Just another day of being an asshole on the internet

TL;DR:

  • Hunter.io is a service that email marketers use to get huge email lists.
  • Go to their email finder to see if you’re in their list of 200+ million addresses (you probably are).
  • Go to their claim email address page to (attempt to) remove yourself from their database.

I get a lot of emails. An overwhelming amount, in fact.

A lot of the time, I have myself to blame: they are from lists I signed up for (intentionally or otherwise) or places I have made purchases. Most of the time there is an unsubscribe link at the bottom and I just need to muster enough energy to go through the hundreds of emails and hit that link.

But sometimes, the emails are more personalized — like, actually written by a human being, not a robot — and those are far more difficult to get rid of. Here’s how an email like that might go:

Hi Chris!

I read your article https://jazzsequence.com/category/ministry-of-music/ and was really impressed! I have a site that has similar content and since you write about music, I think it might be relevant to your readers.

Can you take a look at my article at http://totallyfakemarketingwebsite.com/music-therapy/ and, if you like it, link it from your article? If you could that would be great! Looking forward to working with you!

Now, on the internet, when you are confronted by an unsolicited email or private message, you basically can do one of two things: ignore it, and hope that it goes away, and respond to it (either positively — “absolutely, I will definitely link to your content!” — or negatively — “hell no, take me off your list”). If these were sent by a robot, ignoring it would have no consequences. You could happily delete the email and go on with your day. But these aren’t sent by a robot, they are sent by a human. And dealing with it in any way other than an outright “go to hell” will result in a followup email.

Hi Chris!

I was wondering if you had a chance to read the email I sent you last week. Looking forward to hearing from you!

I want to not feed the trolls, but, it turns out, these content marketers aren’t trolls

It’s at this point that the internet rule “don’t feed the trolls” shows cracks. I want to not feed the trolls, but, it turns out, these content marketers aren’t trolls — they are some other kind of creature — and not feeding them, doesn’t make them go away. Because continued, conscious ignoring and deleting of the emails they send will just result in more emails…

Hey Chris!

Just checking in to see if you had considered my offer. Let me know what you think!

I haven’t tested how long these will go on unchecked. I usually give in and respond after the second or third iteration. Sometimes, I forget and it’s the fourth or fifth. But I haven’t found a point at which they don’t keep sending followup replies. At some point, if you want this person to stop emailing you, you’re going to have to hit the reply button.

Don’t call me a Monopoly player

It was one such exchange I had this week. I got an email from one of the two partners running gamecows.com. Now, looking at their site, I can’t tell what their business model is. Maybe it’s through affiliate links, although I don’t see any. Maybe they are just trying to build up a collection of list-icles to go on their resume for future writing gigs. There’s no advertising on the site, just a newsletter you can sign up for (and I’m not signing up for the newsletter just to test this experiment).

Whatever it is, I got an email from them that linked to my games list page. Now, this is not a post. This is not an article. This is literally  just a list of all the games that I own. It’s an experiment, and it’s a demo of my Games Collector WordPress plugin, and it’s a way for people to see what I have already, so if they wanted to get me something I don’t already have, there’s an easy way to figure out what I do have (that was the original reason I built the plugin, other features just expanded from there). There’s no content to speak of, and there isn’t even anything relevant to link from — the only links that are on the page are to Board Game Geek as a way to provide more information about a game. I suppose I could link to them in one of those, but I’m not trying to link to a review, I’m linking to a game description. I could link to Amazon if it wouldn’t then look like I was trying to profit from the game. I could link to the game’s website, but then I’d have to track down every game publisher. BGG has out of print games in its database, which makes it a much easier and more central place to get information about games. And much less biased, given that any reviews that appear on BGG are from people who’ve actually played the games and aren’t trying to profit in some way from their review. The more popular games have multiple reviews.

Anyway, this isn’t an ad for Board Game Geek. I digress.

