share numbers, for May 2021, 93.5% of all open phone emails come in Apple Mail on iPhone or iPad, ”he writes. “Desktop computers respond to Apple Mail on a Mac 58.4% from all emails open. “
It seems clear that Apple’s move to cut detailed customer data from email senders will affect the economy of email. But after talking to newsletter writers and media executives today, I’m not sure that people who do e-journalism have so many worries about the shift.
“The advertising industry has become addicted to tracking, giving priority to the bottom of the funnel’s performance over great content and creativity. This is tragic, “said Alex Cantrowitz, author of the free newsletter with advertising support Great technology. (Previously covered the industry for Advertising age.) “And that’s why people hate advertising and advertising companies.”
Cantrowitz told me that his advertising list was sold out in the first half of the year, thanks to a first-class audience, which he identified not by pixel-based tracking, but by good old-fashioned research among readers. (The markingalso uses reader surveys to build a picture of its user base.)
“Pixel blocking makes placements like this more valuable and gives quality email newsletters a leg up in the trash, clogging most people’s mailboxes,” Cantrowitz said.
Then, for ad-based newsletters, protecting mail privacy is likely to encourage publishers to find other ways to understand their audience. But how about paid ballots, like the one from which this column is syndicated?
Apple’s move could have even less of an impact on newsletters maintained by readers, the leaders of the publishing industry told me today. Writers can triangulate readers’ engagement through a number of indicators that are still available to them, including the opinions their stories receive online, the overall growth of their mailing list, and – most importantly – their revenue growth.
The media business is changing so fast that it doesn’t seem at all irrational to read about a move like the one Apple made this week and to assume that it would be bad for journalism. But in this case, it mostly seems like a false alarm. There are a number of changes that major e-mail providers, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, can make that would make life difficult for newsletter-based businesses. In the end, though, I don’t think blocking spy pixels is one of them.
That said, I can’t finish without pointing out the ways in which Apple itself is taking advantage of the repression of email data collection. The first is obvious: it further burns the company’s privacy credentials, part of an ongoing and incredibly successful public relations campaign to build consumer confidence during a collapsing belief in institutions.
Taken together, the many features of iOS 15, focused on user privacy, combine to put more pressure on the digital advertising ecosystem. Perhaps most notably, Private Relay – available to Apple iCloud + subscribers – will encrypt all traffic leaving the device to the user, making it harder for advertisers to track.
One of my more cynical friends sees all of this as a way to focus more businesses on building apps, offering in-app purchases, and promoting Apple advertising products. Marketing emails don’t work as well as they used to? Sounds like it’s time to buy some keywords in the App Store!
And what about creators who want to move away from the advertising model? Apple will be there, ready and waiting to take a 30% discount on Twitter Super Follows, paid podcasts and tickets on Facebook.
It is sometimes said that Amazon’s ultimate goal is to reduce all economic activity. Looking at Apple’s privacy moves this week, I’m mostly willing to take them at face value – as a necessary counterbalance to the relentless rise of online tracking technology. But it also seems clear that Apple’s value exceeds customer satisfaction – and as revenue from in-app advertising and purchases grows, it would be good to watch as its policies gradually restructure the economy.
This section is co-published with Platformer, a daily newsletter on big technology and democracy.