Medellín, Colombia

April 28, 2019

On ants, being watched, and building a better future.

Here in Medellín, there are these impossibly small ants, and they are everywhere. On trees, the sides of buildings, over sidewalks and street signs. A few even make it up to my 10th floor apartment.

And they are adorable.

But even more than their cuteness, they've really made me think. See, when a tiny horde of adorable ants is roving my apartment looking for food, I have to do everything properly. Seal food up. Wash dishes promptly. Regularly clean my countertops, and take out the trash. You know, the stuff I'm supposed to do.

But if you're like me - and we're being honest - we don't actually do all that stuff, all the time. I put things off and figure it'll be fine tomorrow. Or the next day. And generally, that's good enough - even though deep-down, I know it's not the right way to do things.

Here in Colombia, I don't have a choice. If I don't want to have to murder a thousand ants over a cracker, I have to do things the right way. That changes how I feel in my everyday life - and that's what's made me think.

See, as I'm bringing Ink and Feet back up to speed, I'm examining a lot of the choices I made in getting it running the first time. Like a lot of people, I used Google for analytics, another service to send emails, another one to host the courses I'd written, and one more to distribute the electronic copies of the books.

And all the while, information about me - and you - was changing hands. And while I trust the companies I've been working with, we all know the stories about what Facebook, Google, and hundreds of competitors are doing to track, manipulate, and monetize our attention.

And that's not the future I want to be a part of building.

One of my lodestones for re-starting Ink and Feet has been, "Build things right. Do them so far above board that nobody, anywhere, could criticize them." Put another way, do things like someone is watching.

It means not running any of those targeted ad campaigns that make us feel spied on. Not tracking people who visit my website (or allowing Google to track them in exchange for analytics). Not sending emails just because someone subscribed to something five years ago. Not running any "until they're gone" sales for things that aren't actually in limited supply.

I think one of the weirdest things about doing business on the internet is that almost without thinking, you can do things that would be completely unacceptable in real life.

Most people who send out newsletters like this one can tell which emails you opened, what things you clicked on, what pages you went to after that, and what products you're thinking about buying.

So many companies do this that it seems normal. Marketing firms would tell you that those are best practices for an internet business.

But if your grocery store did that - sent someone into your house to watch if you'd opened the coupons they sent out, then had that person follow you around all day to see what you looked at - you'd call the police. And rightly so.

One of the best things about the internet is that it provides anonymity to vulnerable people and populations. But one of the worst things about the internet is that it provides anonymity to people who, really, shouldn't be given it. There's no reason a company who's tracking where you go on the internet and what emails you open shouldn't have to disclose that.

Which brings me back to the ants. The thing that's different with adorable ants in my life is the feeling that I'm always being watched, tested. But because what I'm being "tested" on isn't some crazy difficult moral choice, but something basic that I should really be doing anyway, instead of feeling creepy, it actually feels good.

There's just a gentle nudge - "hey, I think you're done with that plate. Why don't you wash it up?"

I want that same nudge here, that same healthy sense of watching, on Ink and Feet. So as I get things back off the ground, I'm doing them a bit different this time.

Ink and Feet - my website, these letters, and the all of products I have - will run entirely on open-source systems that I'm writing and releasing for free. You (or a geeky friend) will be able to see exactly what's happening, every step of the way. Any data you share with me will be encrypted, and if you'd like, you can even double-lock them with a key that only you have.

And if you run a website, shop, or newsletter, you'll be able to use the same software I use to run your business or community group, for free.

I'll also be removing all third-party platforms that track people's data - no Google analytics, no Facebook pixel, no more company that did my email and product delivery.

Finally, I'm going change the way these letters work a bit. I call it "engaged subscription." In the real world, if you're hanging out with someone and they stop returning your calls or responding to your texts, you eventually take the hint and stop calling. You continue to engage with people only when you get positive feedback on a regular basis.

This is how things should work on the internet, too, and it's how they're going to work in these letters. At the bottom of each letter, there will be a link to tell me if you loved it. If you haven't loved any of them in six months, you'll get a message asking if you still want to be subscribed. If you don't click on that, you'll be automatically unsubscribed, and your data will be erased from my systems.

It's going to take a bit to build this stuff out, but today is actually the start of that process. The email you're reading right now was sent through the new system I wrote over the last two weeks. It doesn't use any marketing services, doesn't contain any tracking code, and doesn't know if you've opened it or read it or anything. You know, the way it should be. :)

As I'm going through this process, I'll also publicly talk about the decisions I'm making and why - and invite you to comment and give me feedback.

The internet is made of people just like you, and me.

Let's make it a little bit better. :)

See you next week,

-Steven

p.s. The best thing I saw all week was this video from the wonderful Great Big Story. Have you ever wondered where the game Settlers of Catan came from? Turns out it's this adorable German man. :)

Oh, also - if this is the first letter you've gotten in a while, I've been sending them, my old email system just wasn't getting them to you. If you're interested, you can catch up here. :)

Enjoy this letter? Share it!