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July 25, 2008

Get Me Off This Thread

A few weeks ago I got to experience one of those ridiculous email explosions due to people trying to remove themselves from a mysterious email alias by sending mail to the alias.

The most famous of these in Microsoft history was probably the "Bedlam DL 3" one, which Larry Osterman blogged about. The most recent one was a bit more tame, since it involved a much smaller alias.

Unlike most of them which begin with somebody noticing they are on the alias and asking to be removed, this one began with an actual question sent to the alias (actually four aliases with similar names) by someone who thought the alias name sounded like some people who might help him with his question. What happened next? I went through the responses and categorized them:

  • Trying to answer the question: 2
  • Asking "please get me off this alias" (or "Me too"ing an earlier such request): 34
  • Apology from the original sender, about 20 emails in: 1
  • Instructions on how to actually remove yourself from an alias and/or asking people to stop replying to everybody: 26
  • Realizing that the usual way to remove yourself from an alias wouldn't work in this case, for unclear reasons: 6
  • Replies sent with DRM applied, so you could not "reply all" to them: 5 [this overlaps with the other totals]
  • Other: 4

The ones where people ask to be removed by sending to the alias itself are the most puzzling and annoying. One of the responders summed it up in their email:

"I find it quite amusing that so many people think that there exists a 'list of people to be removed from this list' somewhere, and that sending mail to everybody else in this list will somehow get their name added to said list, and getting their name added to said list will make it so they stop receiving all these emails. There must be some explanation for such behavior. Has this strategy worked for them in the past? Is there a psychological trick that makes people think this will work? If there is anybody out there who studies organizational behavior, I humbly suggest a study of this phenomenon."

I too wonder what at the thought process behind somebody thinking you get off an alias by sending mail to the alias. Yes, there are certain mailing list systems where you send a coded message (like the word "unsubscribe" all by itself), but has there EVER been a system where the alias was monitored by a human being whose job it was to honor remove requests? I can only assume that such people are the type who view computers more like magic boxes than devices that can be mentally modeled, the ones who are unable to adjust when "My Documents" is renamed to "Documents". In such a world, being cursed with a pointless email thread is a punishment inflicted on you by unseen gods, and all you can do to stop the pain is to beg their forgiveness.

Actually "beg" is a bit strong, particularly as the thread progresses and people being to lose their cool. The requests to be removed progressed from "Hi all- Apologies for the spam, but I believe I am on one of these DLs as a mistake" to "I am not sure why I am getting these emails-please remove me from the list" to "Get me off of this thing please" to "GET ME OFF THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" to "PLEASE REMOVE ME FROM THIS LIST IMMEDIATELY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" (the gods evidently like it when you sacrifice some exclamation points).

The author of the expert analysis I quoted above continued by proposing a theory based on class: "Of the emails I have not yet deleted, the senders are mostly vendors, hold non-technical positions, or both (though we’ve had a few senior PM types, too…). Perhaps they should receive some training." Leaving aside his incorrect jump to "it must be a knowledge gap" (which any student of the Six Boxes would recognize as shaky; like most situations, this is probably an expectations issue), I decided to look at the responses and see what badge color they emanated from. The "Get me off this thread" ones were 9 full-time and 25 vendors, while the "Stop reply all/here is how to remove yourself" were 16 full-time and 10 vendors. Which is some evidence that vendors are more prone to complete cluelessness, although the other kind of response isn't really much better (teeth-gritting silence is my favored approach).

The replies from people asking people not to reply are also amusing. Some people are just blindly thinking that only they can save the world, and their tartly-phrased email is going to be the ONE that stops all the madness (emails like "Stop!!!!!" or "STOP HITTING REPLY ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"); but others obviously have to work through some mental anguish before finally deciding that the world does need one more reply all. This can range from the basics of pointing out the illogic of what people are doing ("Please do not reply all when you’re complaining about spam") to those that admit they are adding to the problem ("I am spamming you all for one last time. Isn’t this so stupid that some of you just feel the need to REPLY ALL to say not to REPLY ALL !!!!!!" or "I know I am spamming as well by replying all but please refrain from replying all and asking to be removed") to the ones that duck under the desk while clicking Send ("I hate myself for Replying All (just as I’m sure all of you do)...").

What is in the "Other" category I listed above? My favorite reply was "Please keep me on the lists; I love receiving these" (sent, appropriately, completely deadpan with no smileys of any kind). Somebody commented "I think this is a conspiracy to drive people insane...". Another emailer tried to make lemons out of lemonade by asking "I’m having fun, did everyone have a good holiday?" And finally, somebody resurrected an old email from Brian Valentine, in response to a previous outbreak of this sort, where he wrote "There are days I sit back in meetings after seeing people come up with great solutions to very hard problems and wonder how in the world we could be so lucky to have so many smart people working in this great company of ours...Then there are days where I see the below."

Posted by AdamBa at July 25, 2008 10:37 PM


Probably the best analogy I've heard for this happening is the Car Manual/Door analogy. Essentially it boils down to:
a) you don't know how to open a car door unless you are shown.
b) the manual which can show you how to do that, is in the car.

The full analogy can be seen here:

The other corporare "incident" I saw was user A inviting the whole company to a quick instant messaging meeting. The Lotus Sametime server groaned under the weigh of 4000+ of users all saying "what's this about".

Posted by: Dale at July 26, 2008 04:46 PM

Thankfully, I hit the "unsubscribe me from this thread" button early on in this latest disaster. Of course, it doesn't *really* unsubscribe - it just silently refiles emails on the thread to a hidden folder as soon as they arrive, so that you never see them.

But it totally changed my mental state, from "ARGHGH! ANOTHER EMAIL! MUST... RESTRAIN... FLAME..." to (some hours later) "Holy cow, 73 emails in the Unsubscribe folder?!". Which was then followed by an enjoyable 5 minutes paging through them and chuckling.

Recommended for all Outlook power-users. Sadly, to get it you have to install an add-on like ClearContext or Dare Obasanjo's internal tool. I bet it would never make the cut for an Outlook feature review. I can just imagine the objections: "But... but... might accidentally unsubscribe from their favorite thread of kitten pictures!"

Posted by: Jonathan Hardwick at July 26, 2008 10:23 PM