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  • Jan Flynn

You Can Check Out Any Time You Like (But Good Luck Unsubscribing)

There are email lists you’re probably happy to be on

You purposely signed up for them, so you could get the helpful newsletter, or never miss a new podcast episode or one of your favorite writers’ articles, or know what’s going on in your neighborhood. Maybe there are organizations you support and appreciate hearing from — especially if not every communication from them is another plea for money. Also, you know that if you decide to unsubscribe from them, they’ll instantly leave you alone.

But there are probably other lists that you joined due to retail coercion. Say a loved one wants some arcane piece of technology for their birthday. After an hour and a half of online searching, you discover the exact item on a store’s website. Triumphantly you put the thingie in your cart and proceed to checkout.

Ah, but now it develops that you need an account with the store to purchase anything. Unless you want to check out as a guest, which involves a protracted process of entering and reentering the same information on multiple screens. You don’t have that kind of time. If you did, you’d be driving around town, shopping at brick-and-mortars.

The clock’s ticking and you’ve invested considerable effort

So you roll your eyes and create an account so they’ll do you the favor of letting you pay them for their merchandise. Of course, they need your email so they can advise you when your item ships. You just want to get the gift bought and sent on time. You give them your email and click Order Now.

It’s possible that you miss the ingeniously concealed button that would allow you to opt-out of marketing emails. Even if you don’t, it’s a certainty that in the following weeks you will be hearing from Arcane Tech R Us or whatever the online store is called, on a daily basis — sometimes, several times a day.

You deal with the clutter by simply deleting the emails

Within a month you notice the unwanted messages are proliferating: you’re not only hearing from Arcane Tech, but from every other outlet in their vast interconnected retail network. Now, instead of one or two extra emails a day, you’re seeing five, or ten, or twenty.

Meanwhile, motivated by concern for the environment, public health, the economy, or democracy itself, you have donated to a candidate whom you feel might actually be able to move the needle in a favorable direction on one or more of those issues. You understood, in doing so, that you’d be getting continued appeals from that campaign. But now you’re hearing from candidates in states far from your own who URGENTLY need your support NOW, and by support, they mean your money. Also, you’re hearing from your local, state, and national political party headquarters, as well as a raft of activist organizations that have sucked your email address off of a list they purchased from any one of the other candidates or organizations.

They have your first name too. This you know because the subject lines in your inbox include it: Jan, we urgently need your help today to prevent toenail fungus and Armageddon!

At some point, the beg letters, marketing appeals, and spam have so crowded your inbox that you can’t find the emails you want or need. Realizing the time has come to pull the digital weeds, you settle down with a cup of coffee and set about unsubscribing from all those unwanted lists.

Good luck with that

This is when you discover that somewhere there are dimly lit underground warrens full of pointy-headed gnomes whose sole mission is to keep you subscribed, no matter how much you wish to untether yourself.

At first, it seems straightforward. You open a recent email, say from Arcane Tech, and scroll to the very bottom, where after deploying your most powerful reading glasses you find a link in 4-point font that says “Unsubscribe.”

You click that link and find yourself on a web page that allows you to choose from a menu of messages you no longer wish to receive. If you’re diligent and scroll to the bottom, you (may) eventually find a button labeled “Unsubscribe me from all communications from Arcane Tech R Us,” with possibly an implied threat (“I understand that by clicking this box I will no longer receive Value Bonus Points or the Weekly Don’t Miss This Deal opportunities”). An edge of tension creeps into your awareness, but you click that box. Whew. Decision made.

But then another window pops up, with a survey: Please tell us why you have chosen to unsubscribe. You’re presented with a list of choices ranging from the ominous (I never signed up for these emails) to the obvious (I no longer want to receive these emails). You click the appropriate box. Now you’re done. Right?

Not so fast

The same window pops up again, with the very same survey. Perhaps there’s a hitch somewhere? You make your choice again and hit the return. The same thing happens. After two more rounds of this, you notice something at the top of the window in a font the size of a gnat’s footprint. “Confirm unsubscribe,” it says, or you think it does because you can barely make it out even with a magnifying glass. Desperate, you click on it.

Bingo. You’re unsubscribed. You get an email from Arcane Tech telling you how sorry they are to see you go, and that your email preferences have been updated but it may take up to X days for the change to take effect. In the meantime, you should resign yourself to a blizzard of messages piling up in your inbox like ten-foot drifts.

Success! Except that unsubscribing from Arcane Tech does not in any way let you off the hook with any of their affiliates, so you have to go through the same process with each of them. Several of them are more sophisticated in their subterfuge. They have no “unsubscribe” link at all, only one that allows you to “manage your email preferences,” which takes you to a page where you are given a list of choices expressed in such befuddling terms (I wish to opt-out of monthly newsletters but not daily alerts; I wish to opt-out of daily alerts but not weekly super specials; I wish to opt-out of daily newsletters but not weekly advertiser specials) that you border on mental exhaustion by the time you find the ingeniously concealed choice that stops them from sending you anything — you think (I wish to opt-out of direct communications from Acme Arcane, the parent company of Arcane Accessories until such time as I buy anything else from them or their affiliates).

You repeat this process for hours, resolutely battering your way to freedom despite the dizzying array of obstacles the gnomes throw in your path. Until you come to a website for a local university that has received the mistaken impression that you wish to contribute to their alumni campaign. You’ve never taken classes there and you have no idea how you wound up on their list, but whatever. With screen-seared eyeballs, you spot the “email preferences” link, which takes you to a window that requires you to log in to your account in order to proceed.

Except you’ve never had an account with the university. Do you open one, hoping that will allow you to disengage? Or will you then be stuck with two accounts, each of them barraging you will beg letters? Meanwhile, there is no means of contacting them to attempt to prove a negative (“Please give us your username and password and we will be happy to assist you!”).

It’s like trying to end a relationship with a digital stalker

Welcome to the Hotel California of the interwebs.

Just rest assured that should you sign up for my email list, I will never EVER sell your information. I would regard myself as lower than slime were I to do such a thing, and besides, I wouldn’t even know how. If you ever want to unsubscribe, all you have to do is say so. I’ll instantly leave you alone.

Here’s wishing you an inbox full of only that which you find useful, wanted, amusing, or uplifting.

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