Over the last 24 hours, we have seen vigorous debate on pixel tracking within emails, also known as email tracking or read statuses.
I'd like to talk about what Superhuman does, why we do it, what we'll change as a result of this debate, and the kind of company we aspire to build.
What are read statuses?
Read statuses (also called read receipts) are a power user feature that shows you when people open your emails. Some products also show an approximate sense of location, ranging from city to country, based on the recipient's IP address.
Read statuses work by using something called a tracking pixel. The email tool includes a tiny image in sent messages. When recipients open these messages, the email client will download the image in the same way that a web browser does. The image server logs these requests, and will often use an IP address to guess an approximate location. This is very similar to how Google Analytics tracks visits — both how often visitors arrive, and approximately what city or country they are from.
Does Superhuman show read statuses?
Yes. Superhuman shows read statuses when people read your emails. In designing an email client for professionals and power users, we focused on speed, automation, and insights such as read statuses. Sometimes, the product shows approximate location data, such as the state or country in which the email was read. We deliberately do not show city-level data.
On desktop, users can turn read statuses off (by hitting Cmd+K → Disable Read Statuses). Once done, Superhuman will not include tracking pixels in sent emails.
In Superhuman for iPhone, users can head to settings. Scroll down to Read Statuses and turn them off for all your accounts.
Over the last few days, we have seen 4 main criticisms of read statuses in Superhuman:
- Location data could be used in nefarious ways.
- Read statuses are on by default.
- Recipients of emails cannot opt-out.
- Superhuman users cannot disable remote image loading.
On all these, we hear you loud and clear. We are making these changes:
- We have stopped logging location information for new emails, effective immediately.
- We are releasing new app versions today that no longer show location information.
- We are deleting all historical location data from our apps.
- We are keeping the read status feature, but turning it off by default. Users who want it will have to explicitly turn it on.
- We are prioritizing building an option to disable remote image loading.
Update: all five of these changes are complete.
The criticisms of read statuses
1. Location data could theoretically be used nefariously
This criticism is the most severe. Upon reading the commentary, I have come to understand that there are indeed nightmare scenarios involving location tracking. I should note that we deliberately do not show cities — we only show states or countries — but a determined attacker could still misuse this information.
I am very sorry. When we built Superhuman, we focused only on the needs of our customers. We did not consider potential bad actors. I wholeheartedly apologize for not thinking through this fully.
We are removing location information in all read statuses for all emails sent with Superhuman, effective immediately. This will also apply to emails sent in the past.
2. Read statuses are on by default
We take the second criticism to heart too. It made sense for read statuses to be on by default when our user base was early adopters. They knew exactly what they were buying, and were excited to buy it. However, over the last few days, I have heard from some recent users that they felt enabled to track people by accident.
I am also sorry for this. Our goal has only ever been to create joyful, magical, and delightful experiences. We should have realized that the expectations of our software would change as our audience changed. We are therefore turning read statuses off by default.
We're still keeping the feature, as Superhuman is a business productivity tool for email power users. In the prosumer email market, read statuses have been "must have" for many years. Products like MixMax, Yesware, Streak, Hubspot, Mailtrack, etc have 3M+ users, and provide read statuses by default.
Before Superhuman had read statuses, it was both our most requested feature and also one of the most common reasons not to buy. In our market, the demand for read statuses is so high that it has now become table stakes.
3. Recipients of emails cannot opt-out
The third criticism is more subtle. There are a few different ways to prevent email tracking. The most commonly advised and practiced solution is to turn off remote image loading in your email client. Here's a guide by How-To Geek. If you want to only block tracking pixels, there is also a rich ecosystem of third-party privacy tools that do this, like Ugly Mail and PixelBlock.
Update: Superhuman now also has the ability to block tracking pixels whilst displaying other images. Hit Cmd+K → Images to turn this setting on.
I would love to find better technology to solve this problem. I also think we can collaborate on this as an industry — please reach out to me if interested.
4. Superhuman users cannot disable remote image loading
The fourth criticism is accurate. It is true that if you use Superhuman, you currently cannot disable remote image loading. This is not due to any particular belief or philosophy — it is simply because relatively few people had requested this (at the time of writing, only 32 out of 26,000+ requests). However, in light of this debate, we will prioritize this.
Business tools, such as Superhuman, are constantly becoming more powerful. And all else being equal, the market will generally buy the most powerful tools it can.
I, therefore, think that we, as an industry, should agree to the level of information that we track and show in our products. If one of us creates something new, and that innovation becomes popular, then market dynamics will pull us all in that direction. This is how we ended up with location tracking inside of Superhuman, MixMax, Yesware, Streak, and many others — not to mention nearly every CRM and marketing automation platform.
At Superhuman, we aspire to help people experience joy and productivity in their emails. The team and I will continue to dedicate ourselves to this. In addition, I now recognize that we must deeply consider the overall ecosystem when designing software as fundamental as email. The team and I are committed to this now more than ever. We need to consider not only our customers, but also future users, the people they communicate with, and the Internet at large.
As always, I would love to hear from you!
Please get in touch at email@example.com 🙏