The problem that occurs when knowledge workers click the “reply to all” button entered the big leagues earlier this year when a Bridgestone commercial during the Superbowl showed a person freaking out when a co-worker told him he hit reply to all.
In my new book, Overload! How Too Much Information is Hazardous To Your Organization, I discuss the reaction to one company’s attempt to rein in the problem. Nielsen, a global concern whose businesses range from television and other media measurement to business publications, told its employees that the company would eliminate reply to all functionality in their company’s e-mail client.
The truth is that Nielsen didn’t eliminate the functionality, just the button, so workarounds were easy and people continued to use reply to all.
The overuse of the reply to all function in e-mail is, without question, a huge source of e-mail overload in almost every organization. But there are still many instances where its use is not only warranted but helpful, including e-mail messages where only a few people are copied and a reply to all is warranted.
As I note in the book, Nathan Zeldes, president of IORG and former director of information overload reduction strategies at Intel, had a far more prosaic recommendation for Nielsen and others: move the position of reply to all on the toolbar away from the reply button, making people less likely to click it inadvertently. My advice is along similar lines: I would have recommended that Nielsen modify the e-mail client to notify the sender if he were about to send to more than five people and ask if he wished to continue.
Replying to all can in fact endanger national security. Another scenario I present in the book was told to me by Col. Peter Marksteiner of the United States Air Force. During the Air Force Cyber Symposium at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama in July 2008, where several hundred experts including ranking military officers were focusing on the threat hackers and terrorists in far-off lands such as China and Russia might pose. A somewhat unsophisticated e-mail user forwarded a note about what the sender referred to as “the funnest (sic) card/dice game” to multiple respondents. The message ended up being sent to two fairly large e-mail group lists and the ensuing barrage of “take me off your list” replies – with many users hitting reply to all – shut down the e-mail server supporting two bases, including the one that was hosting the cyber conference.
Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization