Please. Do not Reply to All.
October 3, 2007 8:39 PM   Subscribe

It's a lesson all listserv managers dread learning the hard way: Don't let your subscribers "Reply to All." The WSJ Washington Wire reports on an incident today in which one user's reply started all those on a Department of Homeland Security "Open Source Intelligence Report" e-mail list on a chain-reaction of replies and counter replies that offers lessons on how (not?) to run an e-mail list. Maybe Michael Chertoff was on to something last year when he stopped using e-mail at all.
posted by mmahaffie (42 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I had no idea Wendell worked for Fatherland Security.
posted by maxwelton at 8:47 PM on October 3, 2007 [4 favorites]

Oh boy, e-mail! That's where I'm a viking!
posted by Poolio at 8:49 PM on October 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

I pulled a Wendell the other day on a Facebook message sent to everyone in a group for a class I'm in.

Of course, the results were quite humorous. If only they knew that I got the idea from someone named "wendell".
posted by DMan at 8:53 PM on October 3, 2007

Somewhere, deep below the surface of the Earth, in a concrete and steel bunker used by Homeland Security....

"Sir! You should take a look at this!"

"What is it, Johnson?"

"Sir, a Nigerian prince by the name of The Esteemed Dr. Peter Mbuku needs our help to transfer eight hundred million dollars into an American bank account before it's seized by Islamic rebels!"

"My God, Johnson, do you know what this means?"


"This is the biggest financial coup in the War on Terror! Getting this Christian prince and his money out from under the thumb of Islamic terrorists is going to make our careers, Johnson! Especially mine!

Johnson, I want you on the Red Phone with the CIA, FBI, State and Treasury. I want every agent from here to Cape Town on Red Alert to find and exfiltrate this man. Be sure to put them on a shoot-to-kill directive. We can't be too careful."

"Yes sir!"
posted by Avenger at 8:55 PM on October 3, 2007 [15 favorites]

e/mail, what's e/mail?
posted by HuronBob at 9:03 PM on October 3, 2007

who's Wendell?
posted by wendell at 9:10 PM on October 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

Hi, Im here to defend wendell. Leave him alone you monsters.
posted by redhanrahan at 9:17 PM on October 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

who's Wendell?

Oh, you didn't get the e-mail?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 9:18 PM on October 3, 2007

who's Wendell?

A better question is why.
posted by Poolio at 9:18 PM on October 3, 2007

There are two ways this thread can go: 1) This can all turn into a Wendellfest or 2)... who am I kidding... this is MetaFilter, there's only one way this can go.
posted by Kattullus at 9:25 PM on October 3, 2007

So, there's some government email list, and its users start getting chatty and socializing and sending fluff messages instead of being on-topic. This is news how?
posted by hattifattener at 9:29 PM on October 3, 2007

MetaFilter: There's only one way this can go... wendell.
posted by Poolio at 9:35 PM on October 3, 2007

I'm sad to say this happened to me, back in the day. My first web-related gig involved setting up a mailing list for a retail chain -- one of those places that's big enough to be well-known, but small enough to be run my a megalomaniacal fool who thinks he knows everything -- and it went horribly awry.

Long story short, I was in the middle of setting it up when the guy asked for the mailing list address. I didn't want to, as the system wasn't finished yet, but he insisted and I gave in, with a warning to "not send anything to the list yet."

Not only did he send an email titled "test" to the list shortly thereafter, but he did it at about 5:30pm after I'd left for the day -- and he inexplicably included an attachment that contained the full names, addresses and phone numbers of hundreds of his retail customers. Thankfully there were no SSNs or anything like that.

I didn't find out about it until the next morning, when I got to work and found people freaking out and thousands of emails bouncing around on reply-to-alls to the list (remember that I hadn't finished the install, so hadn't tested, and didn't know it was misconfigured.) Some were at screaming GET ME OFF THIS LIST YOU HAVE FILLED UP MY WEBTV MAILBOX, and some were (rightfully) complaining about the release of their personal information; whatever the message, though, it was all reply-to-all.

The guy who started the whole mess claimed that I had sent the test mail (which would be pretty hard to have done, since I didn't have that personal retail customer information) and insisted I call all of the people and claim personal responsibility. Thankfully sanity prevailed (sort of), so I just took those phone calls that the company owner received and forwarded to me. There were some pretty pissed-off people, too.

