Technology is amoral. It has the power to be used for good or for evil. One form of the latter is a button you avoid every day: the one marked “reply all.”
The snarky writers at Deadspin reported on yet another round of this insanity. This incident was at a huge corporation you’ve definitely heard of:
There is almost never a good reason to hit “reply all.” Especially not when “all” includes a listserv that goes out to thousands of employees at Time Inc., the country’s largest magazine publisher.
It’s going how these things usually go: with some genuinely baffled folks, some angry that it’s 2016 and no one knows how email works, and some trolls just content to sow chaos.
This isn’t the first time this has happened. It’s not even the first time it’s been covered by Deadspin! They lambasted a 2014 incident at the Columbia School of Journalism and even admitted their own reply-all calamity in connection with an internal NCAA basketball office pool.
And it’s not just them.
In 2015, employees at Reuters went through a reply-all horror show. It happened at Microsoft in 1997. It happened at the US State Department. And even when messages don’t go to thousands of people, reply-all can still be a source of embarrassment. A Business Insider slideshow reviews nearly a dozen cringe-worthy moments in the history of email.
What can be done?
Obviously, Avoid Using Reply-All
This advice is getting a bit tired, but apparently it still needs to be shared. When it comes to reply-all, just don’t do it. Although there may be some cases in which everyone who received a message needs to read your response, those incidents are extremely rare.
This is for a lot of reasons, not of all which are entirely encouraging:
- The more people, the less responsibility If someone sends you an email, you probably feel like you need to do something with it. If someone carbon copies you on an email with twenty other people, you likely have about 1/20th the same motivation. Plus, your desire to speak up drops with every subsequent reply-all.
- Most reply-all replies aren’t equally relevant to everyone. It’s easy to click “reply-all.” It’s work to go through and remove the people to whom you are not speaking with your comment. So, most people just press the button rather than take the time to edit.
- Reply-all makes email into a conversation. Email is for routing ideas and coordinating details. If you’re trying to communicate with someone, you want to pick up the phone—or go visit them in person. And if you’re trying to make a decision or brainstorm ideas, you need a meeting. (Although neither emails nor meetings are work.)
- Asynchronicity is grossly magnified. Unlike an in-person interaction or a conference call, email is not a synchronous medium. You can write a note and someone might read it an hour or a week later. This already creates problems when people treat email like instant messaging, but it’s far worse when there are three or more people on the thread. Whole subtopics may be debated and decided while you’re at lunch by a handful of fast typists at their desks. Reply-all is worse because not everyone is in the virtual room at the same time. Because, there is no room.
Use BCC to Kill Reply-All Threads
Take control of a wild reply-all thread as soon as you can by moving everyone to BCC and replying. Insert the words “Meeting forthcoming” or “THREAD CLOSED” to the front of the subject, but leave what remains. Write a reply to kill the response and add a bunch of blank lines to the bottom of your note so that people have to scroll a while to see the context.
You may need to do this more than once, but since most people keep the newest message at the top of their inbox they are likely to see your reply-all-ending message first.
Call People, Don’t Email Them
Pick up the phone and reach out to someone on the thread that hasn’t replied yet or hasn’t replied lately. Tell them not to reply. Send them this article. Suggest a meeting or a conference call. End the threads.
We expect people to be able to use email technology without any training, but the replyallpocalypse proves otherwise. Establish a training program for email for your company. Ask everyone to attend. After all, if we use a technology for hours throughout the day, why wouldn’t we take the time to learn to use it well?