The email was asking me to link to their review of Dominion (see what I did there?), a game that’s definitely one of our favorites. But, again, even if I did want to link to them, I have nothing relevant to link from. Not on that page. It wouldn’t make sense to link to their review of Dominion from my listing of Dominion in my game collection, it would be more confusing because it would be inconsistent with the other games on the page. Plus it wouldn’t be impartial.

I might have originally intended to respond, just because it was about games and I like games, but I didn’t. And so, sure enough, the second email comes. Except this one comes with a bite.

Chris, did you get my last email? If I don’t hear back, I’ll assume you’re more of a Monopoly person. Nothing wrong with that of course. ;)

Woah boy.

Now, it should be obvious that I’m not a “Monopoly person” just by looking at the page they linked to. If I was, there’d probably be several incarnations of Monopoly on the list. There are not. I have distinct memories of losing horribly and being angry at my Dad for winning so overwhelmingly and feeling like a failure at the game and as a human being as a result of Monopoly. Monopoly is not a fun game. Unless by “fun” you mean one person wins and makes everyone else’s lives miserable — which describes a lot of board games of the past, Risk is another great example of this. I make it a point to avoid games like these at all costs.

What’s more, if you look at the history of Monopoly, it wasn’t supposed to be fun. It was designed to illustrate the evils of capitalism, not how great capitalism is. According to Wikipedia “it was intended as an educational tool to illustrate the negative aspects of concentrating land in private monopolies.” Even their own about page mentions “the family-destroying dynamics of a ‘friendly’ game of Monopoly.”

I was angry at yet another of a long series of unsolicited emails from which there is no unsubscribe

This was an obvious baiting tactic, and one that, I felt, was particularly offensive, given that it was coming from someone who claimed to like games, directed to someone who (I should think, given that there are 100+ in our collection) also likes games, and is very much not a “Monopoly person” — something that should be obvious if you actually read the page you’re requesting a link from. So, like a chump, I took the bait. And I wrote a nasty email. Because I was pissed at the implication and I was angry at yet another of a long series of unsolicited emails from which there is no unsubscribe.

A possible solution

Here’s where the story shifts from the norm. Normally, I would respond to one of these (nasty or otherwise) and never hear from them again. In this case, that didn’t happen. On some days, I would be even more exasperated, but in this case, I made an implication that “if you just write good content, the traffic will come” which I know, really, isn’t the case. But I also know that emailing me, is not going to give them a bump in their traffic. My site doesn’t get traffic. You’re better off soliciting, well, Board Game Geek for one, to get links to your site. Or Geek and Sundry. Or, I dunno, anything else, really, because I hardly get hits on this site, and definitely not enough to make an incoming link from jazzsequence.com result in a higher ranking on Google. You’d be just as good building your own site, call it sequencejazz.com and write your own incoming link for all the good my Google juice would do you, which is the other reason why these emails exhaust me.

So they apologize for striking a nerve and I apologize for being an asshole and I said something like “I wish there was a ‘do not call’ list or something for these emails…” And this is where the real nugget of wisdom happens.

They shared with me the name of the tool that they — and many other content marketers — use to gather emails: Hunter.io. By all appearances, this seems like a fairly legit way of gathering lists of email addresses to spam send your wonderful emails to. They boast 200+ million email addresses in their database, all tested for sendability and ranked with a score. They have a search tool right on the front page their site where you can search by domain and get a list of results (with parts of the name blocked out, although with some social engineering you can figure them out a lot of the time). Go ahead and try your own (assuming you don’t have a Gmail account) — you’re probably in there.

You can even find the sources for the email addresses, and here’s where it gets really interesting. Their email finder lets you type in a full name (first and last) and a domain and it will give you the matching address. This is easy and you can do it right now to get an actual individual’s email address from, basically, anywhere, provided you can give those two things. But the sources, for me, were the most revealing. Two of my results had the tag “Removed”. I don’t really know what this means, perhaps just that my address no longer appeared on those pages. Those were my ancient ReverbNation page and a tag archive for the term “art” on jazzsequence.com! (And not just any tag archive, but, in fact, page 2, randomly.)

