Many freelancers and small businesses use Facebook, Google, and other big tech companies to attract clients and deliver services. There's a growing movement of freelancers that would like to be less reliant on these tech giants, but where do we start?
Whether you're concerned about having all your eggs in someone else's basket (where the rules can change on a whim), or you're concerned about data privacy, digital ethics, or surveillance capitalism – Dave Smyth has some suggestions for you.
Dave Smyth is a co-founder of the ethical web design company, Scruples; the founder of the Below Radar community for small businesses who want to be less reliant on Facebook, Google and the like; the brains behind the No To Spy Pixels Campaign – and more.
In this episode, Dave shares his tips and tactics for making intentional choices about the tools we use to run our businesses.
Find out more about Dave's work:
Say hi to Louise:
Louise Shanahan is a freelance health copywriter and health tech white paper writer. She's on a mission to help others build a freelance business that feels easy and works for them – in weekly snack-sized bites.
Welcome to 15 Minute Freelancer, your snack-sized guide to being your own boss and building a business and life you love. I'm your host Louise Shanahan. My LinkedIn bio says I'm a freelance health copywriter. But for the next 15 minutes, I'll be tickling your ears with practical strategies, behind-the-scenes stories, and nuggets of wisdom so you can create a freelance business that works for you. Whether you're just starting out or you've been self-employed for a while, I'll be right here with you to help you navigate the ups and downs of freelancing life. So grab a coffee relax and join me for 15 minutes of freelancing fun. Don't forget to hit subscribe.
Louise: Hello, and welcome to another episode of 15 Minute Freelancer. So today, I'm very excited to welcome Dave Smyth, who some of you may know as the founder of Work Notes, which is a brilliant independent freelance community. Dave is also a freelance ethical web designer through his company, Scruples. He's the brains behind the No To Spy Pixels campaign, and founder of the Below Radar community on Discord for freelancers and small business owners who want to reduce their reliance on Facebook, Google and the like. And many, many other projects I'm sure we'll get to in a moment. Dave, I don't know how you fit it all in? Would it be accurate to describe you as a bit of a digital ethics activist?
Dave: Maybe, maybe an inadvertent activist possibly?
L: Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I think a lot of us have a bit of a love-hate relationship with big tech. On one hand, that's what allows us to create and build our freelance businesses, and find clients and connect with other freelancers all over the world. But on the other hand, it seems like every day we're hearing another story about the harm that they're causing. And as we were just talking about before we started pressing record, I think a lot of people are thinking I'd quite like to move away from some of these tools. But we’re not quite sure how to do that. So perhaps that's somewhere where we could start. What exactly are we talking about when we talk about building a freelance business without big tech? What are we trying to avoid? And is it really possible if our businesses are very online?
D: Yeah, I think the first thing to think about is that it's not necessarily that you're going to go cold turkey on this. And not everything is going to be about just turning off the next day and just hoping for the best. I think there are lots of small positive steps that people can take. It's also about thinking about what you're using these platforms for. Why you feel uncomfortable about them, and possibly reducing reliance on them. People don't feel comfortable about using these platforms for lots of reasons like they might have ethical concerns that might be an ethical conflict. But there are other things, like if we don't own our homes on the internet, we're vulnerable to the changes that these bigger companies make. What happens if we get to like 100,000 followers on Instagram or something, and then the account is unilaterally suspended, and there's no way to get in touch with Instagram support? Or what happens if the algorithm changes? There's a story I've referenced quite a lot about a guy who built a company around affiliate sales on Amazon. One day, he got an email to say that Amazon would be doubling their cut, and that obviously had a huge impact on that company's bottom line. So there are lots of ways that being reliant on these companies can introduce different vulnerabilities to our businesses. It's just about thinking about what we don't feel comfortable about. And then thinking through some alternative business practices, or things that don't rely on these companies quite so much.
L: So this might feel a little bit overwhelming to some people. Like, if I think about my own business, I'm using Google Workspace, Dropbox, Trello, MailChimp, I've got my website. Though, I did switch from Google Analytics to Fathom Analytics, which I know is a more privacy-focused one. And then eventually, I realised I don't actually look at the analytics. So I ended up getting rid of that, too. So like you say, I think it's kind of thinking about what you actually need and which of these tools you need. But for those of us who are on board with the idea of digital ethics, but are maybe still using a set of tech tools that we've gathered over the years, that we now need to kind of sort through the thought of switching all of these feels a bit daunting. Some of these apps are maybe ok, some I'm not sure about. So where would be a good place to start? If we're looking for alternatives, what would be some quick wins?
