I don't have an email address - so what?


Is email dead? I don't think so - but I know lots of people who either don't have an email account or deliberately don't check it. And why should they? Is email a requirement for modern life?

All the major chat apps - WhatsApp, Line, Signal, Wire, Skype - only require a mobile phone number. Hey presto I can communicate with anyone around the world. No email required.

But, suppose I wish to engage in a more public social network - can I do that without an email address? Absolutely!

The two big social platforms on the web - Facebook and Twitter - know that not everyone has an email address.

Facebook asks for a phone number or email address

Twitter asks for phone or email

Once you have one of those accounts, you can use it to sign in to a multitude of different online properties. They are gateways for people without email.

Wikipedia requires neither email nor phone if you want an account there.

Wikipedia won't force you to have an email address

Conversely, you must have an email address to use Yahoo (flickr & tumblr) and Google (YouTube).

Yahoo forces an email on all accountsGoogle insists you have an email address

Why the discrepancy? Obviously it is because Google and Yahoo make money from people having email addresses, not for any technical or sociological reason.

Want to improve your job prospects? LinkedIn isn't perfect, but that's where the traffic is. And you'll need an email address to sign up.

Want to buy stuff? Amazon requires an email. Whereas AliExpress will let you sign up with Facebook.

In the mood for love? Tinder and OK Cupid allow social sign in - whereas Gridnr assumes every gay man has email. I wonder why that is?

I can get onto StackOverflow without an email address - but not GitHub. All the webhosts I could find required an email. PayPal has some great mobile payment options, but won't let you sign up without email.

Every UK bank requires an email address if you want to sign up online.

If you want to watch the BBC's iPlayer - you'll need an email address.

Large swathes of modern life are predicated on the user having access to email. I think that's a problem.

Saving Money

Most utilities in the UK will give you a discount if you want paperless billing. Rather than posting you out a statement each month, they email you a statement or reminder to check your online account.

This is, effectively, a tax on the technically illiterate. If you can't afford a computer or have low IT skills, then you pay more for your gas, water, and electricity.

There's no technical reason why online billing can't be conducted without an email address.

Take a look at your wallet. Is there any reason why your public transport smartcard account needs an email address? Or your store loyalty cards? Or your library card?

Universal Communications

Email is a small subset of Internet communications. Statistics are hard to verify, but there are around 1.5 billion users of email - by contrast there are 2.8 billion users of the Internet.

Half of the online world doesn't use email. Even in the UK, around 7% of online users don't use email. Of those that do use email, around 6% check their email less than every 3 months.

Standards

As I've mentioned before, smartphones are dirt cheap and free WiFi is plentiful in most urban areas. At a lower level, dumb phones are virtually free, and there's no cost for receiving SMS.

But there is a communications imbalance here. Receiving SMS is free - sending SMS costs money. Perhaps only fractions of a penny per message, but it is still more costly than email.

There's also the issue of interoperability. Email is an open standard - anyone can set up a server and send messages to users. Most messaging apps aren't like that. There's no messaging API for WhatsApp. Some platforms have (weak) support for "bots" which can react to a user's question and, in some cases, send messages directly to them.

Would you like to get your water bill via a Facebook message? Perhaps not - but for millions of people it is their preferred comms platform. For many, it is their only platform.

Why should they be forced into using email?

Thoughts

I'm not saying that you shouldn't ask for an email address at sign up. What I am saying is that requiring an email address deliberately excludes lots of people from your service.

Things to consider:

  • Do I need to communicate with the user?
    • If so, is email the only way to do that?
  • Will it matter if the user loses access to this specific account?
    • What are the different ways to recover access to an account?
  • Are there better ways to send a notification?
    • Which notifications do users actively want?
  • Should users be expected to make urgent decisions based on my communications?
    • Not everyone checks mail instantly. Is that a problem?
  • Is the literacy level of the audience sufficient to understand long communications?
    • Does your message need to be anything more than "Your water bill this month is £12.34"?
  • How do you engender trust in your messaging?
    • Email is full of spam and scams - can you avoid that with an alternative communications platform?

There is a world beyond email.

You can text - or email - the author using http://edent.tel/

2 thoughts on “I don't have an email address - so what?

  1. Services requireing a mandatory phone number are ridiculous IMHO. Why do I need a phone number to set up an account on WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram etc.? And Telegram has a one phone number = one account policy. If I want two accounts, I need another phone number.

    SMS is sent across networks I don't control or trust (telcos), with no transport security, no verifiability of sender (what's the SMS equivalent of DKIM again?), no end-to-end encryption, and can be spoofed. We've already seen SMS 2FA recovery codes being hacked by socially engineering telcos.

    In addition Signal/WhatsApp/Telegram only allow one account per device. Want to have one account/persona for serious work and family stuff, another for bullshitting with friends, and another for giving to random potential stalky people you meet on Grindr/Tinder etc.? In the Signal/WhatsApp/Telegram paradigm, you can't have multiple personas - you are the arbitrary phone number your telco gave you to use on your one device, and you can't be anyone else. You can't have a second account set up on my phone with a fake name, so that some random person so you can chat to a random person you've just met with less risk without revealing the real name and profile image you use with your other contacts. Hell, I remember the AOL CDs from the 90s offering you "five different user personas FREE" etc.

    The pitch for the Signal/Telegram/WhatsApp model of secure chat app: "You too can have perfect security from the evil nasty NSA/GCHQ. First off, you sign up with your phone number, and then you give your phone number to everybody who you want to be able to contact you." The developers evidently didn't try that one out on many domestic abuse or stalking victims.

    For practical pseudonymity, a throwaway Gmail or Yahoo email account is far easier to acquire and maintain than a second phone number, a second phone handset and so on. The problem with Signal's threat model is that it protects you against the security services at the cost of not protecting from a jealous ex, a controlling abusive partner, an obsessive you met on Tinder who can't take no for an answer, a homophobic fundamentalist family member wanting to out you etc. - the actual people likely to cause you a significant problem when your day-to-day opsec fails.

    1. I don't disagree with you - I don't think mandatory phone numbers are the answer.

      I would also point out that most email isn't encrypted, so any party along the line (including your mail provider) can see your secret tokens.

What do you reckon?

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