Hunter.io results for Chris Reynolds

My email address got entered into their database because I committed a piece of code. That code is open source and includes my email address and this is considered fair game.

The remaining (not removed) public listing of my email address is on Trac. Yes, plugins.wordpress.trac.org. So, to summarize, my email address got entered into their database because I committed a piece of code and standard practice for copyright and GPL notices in code is to put the author’s email address in the code. That code is open source, and therefore exists on the internet, and because that code is on the internet, and the code includes my email address, this is considered fair game to add me to a database of 200+ million other people who can be spammed receive unsolicited emails be emailed by this company’s users.

Hunter.io has a contact address — [email protected] — but when I emailed it, I got an auto-response that it couldn’t be delivered. The message response was, get this, “Leave failed, not a member.” This seems to imply that, because I am not a member of the service, I can’t email their public email address. Fabulous. Isn’t that fabulous?

Claim your address on Hunter.io

I did a bit of digging and, through a FAQ on their site, found that the Claim page on their site is how you can (attempt to) remove your address from their database. By entering your address into the form, you are “claiming” that address, and you can then either edit the preferences on the address or request that it be deleted entirely. Alternately, it’s entirely possible that you’re just adding your email back into their database, I guess time will tell.

At any rate, I claimed all of my email addresses, even those that didn’t come up when I searched for them. I don’t think it will block them from being added again in the future if they get indexed again, but hopefully it will null the existing matches.

If you get these emails, too, go to Hunter.io and claim your address. Bookmark the damn page and do it again in six months. I’d recommend writing a nasty letter to them, but I tried that and it bounced, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Announcing Games Collector, a tabletop game management plugin for WordPress

I’ve been quietly building something under the radar for a couple weeks. It’s been really just a passion project that came out of a conversation after the holidays.

Basically, we own a lot of games. Blame Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop for some of it, but, really, we’re frequently finding excuses to get new games. In fact, getting a new game for the family has become an annual tradition. We have so many games that it’s sometimes hard for other people to keep track of what we have and what we don’t have. And that’s where the nugget of an idea for a plugin for WordPress came in.

It started off as just a way to list the games that we own. But as I was thinking of ways to display the games, I started thinking about the user experience a bit more. Lists aren’t fun, but you know what is fun? Stuff that moves around. So, I decided to integrate Isotope.js to sort the games by different filters. Isotope animates the transition, so you’ll see games disappear and reappear and there’s lots of different things you can sort by.

As I was working with these filters I thought “wouldn’t it be cool if you could use the game list as a way to get ideas about what games to play?” What game to play depends on the audience, right? So, I added a “difficulty” dropdown that you can use to determine how hard the game is to learn. The range goes from Easy to Hard Core. What game you suggest also depends on how many people are playing, so there’s also a dropdown for number of players. So if you have a group of 4 hard core gamers, you can get a list of games that would be good for that group, and for that many players. Whereas, if you have a group of 7 or 8 casual gamers, you can get a list of games that are more laid back and are good for larger groups.

How does it work? Well you can take a look right here on my blog: Games. It uses a shortcode which you are probably familiar with if you’ve used WordPress for a while. There’s some notes on setting it up on the GitHub page. Here’s a screenshot of the back-end.

If you love games as much as me and you use WordPress, download the plugin and let me know what you think. I’m not planning on releasing it on WordPress.org any time soon because I don’t want to deal with the support forums and because it’s written for PHP 5.6 or higher (which is greater than the minimum requirement for WordPress), but if you have questions or feature requests, you can reach out on GitHub.

This is just the first iteration. I’ve got some ideas about how to extend the plugin moving forward, including integrating the WordPress REST API so the game data could be used outside of WordPress, in an app, for example. The mobile experience isn’t great, and I’d love to eventually build a way to manage and view your game list in a dedicated app on your phone.

Anyway, this is a cool little thing that I’ve been working on and excited to share. Again, download it and let me know what you think!