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Superhuman Problems

Justin Barber
5 min read

For a brief moment last year Silicon Valley’s hottest new product was an email app called Superhuman. The email service costs $30/month (!) and their marketing sounds like the first draft of a voiceover for a luxury car commercial:

“Superhuman is not just another email client. We rebuilt the inbox from the ground up to make you brilliant at what you do. We specifically designed it for those of you who want the best…Superhuman is so fast, delightful, and intelligent — you’ll feel like you have superpowers.”

(Side note — I love how they couldn’t resist explaining the punchline of their own product name even though it’s the most obvious thing in the world.)

Superhuman started their marketing blitz last June – Venture Capitalists evangelized the app on Twitter and the New York Times published an article called “Would You Pay $30 a Month to Check Your Email? One of Silicon Valley’s buzziest start-ups, Superhuman, is betting its app’s shiny features are worth a premium price.

One of those “shiny features” is what Superhuman calls “Read Receipts.” While the New York Times failed to mention any details about the feature, early-access Superhuman user (and former VP of Design at Twitter) Mike Davidson wrote a 4,000+ word blog post about it: Superhuman is Spying on You.

In Mike’s article (which is one of the most nuanced, thoughtful reflections I’ve ever read on how product decisions get made in Silicon Valley), he explains everything that’s wrong with Superhuman’s “read receipts” feature:

“You’ve heard the term “Read Receipts” before, so you have most likely been conditioned to believe it’s a simple “Read/Unread” status that people can opt out of. With Superhuman, it is not. If I send you an email using Superhuman (no matter what email client you use), and you open it 9 times, this is what I see: a running log of every single time you have opened my email, including your location when you opened it.”

Meaning: if I use Superhuman to send you an email, I can see when, where, and how many times you opened my email – regardless of what email app you use. Without you knowing. And to make matters worse:

“Superhuman never asks the person on the other end if they are OK with sending a read receipt (complete with timestamp and geolocation). Superhuman never offers a way to opt out.”

In his post, Mike imagines three short stories to highlight the potential for abuse enabled by this feature. I’ve excerpted the first sentence of each:

  • “An ex-boyfriend is a Superhuman user who pens a desperate email to his former partner.”
  • “A pedophile uses Superhuman to send your child an email. Subject: “Ten Tips to Get Great at Minecraft”.”
  • “Superhuman decides they can make more money by supplementing their subscription fees with data licensing agreements.”


I’m sure that no one at Superhuman wanted their email product used in that way, which raises two questions:

  1. Did anyone at Superhuman think about the potential problems of exposing location data without consent?
  2. If someone did raise concerns, why were they ultimately overruled?

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