Gmail Tabs, private information Intermediaries, and activism

Gmail logoEmail is the lifeblood of modern issue advocacy. Whenever the Sierra Club wants to mobilize its 2.1 million members to take action in defense of the environment, it targets them with an email ‘blast’. When wants to raise money quickly to air a TV ad, it emails some portion of its 7 million-plus list. When the Tea Party Express or wants supporters to attend their rallies either opposing or supporting (or opposing too, in 350’s case) President Obama, they inevitably turn to email. I’ve lost count of how many times online strategists have told me during my dissertation research–portions of which will hopefully be available soon at obscure scholarly journals near you–just how critical a tool email is to their work.

But email-based mobilization is also a game of relatively low margins when compared to the sizes of some of membership lists. Typically, around 13% of recipients open these emails. Of these, typically less than 4% will click on the main action link and take the action. This means that for an email blast targeted at one million supporters (assuming each of those emails is delivered successfully, which seldom happens), less than 40,000 will probably take action. So anything that gets in the way of email delivery or visibility in users’ inboxes is a potentially legitimate reason for online strategists to freak out.

This is where Gmail Tabs comes in.

Less than a year ago, Google introduced Gmail tabs as a way to help users cope with the  volume of email crowding their inboxes. Tabs automatically separates emails that are presumably most important to you (from relatives, friends, etc.) from newsletters, listservs, and similar emails, then delivers the latter to inboxes separate from your ‘primary’ inbox but accessible via tabs.

With the preamble about email’s importance to modern political mobilization in mind, you can probably see where this is going. Any feature rolled out by the world’s biggest email service that can potentially segregate an advocacy organization’s emails into an inbox separate from the user’s primary inbox is a potential headache for an organization or campaign trying to reach its supporters in a timely manner.

How big of a headache? Opinions vary. From following conversations about this topic online, it seems like some organizations have seen noticeable impacts from Tabs on their email delivery; others have seen little to no impact. Attitudes about how to deal with this new feature also vary. Some organizations have reached out to their supporters, urging them to either check their other tabs regularly, or make sure the organization’s emails are routed to the primary inbox. But some strategists hardly sweat it, and say that outstanding content will always ensure that users will pay attention to emails relevant to their interests.

Missing from the discussion is the fact that, through a change in its features, Google has rolled out a type of regulation of how political campaigns and organizations and their supporters interact with each other via Gmail. It’s an example of what’s called ‘privatized Internet governance.’ Corporations that operate popular online services — search engines, app stores, social networks, video sharing platforms, etc. — that are usually free are increasingly determining how we interact with each other via the Internet. They do so in two broad ways: through their policies —  terms of service, developer or community guidelines, etc. — and the technical features they roll out and allow or encourage us to do certain things online while discouraging or outright banning others.

Political campaigns and organizations are becoming more and more dependent on these tools over which they have comparatively little control to reach their audiences. This means that organizations and campaigns are bound to run up against instances of privatized Internet governance that somehow affect their work more frequently. From this perspective, it hardly matters whether Gmail tabs is actually affecting email delivery or not–the fact that it has the potential to do so is important in itself.

When online intermediaries like Google or Facebook choose to roll out features like Tabs, it’s unlikely they have advocacy organizations in mind; they cater to a much broader public. But because of the growing popularity of these intermediaries and the need that advocacy organizations have to be present in these platforms, they have few options when changes to the platforms’ policies or technological architectures that could affect their work are implemented. They can somehow work around them, switch to another platform (which in some cases is simply unrealistic), or they can try to raise a stink about it, which may or may not work. Just as the avenues for individuals to have meaningful input into the policies and architectures of private online intermediaries are limited, so are the avenues for advocacy organizations to have their needs and concerns taken into account.

A rejected online ad here, an annoying feature change there, may not seem like much viewed in isolation. But they add up to a noticeable trend that activists should take seriously. As more aspects of political communication move online and take place through platforms owned by corporations like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, and others, how their policies and technological architectures affect the work of advocacy organizations will be an increasingly important issue that these groups will have to navigate. That’s the true importance of Gmail Tabs: not its immediate impact, but what it tells us about the future of privatized Internet governance and online activism.

Luis Hestres

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