Don’t Reply All

Last week, all hell broke loose in the inboxes of a large number of people at work.

It began with a message which was clearly not intended for me. Somehow, an email regarding a servicedesk issue was being sent out to a distribution list (in BCC) with a large number of people, including myself and everyone else around me. Oh well, you just delete the message and move on, right? No, clearly not.

Five minutes later, the first reply ticked in: “Please everybody make sure I will be removed from the distribution list from now on,” with everyone in copy. Three more simply joined the crowd, with “Me too” replies, still everyone in copy. After that, the first sensible message was sent: “Please do not use reply all,” to everybody. All in vain, unfortunately. Within 40 minutes of the initial email, the staggering number of 40 people replied with a request to be removed. An additional 15 people repeated the message of not hitting Reply All. And one person took the very forthcoming action of hitting Reply All, but adding no comments of his own. Eventually the distribution list was shut down, or so we presume. Additionally, I was told that for each email that was sent, a new ticket was raised with servicedesk. Someone should be embarrassed for sure.

So are my colleagues more stupid than other people? Sadly, in this case, probably not. But they fell victim to an unfortunate combination of striving for efficiency and underestimating the power of modern communication tools.

Email is an individual mass communication channel which allows you to target an immense amount of recipients easily, instantly, and cost-free. This has great value, of course, and for a global business it’s hard to imagine living without it. But these traits also carry the potential pitfall of embarrassing yourself in front of that same number of people, wasting their time, and ultimately costing the business a lot of money in lost efficiency.

Control mechanisms can be conceived of, such as hiding Send buttons, installing verification measures when sending to a large number of recipients, or removing the Reply All button altogether. However, the best measure of all would be one that requires enhanced functionality not in the system, but on the side of the user: sheer common sense.


Author: Kenneth Mollerup Birch

Living north of Copenhagen, Denmark. MA in Information Science. Interests include communication, internet, sociology, language, politics, religion, theology, travel, music, and food.

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