Leaving Gmail

by William Schuth in ,


With your permission, you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.
— Eric Schmidt, Google Chairman & former CEO

Three weeks ago I did something I had been building toward for nearly a year. I quit using Gmail for my personal correspondence. Below is the message I sent to my family & friends:

Friends,

I started using this Gmail address in April 2005, which today seems like a lifetime ago. (In fact, it is.) In the last couple of months you may have seen me send an occasional email from a new address: [redacted] As of today, that is my permanent email address for personal correspondence. (If you read no further, please update your address books accordingly.)

Moving away from Google’s services has been a personal goal of mine for a good while. Some of you may have been Google Reader users for years until Google decided to pull the plug on that service. I think most of us found new homes for RSS reading after that, but our article-sharing community was lost. Some of you may have enjoyed our circles on Google+ after a migration away from Facebook, only to be dismayed by the way Google seemed intent on leveraging the information we shared there and the G+ service itself to erode our personal privacy.  Marco Arment, a very savvy app developer & tech writer, made some good points three years ago about why trusting Google to continue providing Gmail service – as we know it, or even at all– isn’t a good idea.

The long-term viability of my correspondence with you is something I do care about, because I love sharing our ideas & enthusiasms. But what made going to my own private email host an imperative was simply the fact that Google’s true business isn’t web searches, Android, or Google Docs for large businesses, but selling advertisements based on our personal information – our web searches, our Google+ posts, and especially our private correspondence. Think of it this way – if you give your doctor, lawyer, or trusted confidant your Gmail address, Google’s algorithms can pick apart what you have to say to one another and will target you with advertisements based on the content of your emails. Google filed legal documents last year stating you have no reason to expect privacy if you use Gmail. That’s the price we pay for using Gmail. The aggregate of our private information is worth billions of dollars to Google’s true customers – companies that want to sell you things and would pay someone to read your email to know whether you’re looking for a new car, grief counseling, or a way out of legal trouble. I don’t want to share that information with Google anymore, and I don’t feel right sharing your info – confidential or well-known –  with Google, either. (You can read even more about Google's privacy issues at the “Criticisms of Google” Wikipedia article.)

Setting up my own email was pretty easy. The new address works on my phone, my tablet, and my laptop just like any other email address. It does cost me a little money – some to keep my domain registered (think of this as Internet property tax), and some to pay the service that runs the server that hosts my email. My total cost to keep our correspondence private (on my end, anyway), while enjoying even more features than Gmail, is just $1.03 per week. Couch cushion money, folks. And because I pay FastMail to host my email, I no longer have to worry about who’s really paying the freight on a “free” service like Gmail. If you find yourself interested in going the same route, let me know – I’ll be happy to help you get started.

So, friends, I look forward to carrying on our conversations in a corner of the Internet a bit more private than Gmail. Look me up; I’ll be there.

Signing off from [redacted]@gmail.com,

W

Shortly after I sent that email, I began to wonder whether my friends would perceive me as a crank. While I still worry a bit about that, for the most part my correspondence has gone on as before. I say "for the most part" because, since I left Gmail I've actually found myself writing to friends more frequently and carrying on email conversations much longer than I have in years. My email independence has become an email renaissance. I feel as though I should send Eric Schmidt a Thank You card.

My email independence has brought with it an email renaissance.

I wonder how many people my age will eventually leave "free" email providers like Gmail. My generation came of age using services like Hotmail, and over the years we've integrated many new revolutionary technologies – email, the Internet, digital music & video, smartphones, tablets, social media, etc – deep into our daily lives. I suspect many folks of my generation have used Gmail for over a decade. At this point, Google knows a fair bit about our lives, likely more about our adult selves than we've shared with our parents or siblings. I think it's a fair question to ask whether we're comfortable with an advertising company knowing more about us than our closest relatives.

Let's think about this for a moment from a different perspective.

Imagine if you went into a coffee shop with a friend. You've just found this shop, and the coffee is pretty good and so cheap the owner is practically giving it away! You and your friend sit down and start talking about the new puppy you're hoping to get soon. You had to put your old dog to sleep a few months ago, and you've just now started to feel like you're ready for a new companion. After a while, the owner of the coffee shop comes up and suggests you buy a puppy from his friend who has a litter due next week. You think he's little nosy and presumptuous, but hey, who doesn't like puppies?

