The hazards of using the “reply all” email feature are writ large in the annals of modern social history. Entire address books exposed. Rude comments accidentally sent to the person who they are about. Relationships changed forever. Workplace servers grinding to a halt under the sheer weight of people replying. And yet the button continues to sit innocuously on every email we read, almost daring us to press it without thinking. And press it we do.
A few days ago, Microsoft introduced a long overdue system to combat some of the horrors of “reply all”. Now available for users of Office 365, Reply All Storm Protection will be most useful for large companies who are at risk from what is known as a “reply-allpocalypse”. In the event of 10 reply-all messages being sent to more than 5,000 people within an hour, all further replies are blocked. Microsoft plans to adapt the system for smaller organisations too.
Microsoft is uniquely positioned to offer the world such protection. Back in October 1997, it became one of the first companies to suffer a reply-all-induced whiteout, after a single email was unwittingly sent to 25,000 employees on a mailing list.
Annoyed recipients began replying to the message, asking to be removed. Those emails also went to 25,000 people, as did emails telling people not to “reply all”. Microsoft’s email server went down for two days. The name of the damaging mailing list was somewhat prescient: “Bedlam”.
More than 20 years later, Microsoft employees are still at it. In November, a single message sent to 11,543 colleagues quickly threatened to spiral into Bedlam II.
Then, six weeks ago, another 52,000-person 'reply-all storm' hit the company. “Microsoft sources tell us some staff are now hitting reply all for the sheer fun of it, posting frivolous messages that celebrate the ridiculousness of the situation,” reported tech website The Register.
Microsoft is by no means the only company to suffer at the hands of the "reply-all demon", as Victoria Turk refers to it in her book about digital etiquette, appropriately titled Kill Reply All. "It will be holding your and everyone else's inbox hostage for the foreseeable… Replies about not replying start to proliferate," she writes. All reply-all fiascos are essentially a consequence of people not taking the time to think; this in turn is a consequence of email becoming almost too good at its job.
“Email is one of those technologies which has overgrown its original scale,” says Jeff Pearsall, vice president product design at Edison Mail. “The simplicity of sending and receiving emails has changed dramatically. Some of these innovations, although helpful, can make it easier to make costly mistakes. When building [email] interfaces, using technology and carefully crafted UI [user interface] treatments to avoid mistakes in the email flow are a much larger priority than most people would expect.”
Edison, Gmail and other email platforms try to compensate for our eagerness to send email by offering an “undo send” feature, which gives us a few seconds to think twice and recall our errant message. But for some people, a few seconds is not long enough.
The list of political figures who have accidentally sent journalists “reply all” emails they wished they had not is a long and tragic one. Use of “reply all” within the legal profession can lead to serious problems surrounding client confidentiality. A recent ruling in the US state of Illinois advised legal professionals to refrain from using it.
And yet it is so useful. The feature is there for a reason; to keep us in the loop and avoid having the same conversation with several people. Its potential to cause problems is entirely down to human shortcomings. The best thing we can do is stay alert. Double check. Maybe triple check.