Technology is moving fast and breaking things. That was once the official Facebook motto, coined by Mark Zuckerberg — “Move fast and break things” — but it’s not just Facebook. It’s everything in Silicon Valley. It’s the hardware and the software. It’s all of the platforms that have become essential to our everyday existence, as well as the companies that own them and the people who own those companies.
And it’s us. We’re all moving a million miles a minute — even in the midst of a global pandemic — and it’s making us, frankly, insane.
Readup is reversing this trend. Not just “conceptually” or “theoretically” (although we’re doing that too) but actually. In reality. And, starting now, we’re also doing it contractually.
These are bold claims. We know. We expect you to be skeptical. In fact, we want you to be skeptical, and we hope that you’ll respond to that skepticism accordingly: Dig in. Actually read the freaking thing! And pore over every detail with a fine tooth comb. This one contract sets the official terms of the relationship between Readup and our readers. With that in mind, we wish to remind you that healthy relationships require work from both parties. Trust isn’t a one-sided endeavor.
Also keep in mind the bigger picture. We’re not just asking you for five or ten minutes to read this one contract. We’re asking you to give a big chunk of your time and attention — your most precious resource, your life — to Readup. The people who get the most out of Readup are reading and commenting for hours a day. In that context, it should feel almost absurd to ignore the single, relatively short document that governs the entire arrangement between all of us.
First of all, absolutely no lawyers were involved in the creation of our new policy. Jeff and I are the only two people working on Readup and we’re both humans. The people who use Readup are humans. Thus, we figured that we could work this stuff out on our own, without any middle-people, and that doing so would be a healthy exercise and learning experience. To get a sense for the general landscape, we read a bunch of privacy policies and we realized that they’re all pretty much the same and that they’re universally inhumane. So we started from scratch.
Clear, honest communication is humane in a very literal sense. Language distinguishes us from animals. It enables profound levels of collaboration. I almost wrote ‘It’s the bedrock of democracy,’ before I realized that it’s actually the bedrock of civilization. So, yeah, it’s really freaking important.
Unfortunately, most tech companies assume (or, even worse, they pretend to assume) that end-users don’t have the capacity or interest to understand anything remotely technical. So they don’t even try to level with people. That’s wrong for two reasons: (1) because it’s not true and (2) because it’s unethical.
It’s also a bad business move. Public awareness of privacy-related topics is increasing rapidly. Everyone knows that we’re all getting used and abused. Similarly, there’s growing consensus that if a person is smart enough to use a tool like Facebook, they’re smart enough to understand how it works. And, even if it requires extra work, the experts have an obligation to explain things in clear, human terms. That obligation will keep ramping up. Especially as companies like Readup enter the field, blowing up the norms and expectations by simply speaking as humans to humans.
People can handle complexity. People can handle nuance. To assume that they can’t is an affront to the basic concept that all humans have dignity. It’s inhumane.
For example, many people think that algorithms are fundamentally incomprehensible to anybody without a degree in computer science. The technology industry has been pushing that storyline for ages: “You’ll never understand, so don’t waste your time trying.” Bullshit. A healthy journalism industry would have corrected this misperception a long time ago. But as it stands, a defeatist attitude about algorithm-literacy still looms large. (Kyle Chayka and Julia Angwin are two writers who deserve some credit here. They’re doing a great job of demystifying algorithms.)
The point is this: Everyone knows what it feels like to be talked down to, treated like an idiot. It hurts. Yet, when it comes to our relationships with tech companies, we’ve become desensitized to a paternalistic status quo that really ought to horrify us.
It’s obvious that truly good relationships — whether they’re romantic, professional, or even just between friends — involve something deeper than merely “not lying.” This is where candor and vulnerability come into play. These concepts are the antidote to Doublespeak, which is downright rampant across society right now. Thus, we focused on these concepts as we drafted our policy.
We see this entire exercise as a trust-building activity. Along those lines, we will continue to use every possible opportunity to shine a bright light on the single fact that is most likely to sketch people out:
Readup tracks your reading activity. Down to the word.
This is candor in action. I’ll still say it again, just in case you missed it, and I’ll even bold it this time: Every single time you read something, anything, on Readup, partially or fully, Readup keeps track. Down to the word. This data is extremely valuable and also extremely personal. We will never, ever use it against you. You can keep it completely private forever and still have a really rewarding experience on Readup. We will never share it with any third parties, directly or indirectly. We don’t work with any advertisers of any kind and we absolutely never will. Period.
Your reading data is a small window into your soul and we want you to know that we don’t take it for granted. In fact, internally, we obsess about the sacredness of this one particular data point. It’s our Holy Grail. If we can get it – ethically and honestly, with everyone’s explicit permission, at scale – we can save the journalism industry and the wonderful pleasure of reading and writing with others online. Whether or not you believe us is entirely your prerogative, but it brings us some measure of peace to know that we’re really speaking from the heart (the human heart) on this one.
Regardless, it’s important to us that our readers have more than just a superficial understanding of how our read-tracking technology works. We want you to deeply consider the wider implications and to wrangle with whatever complex emotions might come up. Here are some reasons why:
Understanding how the platform works is key to identifying with our mission. And identifying with our mission is, in turn, key to our extremely simple marketing strategy: People use Readup, love it, love the mission, and then they tell their friends and family about it. (Maybe now is a good time to ask you to please share this blog post?)
For four years we have been growing very slowly but very sturdily. Whatever viral is, we’re the opposite. Thus, we have uncommonly high loyalty and low churn and we aim to keep it that way. We’re free from paranoia about a “mass revolt” because we engage with the toughest topics out in the open. It keeps us sane.
General awareness about online privacy is going to be very good for Readup because our practices are downright saintly in comparison to all other media organizations. And I’m not just referring to the known monsters, like Facebook and Twitter. When you read an article on The New York Times website, for example, as many as fifty different companies are spying on your every move. By their own admission, “From a privacy perspective, news websites are among the worst on the web.” Dark stuff.
We do not share ANY of your data with ANY third parties. Ever. This is unheard of across the technology industry, where data flows like water across organizations and companies. You can think of Readup as a “no-fly” zone, a private party, a walled garden, or a lockbox. I will elaborate on the significance of this in future blog posts.
Instead of granting ourselves blanket permission to collect whatever data we need, we clearly note every single data point that we collect. In my entire career in tech, I have never heard of any other company doing this. (I also did some research to to confirm that we’re the only ones.) Basically, the way we do things is the opposite of what most companies do – get as much data as they possibly can. Instead, we make huge efforts to avoid collecting any information that we don’t need. And we promise NOT to take even the tiniest piece of data without clearly disclosing it to you in our official, binding policy.
This was no small task. Jeff and I spent an entire week combing through the code and every nook and cranny of the UI to ensure that we didn’t miss anything. In doing so, we found some superfluous data points (like A/B testing on the homepage) that we ended up eliminating.
This is radical stuff. It might not be loud and flashy, but it’s real. It’s also real that we’re up against countless organizations that are good at talking the talk without the slightest intention of walking the walk.
That’s why I have one more thing to ask of you, from one human to another: Believe us.
Believe that we’re real people. Believe that we really care about this work. Believe that this is a whole lot more than “just a job” for us. It’s a calling and a passion.
I almost wrote, ‘We want to make the world a better place,’ but alas, even though it’s true, I hate the way it sounds. That’s the problem with Doublespeak, fake news, whatever you want to call it. It floods the system. It makes the real stuff seem fake too. This is also why I didn’t use the term “transparency” even once in this entire blog post, even though that’s pretty much what the whole thing is about.
But the more important question is this: Does this new contract make us a better, stronger company? You better believe it.