The Reply Allpocalypse is something everyone who has ever been on a large email list (NYU, Columbia). It’s an amateur mistake but it starts out with someone send an email to the entire list but is then compounded when people on the list (the larger the initial list, the more chances they’ll be some jokers in there that don’t understand how email works) start to reply and, instead of replying to the sender, decided that everyone on the list needs to see their response.
As the thread continues, everyone’s inbox starts to fill up with further replies of things like “unsubscribe” or “stop spamming me!!” that are also sent to the entire list. This can spiral out of control and bring a mail server to it’s knees and totally take out any mobile mail clients that are frantically trying to keep up.
At some point, people begin to realize that the list is a way for anyone to push a message to everyone at the entire company so you get and “open mike” situation where everyone who has had anything to stay will jump on the bandwagon with their own one-liner they just had to share.
The graphic above is from one such incident that happened while I was at Nokia. I don’t even remember the initial email but it was sent to a large list, could have been the entire company which I think is over 100k souls. As the Reply Alls started to pile on, everyone’s inbox was momentarily taken over and then someone helpfully decided to make an infographic of the type of responses that piled up.
Most famously was the “this yor folt” which came from someone in one of the Central European offices. English was obviously not his first language but his one-liner kicked off a whole new thread of people who started a new thread to poke fun at his butchering of the language as a representation of the folks who kept hitting Reply All to vent and complain, not realizing that they were actually compounding the problem.
A Nokia colleague of mine here in Finland had a charming update to an age old scenario. In this scene, the older sister, who is 13, is saying she has a crush on a boy in her school. It’s a boy in her school and the younger sister is dying to know who it is.
Younger sister creates a website which is all sparkly with animation and mood music and has an embedded form in it. Fill in the name of the person you love and this site will tell you if it’s a true match. It’s a trap of course. There’s a mailto: embedded into the Submit button. Anything typed into the box will be emailed to the younger sister’s email account.
The younger sister is ten.
Older sister runs across the form, can’t resist temptation and types in boy’s name and clicks on button. As soon as she does, old sis realizes what’s happening! She’s furious!
Old sis tries to logging into Young sis’ email account to delete the email. It takes her a few tries but she gets it. It’s easy to guess. She deletes the email with her beau’s name, disaster averted!
Old sis saunters into the living room, tells Young sis that she wasn’t fooled by her amateur prank – says that her password was easy to guess and she deleted the email anyway.
Young sis winks back at Old sis. Says she figured that would happen. That’s why she added a .forward file to her account that forwards any email sent to her email address to another secret account she created just for that purpose.
I had a great time at BarCampBlock this past weekend. Regretfully, I could only attend on Saturday but got to soak in the scene and definitely will chip in and help out in future BarCamp events when I can. The excitement surrounding the sessions reminded me of the early BloggerCon events that got me into blogging in the first place. A lot of earnest excitement and a tangible electricity in the air that we had the ability to change the world and make things better.
My favorite session was Brad Fitzpatrick & David Recordon’s discussion on Portable Social Networks where they made clear that they are trying to build a simple way to “glue” social networks together into a unified social graph that is openly accessible by anyone and everyone. The thought is that closed social networks which require you to drag all your friends along with you are distracting at best, destructive at worst. All this pulling people back and forth is resulting in frustration and friction which, if not addressed, will sap the ability of innovative new social networking services from gaining a significant audience and give any early adopters yet another username and password to remember. Additionally, there is the concern that existing solutions to pull your existing relationships along with you to the latest shiny object by crawling your AOL, Google, or Yahoo mailbox are training people to give over their username and password to untrusted third parties which is just asking for trouble.
