Hot startup Superhuman has been getting some backlash, as often happens when someone notices the precise methodology that a startup is using to enable a core feature. We’re well into stage 2 now when, inevitably, the backlash itself gets backlash.
The nut of it is that people have been exposed to the idea that Superhuman tracks email you send and receive and gives you tools to help you manage it. They do it on your behalf, but without the permission of the recipient.
You can read a review of the service by Lucas Matney, who spent six months with it, here on TC.
The best thing about all of this defense against the backlash chatter coming in is that the backlash itself is really not specious at all. People are literally just pointing out what they do, which is track email. And it provides real, genuine value.
This isn’t a new idea. It’s done by every marketing platform worth a darn that uses email. Every single email that comes in from a BRAND has some sort of this stuff happening. As do all websites (including this one). People are just not used to it being applied to a consumer product as intimate as personal email, and that sort of in-your-face use of commerce-grade tracking is perking up ears.
A few years back a startup founder with a suite of productivity apps (not Superhuman) asked me about this cool new feature they were planning on shipping: email tracking for senders, built right in. Read receipts and action items and all kinds of cool sounding stuff to make your life easier. He was asking what I thought of it, and whether Apple would have an issue with it if they shipped it on the store.
I told him it sounded like a great idea, but that I would be very cautions of actually rolling it out because it was impossible to get verification from the other side before you began tracking them. There was no opt-in.
I advised him to look at the way Apple handles it, where email tracking happens outside of the body of the email in a sort of passive radar fashion. Instead of active ‘pings’ using tracking pixels or other image hosting tricks, you’re getting a lighter client-side data set to work from. It’s opt in on your side, and doesn’t extend to them.
I warned on it for the same reason that I opt out of services that route my work email through their own servers, I choose not to employ any tracking apps and set up my emails not to auto display images. It’s not because I don’t want actionable insights, its because I am unable to obtain the permission of the people I send it to to begin tracking them.
Yeah, for sure, they’re already tracked 10 ways to Sunday by every spam email from Groupon to The Gap, but this is coming from me, an individual. It’s different, in my opinion, which is why people are reacting the way they are.
Flash forward and now we’ve got a very well capitalized startup with this at the core of their business. It seems like the founders have thought a lot about this and have decided that this tracking is good and defensible. So it shouldn’t be a shock when it comes time to defend those choices.
If you’re a founder, I think that’s a core lesson: always be willing to die on whatever hill you’re building.
I don’t think that the chatter about the tracking feature of Superhuman is a case of people turning on a startup that has become successful. Superhuman is very new, but very buzzy. And, as I said above, the backlash mostly consists of people highlighting their marquee features in detail. I’d bet a lot of people became even more interested in what it’s doing reading the various and sundry tweets and posts about it, including a Big Profile post in the NYT that kicked off this latest round of discussion.
We’ve been covering Superhuman for a few years now, including detailed explanations of what they want to accomplish and what the origins of the product and team are. That’s pretty much our job — to make sure we see this stuff years before anyone else. (We even covered the last startup to use the name Superhuman for a productivity app.)
The tracking has come up in our stories, but I think that people are just more willing to be skeptical of this stuff given the way that the last couple of years have gone. This is something that we have found happening with a lot of privacy issues recently.
In fact, the most astute criticism of the way Superhuman uses tracking came in a post by designer Mike Davidson, who has spent a lot of time working on large systems that have dangerous, as well as exciting, potential. And that post is anything but a ‘drive by’ on the model. It’s a thoughtful critique that actually offers some possible solutions.
I do think they are trying to solve a real problem. But there are clearly components of the way that they implemented their key feature that have potential for abuse.
It is, and I do find it a bit amusing that I have to say this in twenty nineteen, OK for people to want to discuss this and to examine the trade offs in a product that makes other people’s privacy choices for them. This isn’t backlash, this is discussion, and it’s good.
One of the reasons that we’ve gotten to a place where large platforms have been able to be mis-used to manipulate audiences at scale is that not enough people were listening to the conversations that were had about these possibilities early enough.
In context, it is very hard to argue that a genuine moment of thoughtfulness about any startup that has traction, raises significant capital and is aiming to have the most users possible see the world from its point of view is a bad thing.