D: So Analytics is a really good example. Another part of this is reframing the metrics that we value and we collect and like thinking about the data we collect and why we collect it. And so it might be that analytics aren't that important, like if we never check them, why do we collect that data? But in terms of specific examples, a good place to start is things like email, like instead of using Gmail FastMail is an incredible privacy-focused provider. There's also Hey, which is quite new. It's quite opinionated, so that wouldn't be appropriate for everybody. In terms of newsletters, it might be a good approach to build newsletters as a way of retargeting customers instead of necessarily using behavioural ads. For Google Documents, there are things like Whimsical, there's a new provider called Skiff. There are lots and lots of alternatives out there. And in a way, this is what below radar is trying to do – help people find these different resources and find some of these quick wins and things to switch to. I think you just have to be realistic as well. And there's no getting around that it's work to switch from some of these things, and particularly if it's something that your whole business is running around. So just take it one step at a time, think about what the practical steps you can take are and maybe think about longer-term goals.
L: Yeah, yeah, just doing our best really? So as you've learned more about this, and delved deeper into the world of digital ethics and privacy and surveillance capitalism, it sounds like the direction of your business has changed quite a bit. So can you maybe tell us a little bit about how that's happened, and how the way you run your business has changed?
D: I got interested in the privacy side by accident, actually. I think the first thing I heard about was the email service Superhuman, and how that tracked users’ locations and things when they read emails, and that really pricked my ears to some of the sort of real-world concerns about these things. I guess in terms of my own business, and Scruples, it kind of started with advising clients about alternatives to some of the things that they'd heard about, because it's not, it's not our client’s job to like know, the latest privacy-focused like version of something. And I'm in quite a privileged position to guide clients and say, hey, instead of using Google Analytics, which everybody uses, and you've heard about, why don't we consider using XYZ, because it might mean you don't need to display a cookie bar, or it might mean, you actually pick up more of the traffic. And to highlight the business case for these things as well. Because often, there's like a business benefits in following some of these practices.
L: And I noticed that on your website, you have an ethics statement, which I find really interesting. And I wonder if that has had an impact on the clients that you work with?
D: So our ethical statement talks about some of the things that we will and won't do. So like we won't use dark patterns. We don't use Facebook, WhatsApp, or Instagram for any part of our business. We've taken The Ethical Move’s pledge, which is a group that has set out a range of principles for marketing and business and things. There's some sector exclusions, as well, areas that we don't want to work with. I guess it's going to be like a client filter, one way or another. But we also have a page where we talk about clients that we would particularly like to work with as well. I guess we're trying not to be too negative on everything.
L: And can anybody sign up to the ethics page?
D: Yeah, that's something that anybody can join in. It doesn't cost anything. It's more about saying that you'd like alone with those values, and you sort of commit to working in that kind of way.
L: Okay. Can you tell us a bit more about some of the other projects that you're working on at the moment?
D: Yes. So about a month or two ago, I launched Below Radar, which is a community for freelancers and small business owners who want to reduce their reliance on Facebook, or Google or techniques that fuel surveillance capitalism. And there's been a really interesting response to that. I think a lot of people feel like they're relying on these companies in a way that they wish they weren't. It's not really to be super absolutist about stuff and say, like, you absolutely shouldn't be doing anything. But to be practical about what people can do and thinking and helping each other build businesses that don't rely so much on these companies and techniques. I think it's absolutely possible to build businesses that are intentional about their use of these companies, if they use them at all, rather than being completely dependent on them.
L: Yeah, because they're always going to be issues with every company that we use, to some degree, whether we're looking at, you know, their environmental record, or their tax record, or, their workforce conditions and all of that. It's quite difficult to be very strict and have the highest standards of ethics across the board, isn't it? So we have to kind of prioritise, don't we?
D: Yeah, of course. And this was something we felt when we were writing the ethical statement at Scruples, something I felt was a source of pressure about writing something that that was, it'd be very easy to miss something. And so we've written in that ethical statement that it's a work in progress and that's true. We're just trying to work through the things that are important to us and that we're trying to build our business around, like no companies are absolutely perfect. I guess it's about trying to work with companies and work in a way that matches your values. Because so much of this stuff happens under the surface. And some of it's quite technical and things. So it's part of it's like raising awareness about it as well.
L: And on the topic of raising awareness, can you tell us a bit about the No To Spy Pixels campaign?