You come back to the coffee shop a week later with another friend. Her car was totaled by a guy who was texting while driving, and now she needs to find some new wheels. You discuss the different features she's looking for over coffee, and after a while the coffee shop owner sidles up again. He tells you and your friend that he has a buddy who owns a dealership that has a great sale on right now. And, since he couldn't help but overhear, the coffee shop owner asks your friend if she's considered contacting a personal injury lawyer. He knows a great one who doesn't charge unless he wins the case (and he always wins, but the defendant will pay...) As you turn to face your friend, you notice the look on her face and wonder if the coffee's not agreeing with her.

One day you get a call from another friend who has been struggling with depression. He needs someone to talk to, and he trusts you to be discreet. You suggest meeting for coffee. As your friend shares his troubles, the coffee shop owner drifts over and listens. After a few minutes he suggests that your friend visit his buddy, who's a great psychiatrist. And he has reasonable rates! Your friend's face reddens with embarrassment and anger.

Would you continue to visit that coffee shop? Sure, the coffee's cheap and fairly good, but the owner's a bit of a creep.

Gmail is that coffee shop, and Google is that coffee shop owner. Why should we tolerate online behavior that would seem intrusive and creepy in person?

Over the last year I came to decide I wasn't comfortable bringing friends into that coffee shop anymore. When a friend tells me something in confidence via email I don't want Google scanning or parsing our conversation, looking for an angle to display an ad for some product or service. After a decade of using Gmail (and social media with similar boundary/privacy issues, like Facebook), I'm not comfortable with that level of intrusion anymore. It made me feel gross. It made me feel like a bad friend because I knew how easy it would be handle my own email.

Three weeks later, handling my own email is exactly as easy as I knew it was, and I'm enjoying corresponding with people more, in part because I don't feel like a bad friend now.

Am I saying you're a bad friend if you keep using Gmail? No, I'm not. I just want you to consider the implications of a "free" email service and what that means for your and your friends' privacy. And I want you to know you have other, easy-to-use options for your email that don't involve letting an advertising company record your correspondence with your family, your friends, or anyone else.


Thanks for the Memories

by William Schuth in


My first Thanksgiving in the Marines came shortly after I joined my unit on Camp Pendleton in 2003. I was the new guy in my platoon, and apart from my buddy Stan and one guy from my platoon in boot camp, I didn't know a soul in the entire regiment. Thankfully, Thomas Prettyman was one of my NCOs. The pastor of Pretty's church invited us to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. I don't remember much about the meal, or the pastor and his family, other than it took place in a warm, inviting house out in Fallbrook, and that the family was kind and very generous with their invitation to any Marines who would otherwise have spent the holiday eating awful Sodexo food in the chow hall.

I don't remember where I spent Thanksgiving 2004. I was just back from Iraq, but it seems to me that I would have already completed post-deployment leave. In the last year or so, I've become conscious of the fading of memories from different periods of my life, even those of the last decade. (This unnerves me more than I care to think about, as if I'm losing pieces of the life I'm yet living.) It's entirely possible I did spend that Thanksgiving in the barracks, eating a crappy meal from the chow hall. I just don't remember.

Thanksgiving 2005 was a delight. My friend, former roommate, and colleague-turned-boss Squibes had returned from his own deployment to Iraq. He and his wife, Kat, invited a couple of us from the platoon to their place out in Vista. I wound up making the gravy at Squibes' and Kat's request. We had a fantastic meal, and followed it up with a friendly Mario Kart tournament on their GameCube. As long as this memory lasts, I will think very fondly of our time together that Thursday afternoon.

I was on terminal leave by the time Thanksgiving 2006 rolled around. I might be able to look back at my photos and figure out where I was for the holiday. By then I was dating a pretty Greek girl from Chicago, so I may have spent that Thanksgiving with her family. Or, it's possible we spent it with my families in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Again, my memory is blank. Again, I worry.

The same is true for Thanksgiving 2007. I have no idea where we spent the holiday without looking at whatever photos we might have taken. 

