Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Another look at “reply to all”

In the “Profession” column of the July 2008 issue of IEEE Computer magazine, Anne-Françoise Rutkowski and Michiel van Genuchten talk about “e-mail pollution” in an article titled “No More Reply-to-All” (abstract here; the full article is behind a paywall):

Measuring e-mail pollution

As more people flock to the Internet, external pollution — spam — has received considerable attention and become the target of spam filter countermeasures. We, however, focus on internal pollution. Our experience shows that it takes more time to detect internal pollution than external pollution. Deleting outrageous and misleading offers from parts unknown takes only a few seconds. Reading colleagues’ e-mail messages only to find at its end that you were copied only for their convenience can take minutes. The term e-mail pollution addresses such superfluous e-mail. Adding too many recipients typically causes this pollution, whether they appear on the send-to or cc list.

And, yes, that’s absolutely true. Anyone will tell you that your own eyes and brain can detect spam much more accurately than any automated spam filter can, and the delete key/button/icon is right there to hand. But when I get yet another email message in a discussion thread that has long since become irrelevant to me, but that still has a subject that warrants my attention, I have to read it, often sifting through a lot of forwarded text and other mess, in order to see that it’s really just someone thanking someone else for their input. Oh, great.

The authors go on to suggest a metric wherein someone who fans out more message recipients than what comes in is called a “polluter”, while someone who trims distribution lists relative to what comes in is a “cleaner”. It strikes me that in reality there’s a swath of “neutral“ in between the two, but the point is basically there: we want to encourage “cleaners” among our correspondents and in our businesses, and to discourage “polluters”.

They propose three “rules” to help:

  1. No more reply to all. They recommend disabling the mail-program button that performs that function.
  2. No more copies than originals. This isn’t explained well, but it seems like they mean to say that you should never add recipients to a reply without taking some others off.
  3. No more e-mail fights. If you’re going to get into a battle, do it on the telephone, where the bandwidth is higher and the likelihood of misunderstanding is lower.

I’ve no disagreement with rule 3 — it fits perfectly into my rule that one should use the right communication medium for the task at hand. Rule 2, if I understand it, is very much related to rule 1. So I’ll address my comments to rule 1.

Disabling buttons and making absolute rules is a Very Bad Idea. While it’s certainly true that “reply to all” is abused quite often, there are good reasons to use it. See my extensive comments about that from about three months ago.

I propose that the real chance at solutions to what I’ll rather call “recipient pollution” lies in a different set of three points:

  1. Technology: Provide a user interface that makes it easy to make the right choice of recipients, without trying to presuppose what that right choice is. This was what I said in April.
  2. Company policy: Make it clear that management expects people to think about the distribution lists on their messages, and that employees who are consistently abusive in that regard will be spoken to.
  3. Company culture / social pressure: Encourage an environment where people feel free to complain — politely, but firmly — to their colleagues when they see them stepping over the line. If the response to “Please stop copying me unnecessarily,” is usually “Too bad!”, then the problem will persist. On the other hand, if the typical response to persistent unnecessary copies is, “Hey, Bill, please make sure that when you copy me on a message, it’s legitimate, OK? Remember what our Director said last month,” people will be more likely to stay in line.

The problem is that we’re not doing any of that. Most email clients are no help at all, and corporate policy and culture generally lean toward longer distribution lists.

This isn’t really a technological problem, so let’s be careful about trying to solve it as one.


Lisa Simeone said...

Ugh. Cannot stand people who hit "Reply All." Likewise those who crowd the message with an interminable list of addressees, thus not only gumming up their message, but exposing other people's addresses without their permission.

Hey, folks, ever heard of "bcc"? Use that line to stuff addresses into your message, not the "To" line.

And those who forward a forward of a forward of a forward?? There are no words.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Well, Lisa, the truth is that no, most people have no idea what bcc stands for nor why they might ever want to use it. Which is unfortunate, but the answer is education, right?

What gets me is the people who respond to an alias with "please stop replying to all!" They're worse than the original sender.