D: Yes. So No To Spy Pixels is a website to raise awareness about tracking pixels in emails. So lots of people don't realise many of the emails we receive, they track our location, time of opening and day of opening, every time we open an email from a sender. And this happens, even if we unsubscribe. So if we go back to an email thread, and we've previously unsubscribed to that list, that data will be reported back. That means that companies are building logs of where people have been, how often they open emails and things. And I think as far as like marketing, and tech and things, lots of people have mailing lists, so they're aware of this. But if you talk to somebody who doesn't work in tech, or marketing, and tell them that their location is often reported, when they receive a newsletter, or a blast from a retailer or something, they're really shocked. So No To Spy Pixels is a campaign to raise awareness about it, and to help people take action as well. And part of that is asking companies to remove the pixels, because often they're included in really mundane stuff where they don't need to know if you've read an email or not. One of the banks I used, they were including it in a statement. there's absolutely no reason for them to be including that. And actually, they ended up removing the pixels from those emails. So that's the campaign in a nutshell.
L: It's useful for us to know about these things, so we can check if we are collecting that information. And do we need it? And if not, we can make a decision then to opt out of it.
D: Yeah. And one last point on this, by the way, is that in iOS 15, Apple introduced something called mail privacy protection, I think, and that will have an even greater effect on the misreporting of open rates. I think I read in an industry blog that they think that it might increase the misreporting of these by like 30 or 40%, for every newsletter list. So through actions like that, from Apple, I think the days of relying on open rates and things are numbered, because at some point, the data is useless. But yeah, it's a big and interesting topic. To me at least.
L: Yeah, I think we could have a whole episode on that alone. So as if you haven't been busy enough with all of that, you've also recently teamed up with Andra Zaharia on a new podcast called Cyber Empathy. Can you tell us a bit about that?
D: Yeah. So this is a new project. It's kind of Andra's thing. And she's kindly invited me to, to co-host. So the first season has just come out, which is that's mainly her interviewing different people. We'll be recording some new episodes for the new year. But that podcast is really trying to look at the empathy side of cybersecurity, but also tech and some of the issues like why there sometimes isn't that much empathy, and how we can help people understand things. It's early days, but I'm excited to be involved.
L: Hmm. Well, that's another one for us to add to our list, then. Are there any other resources or book recommendations for people who want to find out more because I'm conscious that there's so much to dig into here, and we can only really scratch the surface in 15 minutes?
D: Yeah. So a book I recommend all the time that wouldn't seem to be related, is Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. In there, he recommends taking a break from social media for like 30 days. Basically, don't tell anybody, take a break for 30 days, come back, see if anyone notices, and when you come back, introduce social media in a really intentional way. So I think what's interesting about that, from the point of view of what we've been talking about is that that might highlight how important social media is or is not to business. So I think that's a really interesting book to read. It's about digital minimalism. But I think there are a lot of things to possibly bring across. A couple of other books I'd recommend. There's An Ugly Truth, which is about the sort of behind the scenes what's been going on at Facebook over the past few years, which is written by a couple of New York Times authors, and a book I just read that might have the best cover ever is Subprime Attention Crisis, by Tim Hwang. And that's talking about some of the issues with behavioural ads and particularly how the data may not be what it seems, and how with this idea that behavioural ads and targeted ads are much better at targeting certain groups or being hyper-focused on the audience that we want, and how that might be flawed.
L: Okay, that's great. Thank you so much. That feels like a good place to wrap up for now, I think. Thank you so much, Dave, this has really given me and I'm sure it will have given our listeners, plenty of food for thought, I really appreciate your practical and positive approach to this as well. If people want to find out more about what you're up to and your work and your activities in this area, where should they go and find you?
D: Probably the best place is on my website, which is davesmyth.com, or the Below Radar community, which is belowradar.co.uk. I'm also on Twitter, but those two places are probably the best place to start.
L: Okay, that sounds good. Thank you. We'll put the links to those in the show notes.
D: Thanks so much.
L: Alright. That's us for this week. Thank you very much to Dave, and thank you to everyone who's listening. We will see you next time. Thank you. Bye.
You've been listening to 15 Minute Freelancer with me Louise Shanahan, freelance copywriter and content marketer at thecopyprescription.com. If you enjoyed this, please hit subscribe, leave a review or share it with a freelance friend. And if you've got a freelancing question you want answered on the podcast, find me and say hi on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram. Thanks, and until next time, happy freelancing.