I married that pretty Greek girl in October 2008. We spent our first Thanksgiving as newlyweds together in our flat near Lake Monona. I made too much food – a turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, an incredible sourdough stuffing, rutabagas, and two pies (pumpkin and pecan) – in our tiny galley kitchen, but it was delicious. The flat was filled with wonderful smells, and we had to crack a couple windows to cut the heat coming from the steam radiators and the kitchen. The few photos we have of that day, of us and our two cats, will support that memory, but I would be devastated if I forgot the first holiday we spent together as a married couple.

We have fallen into a pattern in the years since, though I'm not entirely certain when it began. We spend our Thanksgiving with my in-laws in Chicagoland. It's a much smaller family gathering than I'm used to – my family is much, much larger than my wife's – but I love my wife's mom, and my wife's aunts (who live with my mother-in-law), and her Cuban grandfather. Because we live far enough away to keep us from seeing one another regularly (and because we're in very different stages of our lives), I'm still building relationships with my brother-in-law.  But we get along just fine. Same with my wife's cousins, who call my mother-in-law's house their home, too, because their mom, suffering from severe MS far too young, had to move before the girls were in high school. Today, both of them are first year graduate students.

The day after Thanksgiving, my wife and I will help my mother-in-law put up garland and lights outside her house, and in the evening we'll head over to St. Charles for The Annual, a yearly get-together with friends for tacos and board games. I met most of these folks at a Memorial Day cookout in 2006, when I was visiting my wife (then my girlfriend) on leave. Seven years have passed, and these new friends have gradually become old friends. Memories have been made over seven years of Memorial Day cookouts, backyard Oktoberfests, weddings, and (this year) an Evoloterra celebration in our backyard in Madison. Some of these memories have already been lost, forgotten as others compact them into a sediment of a life lived. What remains is the warmth of friendship, and the anticipation of making more memories together.

On Saturday, we'll return to St. Charles to go to the Electric Parade with our friends Greg and Kelly. My wife and I look up to Greg & Kelly as our example of a marriage well-lived, and we love them as the older brother and sister we never had. We've been doing the Electric Parade together for a couple years now, in the indifferent weather of late November northern Illinois. One year it rained during the parade, and we were soaked. One year we had a dusting of snow on the ground, and temperatures appropriate with the season. This year, it looks like we won't have any snow, and the temperature will be in the forties. Even though I've lived outside of Minnesota for over a decade, these odd variations of weather this late in the year are a bit jarring, rubbing against the grain of sedimented, composite memories of Thanksgivings and late Novembers in Minnesota that surely weren't always dusted with the first snowfalls of encroaching winter. I struggle to remember individual Thanksgivings from my childhood.

What remain are memories of the first time I ate a turkey heart or rutabagas, both at the insistence of my paternal grandmother, to whom I'll be forever thankful for those flavorful introductions. I remember my mom and stepdad opening their home to friends of the family transplanted far away from their homes, the house warmed by kindness, spirited conversation, activity in the kitchen, and good alcohol. I remember driving from an afternoon meal at my paternal grandparents' house in Minnesota back to our house across the river in Wisconsin, then walking across the yard to eat again with my stepmom's family.

Over the years, I've lost many of the people central to those now-indistinct memories: my step-grandfather, my paternal grandmother, my cousin Teddy, my dad, and my stepdad. I keep up with only a couple guys from my Marine Corps days, and then see them only once a year or couple of years. Some nights I lie awake, worrying about who I will lose next, who will cease to be a living presence in my life, and who I will gradually lose as my memory continues to fade and my loved ones' vitality flickers, dimming into a background of light, too soft to provide definition to all but a few specific details. I miss them, and I know more of the people I love will join them in the years to come. It's an unavoidable part of life, but that doesn't make it any less distressing or bittersweet.

So, this year I'm thankful for memory, and memories, those made and cherished, those sadly forgotten,  those I hope to yet make, and – because this, too, is a certainty of life – those I have yet to forget.

And I'm thankful to you for reading these ramblings. May you have many more years of making memories. May your memories keep better than mine have.

Happy Thanksgiving.