Still, it taught me one of the central tenets of the work I do today, which is this: never give in to stupid requests, no matter how powerful the person making the request is.

also: let someone else set up the listservs.
posted by davejay at 9:57 PM on October 3, 2007 [6 favorites]

From the FPP's second link:
... [Chertoff] said he’s still well informed of what’s going on, because he maintains contact with his staffers who read e-mail for him. “I rely on people communicating with my staff,” he said. “At any moment, I can request an update, and I can always be reached.” Chertoff still uses the telephone.
And if the boss doesn't like bad news (or the bearer thereof), perhaps he'll never get to hear it.
posted by cenoxo at 10:22 PM on October 3, 2007

You're lucky wendell wends for you, you bastards!
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:41 PM on October 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Anyway, I use Reply All at least once a week.

I find that Snopes + Reply All = Hilarity.
posted by Pope Guilty at 10:42 PM on October 3, 2007 [3 favorites]

This happened to me quite a few times. One time someone sent a Facebook request to the announcement list of a magazine I read, and someone applied with that email address. Add requests and wall posts started coming in, and all of us were going "wtf". We then worked out what happened with Facebook, but also that the mailing list was not invite-only - people could write back too! A few people were repeating information and it lasted for about a few hours before the magazine admins stepped in and made it read-only.
posted by divabat at 10:46 PM on October 3, 2007

Everyday, the Department of Homeland Security emails an “Open Source Intelligence Report” about the nation’s critical infrastructure to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of security and emergency officials [...] Early today, one recipient requested a change in his email address, mistakenly contacting the entire subscriber list. The error set off a chain reaction of responses [...]

One outraged recipient took the time to set up an anonymous gmail account with user identity “youmorons7” and write a blistering note: “I can see the CNN story on this tomorrow. The DHS’s mail server was crashed yesterday by a group of security ‘professionals’ that are part of our nation’s defense against attack. Because a large number of these ‘professionals’ did not understand how mail reflectors work and what function their reply button served, many of them contributed to the massive wave of e-mail nearly brought the server down."

Or maybe they just shouldn't be using a Commodore 64 as a mail server.
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:53 PM on October 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'm a member of a university games club, and every year we add about sixty new members, of which maybe five or so actually show up to meetings. Everyone is asked on the signup sheet if they want to be added to the email list, and those who tick "Yes" get added. It's a Yahoo group, so every message has a link to "Unsubscribe" instructions at the bottom of it.

Early each year, the list maintainer sends an email entitled "Unsubscribing instructions" which contains, unsurprisingly, unsubscribing instructions. Without fail, every year, that email gets at least a dozen replies posting "PLZ TAEK ME OFF YOUR LIST PLZ" or variations thereof.

This always triggers a response cloud of "read the instructions you moron" and "OMGWTF how did someone that stupid graduate high school" which quickly leads into "nobody cares" and "stop replying to the idiots, you idiots", which stirs up a new round of "PLZ TAEK ME OFF AN UNSCRIBE ME THIS IS BOERING". The list maintainer, of course, is kicking people off the list as soon as these emails hit his inbox.

Some time later, the first actual announcement of the year comes out - along the lines of "First meeting is at 10 on Saturday in the Teller Room, there will be free pizza, bring board/card games".

Which of course gets the reply: "PLZ TAEK ME OFF YR LIST".
posted by aeschenkarnos at 10:59 PM on October 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Distribution lists and reply-all make a dangerous combination. A couple years ago someone at my company inexplicably sent her entire W2 plus stock transactions to a DL of about 4,000 people. Then a couple hundred of those 4,000 people replied-to-all with "I don't think I should have gotten that" and "please remove me from this list". That and other similarly stupid reply-to-enormous-DL have shut down our entire exchange system a few times.

In our next episode we'll talk about when someone replies to an enormous DL with a similarly enormous attachment.
posted by pkingdesign at 11:03 PM on October 3, 2007

Chertoff is the wisest of them all.
posted by sourwookie at 11:37 PM on October 3, 2007

One memorable day I, and 6 others, received an email that contained the résumé complete with expected salary that belonged to a friend's husband. Good times.
posted by Cranberry at 11:53 PM on October 3, 2007

This comment has been sitting on my favorites list for just this occasion.
posted by salvia at 12:03 AM on October 4, 2007

Yeah, part of my job is that I must be subscribed to a listserv. I'd rather skip it, but it is required. So, every semester (and I've been guilty of this, too), someone hits the reply button without realizing it's going to everyone or whoever is replying just forgets.

