Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Email - and lots of it!

If you’re new to the “corporate world”, or are thinking of joining it, I’d like to give you a heads-up on a situation you’re likely to encounter. It goes like this:

A large company probably has a group specifically designated to look after the email servers. This group may be as small as one person, for a small company, to a group of people, for a larger company. At some point, someone in that group will decide to create a “mailing list”, that can be used to easily send emails to a large group of people. Maybe even to everyone in the company.

So far so good.

However, once that mailing list is created, the person who created it often feels a need to send an email to it, to test it out. So they do, and a large number of people—sometimes numbering in the hundreds or even thousands—gets an email, out of the blue, saying something like “test email to the XYZGroup”. This is where the trouble starts.

Some of the people who got that email will start to wonder why. “What is this XYZGroup?” they’re thinking to themselves. So they do a Reply All, to the group, to say “Why was I sent this email?” Because they hit Reply All, instead of just Reply, these response emails also go to the entire mailing list. Not everyone will do this, mind you; but a certain percentage of people is guaranteed to do it—like I’ve said, I’ve seen it a few times—so the larger the mailing list, the more people who will do this.

So what happens next? Well, now there are a bunch of emails which are being sent out to a bunch of people, and people are starting to get very annoyed. So we enter the next phase: a bunch of people will send out new emails, also by hitting Reply All, asking people to stop sending emails. So these emails are added to the group of emails already sent—meaning that the email is starting to pile up, in everyone’s Inbox!

Now here’s the really funny part: For a really large mailing list, that includes thousands of people, the email server needs time to process any email sent to the mailing list. So it will take some time before everyone on the mailing list gets each message. So the problem exacerbates itself, because people hit Reply All before they even realize how many other emails are out there, waiting to be delivered.

It works something like this:

  1. Mail administrator sends first email to the mailing list. Let’s say it’s to 1,000 people.
  2. In the first 5 minutes, it gets delivered to 100 people. (I’m making numbers up out of my head, for the sake of discussion.)
  3. Out of those 100 people, 10 hit Reply All, and ask “Why are you sending this to me?” These emails don’t get sent right away, though, because the email server is still busily chugging away, trying to finish sending the first email.
  4. In the next 5 minutes, that first email gets delivered to the next 100 people, and out of them, 10 also hit Reply All, to ask why they got it—not knowing that there are a bunch of other emails on their way, asking the same thing. There are now 21 emails on their way to various peoples’ Inboxes.
  5. Eventually, someone ends up with an Inbox full of 21 emails, and wants it to stop. So this person sends a new email, to the mailing list, asking people to stop sending emails. This new email gets added to the pile. Meanwhile, the first email is still getting delivered to people, who are still hitting Reply All to ask why.
  6. At the same time, 20 other people get the same idea, and send similar emails—but because the server is so bogged down, and it’s taking so long for emails to get through, they don’t realize that all of the other 19 people are doing the same thing.
By the time the smoke clears, and people stop sending all of the emails, there are hundreds or even thousands that have piled up. And usually, by the end, people are getting pissed, and it shows in their emails, as they’re telling everyone else to stop sending emails, calling them fools for hitting Reply All, etc. etc.

Once, at a previous company I worked at, this happened, and it shut down their email servers for 3 days, as they struggled to catch up and deliver all of these thousands upon thousands of emails that had to be sent.

If you’re used to it—as I’m starting to get used to it—it’s kind of funny. If you’re not, it’s extremely frustrating. But if it happens, here’s a hint on how to handle it: As soon as you see this type of situation starting to occur, create a folder in your email client specifically for these emails, and set up a rule to move any emails to that mailing list to your new folder (assuming that you can do this with your email client). That way, all of the noise will go there, and you can concentrate on the real emails. When the flow of emails begins to decrease, you can delete all of those emails, and get on with your life.