trenchant.org

by adam mathes
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Leaving GMail, Finding Autonomy

The overriding theme of what I’m trying to think and write about for 2017 is autonomy in personal technology.

The basic principle is: make deliberate choices in how I use technology and favor ones that give me greater autonomy.

Choices that force me to use bad interfaces, surveil me in creepy ways to facilitate advertising, or lock me in to things I do not understand or are uncomfortable with should be avoided.

This is partially about freedom, but it’s grounded in practical quality of life issues.

2017 is about trying to rationalize more of these decisions, and make adjustments where needed.

I don’t want user interfaces to change under me for things that matter. I don’t want my data being used in bizarre and unexpected ways. Controlling these things is becoming the exception rather than the rule.

I started with email because that, more than anything else, is the foundation of our online identity. And it’s what I was focused on as I started my new antisocial network / network / list.

GMail Was A Technical Triumph, But Times Have Changed

It’s easier in the short term to use a free ad-supported email account provided by a giant company – as I decided to do with GMail in 2004 – but now I regret the decision to use it as a primary email provider and identity.

I was trading off cost and convenience at the expense of more important things – autonomy, control of my online identity, freedom from advertising based on every transaction I conduct over email. (I mean, running linux server to handle email isn’t that hard or expensive.)

We sometimes forget that much of GMail was novel in 2004 (wow! javascript using xmlhttprequest to avoid reloads! a whole GIGABYTE of space!) and Google was a different company. The web and internet looked very different.

Now it’s more apparent we live in the technological dystopia of Siren Servers.

GMail Makes Email Harder

Ad-based free services for things you deeply care about is problematic due to an almost inherent misalignment of goals between users and providers. But it’s the practical issues that overwhelmed me:

  • pushing other distracting services into the experience (chat, social networks) that I didn’t want made the experience worse
  • increasing latency, decreasing quality of web ui experience led me to rely on native Apple clients
  • the ability to use standard IMAP clients without weird workarounds is not great
  • push email for Apple’s default iOS clients doesn’t work, forcing annoying polling, increasing latency
  • using multiple domains/identities with a personal gmail account is difficult to impossible (without a corporate, paid account)
  • forwarding mail from my personal server’s other domains to my gmail account made GMail think my server was a spammer, making my personal SMTP server useless for my mailing list

I’d routed around the first few for years, but those last two points him me hard as I was setting up the trenchant.org list and were the last straw.

(Also, probably that was part of what led 4uhm’s decline – everything got marked as spam due to low deliverability because I didn’t pay attention to that.

Anyway, it’s not 2004 anymore. I’m happy to look at alternatives, paid and otherwise, that reflect different values and address my concerns.

FastMail

There are plenty of options for email hosting, and I seriously considered just running it all myself on a server.

But I wanted other people responsible to actually make sure it was running all the time and secured. $5 a month is a bargain for that, so I went with FastMail based on the cost, commitment to privacy and customer service, and general sentiment from those who have written about it online that it’s great.

I’ve been using FastMail for a few weeks now. Everything has worked flawlessly.

I was nervous when I redirected my MX server entries in DNS. But after it propagated, setup in Apple’s native mail clients was easy (autopopulated reasonably), push email on my iPhone worked instantly.

The web interface (which I wasn’t planning to use much) is way faster and nice than I expected, which is a nice bonus.

The default spam filtering was maybe a bit too lenient – I went from getting zero a day using GMail to getting 3-5 a day on FastMail. I customized the spam filtering threshold to be a bit more aggressive and it’s been fine since (back to zero a day on average.)

Since I’m back to relying on my own domains if I change my mind it’s easy to try another provider or experiment with self-hosting later.

(Note: links to FastMail include a referral code that will give you a 10% discount and some small bounty to me if you end up purchasing a plan.)

Feelings Matter

Overall I’m much happier with the setup. It addressed my issues of principle and provided practical benefits.

It’s nice to have IMAP just work. It’s nice to have push on iOS. It’s nice to have all my domains have email the way I want them to.

I feel better about email again. It’s nice.

I don’t feel like every mail I’m getting is building up wealth for others at the expense of my privacy and sanity.

I expect that I’ll keep it this way for a few years unless something goes wrong, but we’ll see.

EMail Is A Protocol

The wonderful thing with email is that we can make changes like this, because it’s a standard set of protocols and behaviors that interoperate.

We can change vendors, tools, services, and continue on with our lives and still communicate easily.

I can assume it will all mostly still work in 10 years.

The rest of the communication tools we increasingly rely on do not have that property, which makes them more fragile.

When Facebook or Twitter change their interfaces or terms to something you don’t like, you’re basically fucked.

I’m going to try and rely on email more. If you care about these things, you should think about whether you are actually happy with your email setup or just resigned to accept it.