Back when I worked at Electronic Arts, one unfortunate and apparently logic-impaired soul was seeking information about the URL for our 401K plan with Charles Schwab. There are a number of ways one might get this information… internal websites, emailing HR, asking a coworker. Or the reams of paperwork they’d foist on us during every open enrollment period. But somehow, before the era of Exchange safeguards, this individual decided the best way to handle the situation was to email a mailing list consisting of all full-time employees at the company. At the time, this meant over 5,000 people.
It started innocently enough, as it often does: “Does anyone know the URL to access our 401K plans?” And thus the email storm began.
For those who have never experienced an email storm, it can be defined as the rapid escalation of a massive email thread that almost inevitably kills a network. Every email storm has several phases:
Well-Meaning Responders: The first several dozen replies were helpful but misguided souls who chose to reply all with “schwabplan.com” (or whatever the URL was) rather than (as we say in “the biz”) “little-r”ing just to the original author.
The Problem Solvers: Naturally, this flurry of emails was followed by the AMAZINGLY POWERFUL insights of the problem solvers. “Hey, I think you didn’t mean to email the whole list. This is all of the FTEs.” So excited at being right that they don’t realize they’re ALSO emailing the whole list.
The Not in My Inboxers: The folks who are clearly too busy to delete emails or deal with any distractions in their life who send terse replies to the ENTIRE LIST instructing their removal from it. Often with an explanation of how dreadfully the extra emails are impacting them, as if the rest of the list is having a smashing good time.
The +1 Flock: Often the folks who genuinely don’t have time, who quickly scan the latest email in the storm and think it’s some sort of localized problem. So in their hurry, they just fire off a quick “+1” email piling onto whatever sentiment or request was made most recently, never realizing how terribly they are worsening the problem.
The Holy Reply All Warriors: Usually the final phase of an email storm. The righteous folks who at one point completely understood how the system worked, but snap in a moment of weakness TO SEND AN ALL CAPS EMAIL TO EVERYONE, TERSELY EXPLAINING HOW DAMAGING IT IS TO REPLY TO ALL AND HOW YOU SHOULD NEVER REPLY ALL UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES EXCEPT OF COURSE THIS EMAIL THAT I AM SENDING RIGHT NOW. There are always multiple warriors, as the first simply opens the door for other warriors who feel they can more eloquently make the point to tens of thousands of people at once.
The Last Word: This one is rare, and this is what we saw in the Great EA Email Storm of 2004. The situation had rapidly deteriorated and the network was clearly straining. The very last email to get through on the chain before the entire network went down? A GIF of a mushroom cloud. Poignantly timed, sir. Was it a coincidence, or did the GIF kill the servers once and for all? We’ll never know.
The silver lining in that particular EA email storm was that it was clearly company-wide; a shared experience for all FTE folks. From that point on, if an email thread began to get out of hand, you could just reply with “http://schwabplan.com” and it would essentially instantly kill the thread with a minimum of effort by inducing painful flashbacks.
Fast forward 9 years. Technology has improved! But the email storm still looms on the horizon, always waiting to strike.
This morning, when I got into work, some colleagues were joking about some dojo thing or other and complaining about the failings of human intelligence in groups. It wasn’t until I checked my holding inbox (mails not directly sent to my email address but to a list of some sort) that I saw the first of the email storm squalls of the day (with the word “dojo” in the subject line for some reason.) Something like 73 emails to tens of thousands of people at once. If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years it is that book smarts have no bearing on the behavior of a group of people in an email storm. You could be a PHD of computer science and still succumb to the temptation to join the Holy Reply to All Warriors.
So the day was lost to email, for the most part – many emails took hours to send/receive… Except of course the useless ones. The silver lining in an email storm is the bonus productivity if you can exist without the email access for any length of time.
The really amazing thing about TODAY’s email storm is that it is STILL happening. Outlook 15 is actually a great product and has many, many useful tools to prevent this sort of thing now. Warnings about emails to large groups, etc. that tell you exactly how many receipients you’ll target. And the “Ignore” option, which magically sends emails in a thread straight to your Trash. But that doesn’t work if the thread forks, and it has now forked twice. Then a rights-protected email (to prevent reply-all, another safety measure) went out to explain the IT ramifications, but that email in and of itself was not rights protected in the right way and a fourth thread started. And now a fifth one seemingly completely unrelated. It’s baffling. We have REALLY smart people here. I wonder if overnight will be enough to kill the problem.
In the end, only YOU can prevent email storms. Replying all NEVER HELPS THE PROBLEM. I know. You think you can help. You can’t. Keep quiet. Click “Ignore” if Outlook supports it. Go get a coffee and spike it with Bailey’s if you have it. There is no reason in an email storm. The emails arrive out of sequence so someone’s probably already made your point anyway. Trust IT to get it under control (regardless of whether that trust is misplaced at your company.) Just say “no” to “reply all”. The last thing you want is to be the email address that tens of thousands of people associate with crashing your corporate network.