Earn.com Will Ruin Email if it Succeeds. It Must Fail.

Ernie Smith on 2018-02-25

If you use the service Earn.com to manage your emails, I will unsubscribe you from my newsletter. Sorry, but I do not respect what it represents.

As someone who runs a newsletter, one thing that I think is very important to emphasize is that I don’t add other people to that newsletter; readers add themselves. This is how the model works.

So it’s in this spirit that a message I received a little while ago knocked me off my feet and made me want to blaze into a fire of a million suns:

The message introduced me to a service called Earn.com, which has recently introduced a feature that allows users to “manage their inbox” by requiring that unknown people trying to contact them pay money. Sonya Mann of Inc. (as well as the late, lamented Exolymph newsletter) explains the recent shift by the company, that was previously known as 21.co, which tries to make it possible for people to earn small amounts of money in cryptocurrency form.

The reason I got this is because the service has an “auto-bounce” feature that blocks senders that it doesn’t recognize. The sender who bounced me has been subscribed to my newsletter for a year, so clearly something is broken—or it’s intentionally working in a way that infuriates users.

The intended use case of the email feature, per Mann? It’s intended for people who are busy and want to limit the number of emails they get. (She also notes that BuzzFeed reporter Ryan Mac had a similar moment of rage as I did when I encountered the service.) Mann’s take:

Is it really unhelpful? That depends on the outcome that you’re optimizing for. Charging money to respond to a message does seem to contradict the whole principle of email, which is that anyone can contact you. But if you want to reward emails only from people who deeply care about getting in touch with you, specifically, then requiring a small payment makes a lot of sense.

Let me put this another way: This model is a Randian fever dream if I’ve ever seen one. It focuses on individual greed over the sanctity of one of our few effective platforms that hasn’t formed behind a walled garden. Email is open, and incredibly valuable because it is open. A model like this threatens to close it, all for the sake of a select few who prefer personal gain over the sanctity of a service that benefits the culture as a whole.

If this service succeeds, it will ruin email. It will burn it to the ground in the most user-hostile way imaginable. We must not let it succeed. We must fight it.

I don’t want to be mean or cruel or even hurtful to readers, who I really care about, so please, when I say this, it’s not personal, but: If I get a message saying I’ve been blocked from sending a newsletter to you, one that you signed up for, I unfortunately will not be paying you for the honor. I may unsubscribe you from my list instead.

The threat that a model like this creates for something as basic as email can’t be ignored and shouldn’t be. I hope it fails.

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail. You’ve possibly run into one of my pieces on Motherboard, Atlas Obscura, Popular Mechanics, The Outline, or Neatorama.