The general response is a stern warning from the list admin (that we also all receive) or a fair amount of jokes (too much jocularity can also land you in the admin's office, come to find out... whoops). It depends on who hit the wrong button and if the admin is paying attention that day.

Thankfully, it's a pretty close-knit group and a bit of teasing is ok. Like when someone posts "shit for swap" instead of "shift for swap." If it's a big confessional thing, we all try to politely ignore it ("You sent an email? I never saw that.").

Anyway, I'd love to be able to unsubscribe, but if I tried, I'd probably do it incorrectly. And then everyone would know! Aargh.
posted by lilywing13 at 12:17 AM on October 4, 2007

I think we should start instituting internet licences. You have to be able to understand what the various buttons on your e-mail client do, unsubscribe from at least one mailing list, use google to answer a question, and understand that animated blinking gifs as background are bad for your health.

The first time you reply to a mailing list with "PLZ TAKE ME OFF YR LIST PLZ" your licence is revoked for two years.

Draconian measures for a better internet.

On the other hand, I'm thinking of just giving up on the whole thing. It's nice to have infinite porn and wikipedia and news and text-based communication with people who are far away, but eh. Maybe Chertoff has the right idea.
posted by blacklite at 1:07 AM on October 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Chertoff's an arse. He does use email, he just gets a group of fucking secretaries to read it aloud for him instead of checking his own inbox, but that doesn't sound as good, does it?
posted by jacalata at 2:10 AM on October 4, 2007

Yeah, that's like someone with a chauffeur scoffing at those who drive cars.

Why would be require people to demonstrate any skill to use the Interwebs when we let any idiot have kids?
posted by dg at 3:23 AM on October 4, 2007

There are email clients (free ones) that manage this problem. by gathering comments into one conversation. although i do miss Pine.

I usually like the explosion of comments you get when people realize they can all talk to each other. but this is on lists of maybe 50 people who know one other already.
posted by eustatic at 4:24 AM on October 4, 2007

I first ran into this around '92 while working at Compaq. Most folks were still using DOS and the mail notification would lock the system for several seconds. You could hear the pings of new mail arrivals up and down the hall and the groans of the people trying to work.

Then the servers went down, and up, and down, and up. It took almost a day to resolve.
posted by beowulf573 at 5:13 AM on October 4, 2007

This story resonated for me because I "run" a few listservs as a GIS Coordinator for a smallish state. And I once caused a shut-down of the whole state's e-mail system.

About ten years back, when I first started in this position, we had set up and populated a listserv list with about 200 members. One morning I posted a message to the list and then headed off to a meeting in another city. One of the recipients had set-up an "out of office" auto-reply that was configured to "reply to all". His system responded to me, and to the whole list, that he was out of state.

I got that message, and so did the whole list, including Mr. I'm-Away-From-My-Office-Right-Now. Whose e-mail system replied to me. And to the List. And then again. And then again. Repeat. Repeat.....

And I wasn't there to stop it (If I could have; I'm still not sure)

Eventually, the network administrators shut down the whole system and reconfigured the listserv to not allow that to happen ever again.

I still take shit about that at meetings. And automated out-of-office messages make me sweat a little.
posted by mmahaffie at 5:19 AM on October 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm just disappointed that a WSJ article starts out "Everyday, ..."

Stupid. Get an editor who actually passed grade school English to check before posting.
posted by caution live frogs at 5:55 AM on October 4, 2007 [3 favorites]

Chertoff not using mail I can actually understand, but it does mean he has structural problems in the agency. We've had problems at work where, during even smaller emergencies, the incident commander is so deluged with mail to their personal address, that it has to be delegated to a full-time communications person (or even two in a recent incident). Effectively, the OSC/IC becomes unreachable, his blackberry off, except through the command structure. We've seen days when mail arrives faster than it's possible to even read the subject lines (just get the press and/or cabinet-level people interested) .

Given the level of mail I'm sure he gets, it was too easy to just leave that extra filter layer in place even after the emergency has passed. I'm not saying that it was the right thing to do, but I can certainly understand the temptation.
posted by bonehead at 7:14 AM on October 4, 2007

The story is in the NY Times this morning.

My favorite quote: “This has gone from an amazing pain in the neck to fifth grade. But that was my favorite grade.”