While the motives for a public database of relationships is simple enough (someone at the session described it like a Technorati backlink index for social networking links, “who’s linking to me?”), the true genius is the assertion by Brad and David that they are laser focused on the geeky bits of building the database as a platform and that it’s up to the community to figure out what they want to do with it and if anyone wants to build something to add value on top of it to, “go for it.” People will continue to search for jobs or recruits via LinkedIn, this service will only help fill in the missing blanks and make your LinkedIn network a better representation of who you know. If you have a good friend down as a connection on flickr, why shouldn’t you also be connected to them on LinkedIn? This yet-to-be-named service will highlight the gap and make it easy for you to act on it.
In a later session on Open Authentication (now known as “o-auth”), David spoke of delegated authentication systems such as flickr’s in which you manage which services have access to your flickr photos. At anytime you have the ability to revoke any permissions that you have given. This let to a discussion of existing ways you let people get in touch with you and the need for a similar grant/revoke model for granting people access to you. If you’re outside of a social network such as Facebook where you can de-friend someone, an email address is the universal access key. Yet, these cannot be revoked and if you change your email address, it breaks for everyone including the person you’re trying to get away from. In this new world, maybe you can turn on & off access just as you would subscribe & unsubscribe from an RSS feed.
Further expanding on a point raised last year, today I received an email the had the following disclaimer in the .sig.
Note: Because of the high volume of spam we receive, legitimate e-mail is sometimes mistakenly filtered. If you send a message and don’t receive a reply, please try the telephone.
The IT press has been writing about the problems with email for some time now but this notice really brought it home to me. What this is saying is that if you can’t reach this person or do not receive a response, hail me on a technology that was invented 100 years ago.
This gives me a chance to segue into some email anecdotes that we’ve been using around the office just to illustrate the current frustrations with email as a business communications tool.
1. Anyone under 30 has only known broken email. Most of the folks hitting the workplace these days have grown up using IM, Skype, and blogs to communicate. Email is viewed as an outmoded technology to get receipts from Amazon and stuff.
2. 10 – 20% of your email volume may be better suited for a blog. For those of you that think you’ll never have enough time to blog, take a look at your Sent Messages box someday and count the number of messages you send in a day. I guarantee that a good percentage of them would have been better suited for either an intranet company blog or external work or personal blog. Responses to your posts will be there for others to see and learn from and the posts will be indexed and archived for quick future reference. Anytime you write an email where you wouldn’t mind adding “cc: the world” – then you should be thinking about a blog post.
3. If you address and email to ten people. . . there are 2 that got it that didn’t want it, 2 more that got it, threw it away, than later regretted it, and 2 more that didn’t get it but wished they did. This is Anil’s favorite anecdote and I use it quite often. The mere act of addressing an email asks you to define a circle of trust (to borrow a phrase from Robert DeNiro’s character the movie, Meet the Focker’s). This sets up barriers to communication and we all know it’s uncool to cc:all on something. Email is great for the point-to-point exchange of information but it really breaks down when used for group collaboration.
Peter Coffee writes in Goodbye to Email that spam, phishing, and the hide-and-seek games that spammers play in trying to outwit new email filter schemes is causing so much headache that some Enterprise IT manager’s are looking at alternative communication channels such as application-to-application links.
. . . the fraction of e-mail comprising spam rose from 58 percent in December 2003 to 64 percent in May, according to measurements by anti-spam provider Brightmail. That’s an annual growth rate of 83 percent in spam per desired message, but total distraction grows even more quickly as people use e-mail more often: Nucleus Research estimates the average worker receives 29 unwanted messages each day, more than twice the figure of 13 that the company found a year ago. . .
The blank slate of e-mail has given enterprises the freedom to visualize and experiment with future communication tools. Now that those rough sketches have taken form, it’s time to produce more rigorous blueprints, using more focused and less readily abused technologies such as Web services. E-mail will still have a role but not as the central nervous system of the 21st-century workplace.
The breakdown of email as the "killer app" is driving next phase in the evolution towards business-to-business integration that is driving developers to pick up where they left off in building some of the "connectors" promised with systems such as Microsoft’s BizTalk Server but updating their work with more standards-based, web services interfaces. Such an evolution will only serve to hasten the availability and use of the web as platform.