And: "The accident raised questions among cybersecurity experts about how well prepared the Homeland Security Department is to defend against a cyberattack because it had trouble dealing with this computer problem."
posted by mmahaffie at 7:23 AM on October 4, 2007

mmahaffie, I feel your pain. I took down a University System, which was the size of a small state. The admins all over campus were pretty cool about it, because it was a bunch of students who kicked it all off, one of whom sent an infected attachment by mistake. It slowed the system down, didn't do a lot of permanent damage, but I wasn't to make email lists after that, which was fine with me.
posted by lysdexic at 7:51 AM on October 4, 2007

It's great when the IT guys do bone headed things. I work at a large university/medical center. The IT dept is very controlling and getting my computer configured was a pain. There was a guy, I'll call him Brian, who was very helpful with this. A couple of weeks later I got an email from him and the subject line was "Performance Evaluation". I thought he was maybe asking for feedback, and he had been so helpful I was going to reply. The email had been sent to everyone on the system and was his long, angry reply to what he thought was an unfair evaluation.

He recalled the email, but not before quite a few people read it. I felt bad for him.
posted by whatever at 7:59 AM on October 4, 2007

Probably preaching to the choir here, but a few things can be done to reduce the impact of such idiots:

1) Set up mailing lists so that only mods can post messages. If garden-variety readers try to reply to the list, they can't.
1a) If you really want a large number of people to all communicate with each other, consider a different medium, such as a discussion board.

2) If you're sending a message to a large number of people without setting up a mailing list, put their addresses in the bcc: field. An attempted "Reply All" comes back only to you, since they don't have the addresses of anyone else the message was sent to.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:22 AM on October 4, 2007

This reminds me. Back in the Jurassic, there was a web-only offshoot of Time on its website called The Netly News, with an accompanying listserv. The listserv was advertised as "Get Netly in your inbox," which might make you think that you were getting the day's stories via e-mail, but it wasn't. It was a two-way sidebar discussion, and it was, like, the Algonquin Round Table of the commercial internet.

I was a college kid with lots of green-screen dumb-terminal computer lab time, but hesitant of getting sucked into MUDs or IRC. E-mail was timely enough to be exciting but permanent enough that I could go to class and come back and it would still be there. That and browsing when it was Adam Curry's personal gopher server. So I really liked this list, because it was people talking about the internet and linking to, well, interesting stuff on the web ["optimized for Netscape Navigator. Get Netscape Now!"].

Anyway, most subscribers to NETLY-L were not as thrilled as I. Longtime list regulars eventually came to joke about the various misspellings of "unsubscribe" that came to the distribution address instead of the admin request. My old favorite was "unscrubside."
posted by britain at 8:44 AM on October 4, 2007

I really wish people followed email etiquette more precisely. For instance, if you're cc'd on something, reply-all shouldn't even be an option.
posted by FinanceGuy8 at 10:27 AM on October 4, 2007

I work in a tech industry, with people who, ostensibly, should know the basics of e-mail. A couple of months ago a routine e-mail related to a server patch went out.

Someone replied-all requesting some mundane piece of local information, not realizing that the To: line was made up of multiple distro-lists that hit the inboxes of easily a couple of thousand people.

There was a sudden flood of "Please take me off this list!" reply-alls that followed. Maybe a hundred or so before saner and calmer people started pointing out that this was generating a server load and cluttering everyone's inboxes.

The last 'Pls remove me' made me smile. It was at least an hour after the explanatory messages that detailed how to not reply-all. And it was from one of the division presidents.

But the truly inspired message, the one that made everyone in my department laugh out loud was about thirty or forty messages into the initial onslaught, it was a reply-all that simply quoted all the previous messages and had in small letters:

"I love lamp."

That guy became my hero.
posted by quin at 10:58 AM on October 4, 2007 [5 favorites]

"If you're sending a message to a large number of people [...], put their addresses in the bcc: field. An attempted Reply All comes back only to you."

Is this true? I'm always sending messages to myself with various friends in the BCC field, and I've always worried about the dreaded Reply To All. Can I breath easy?
posted by Ian A.T. at 1:19 AM on October 5, 2007

I still take shit about that at meetings. And automated out-of-office messages make me sweat a little.

I am out of the office right now, and unable to reply to your comment.

Can I breath [sic] easy?

posted by davejay at 2:47 PM on October 5, 2007

If you hit "reply all", every mail client in the world should pop up a dialog that says:

"This mail will be sent to thousands of machines throughout the entire civilized world. Your message will cost the net hundreds if not thousands of dollars to send everywhere. Please be sure you know what you are doing. Are you absolutely sure you want to do this? y/n"
posted by bonehead at 7:48 PM on October 5, 2007 [2 favorites]

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