Archive for June, 2009

expose: the real culprit behind “reply all”

June 4, 2009

Corporate email DL’s (designated lists) are built to communicate to a mass of people without having to type in everyone’s name.  You can set these up personally, or can request to have list owners and rules.  Your message can then go out to a mass of people by typing in one name.  The efficiency of one name versus many is pretty simple to understand.  However, the potential for abuse also exists.  An employee can potentially build or access an entire company DL and share sensitive information on their way out the door.  Then there is the dreaded “reply all.” 

If you work for a company that is larger than 10 people and located in more than one building, you have probably experienced the deluge of email a simple “reply all” can generate.  Here’s what happens.  Someone sends out a note, lets say, “there are cookies in the kitchen area to celebrate Jack’s 20thanniversary with the company” and instead of clicking the DL for their floor or building, they click the company wide DL.  Within seconds, you’ll have someone in another building saying something like “can you put them in an envelope and inner office mail them to me?”  Another person will chime in with “nice to see someone is allowed to take a break and eat around here.”  A third will offer a “I’m sorry, I cannot attend since I’m working from home today, congratulations, Jack.”  On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, except they clicked reply all and have now added three more emails to everyone’s inbox.  Again, you might think, no big deal, everyone can simply click delete and move on with their lives.  That is where you underestimate the cubical dweller.  Inevitably, one person, and if you’re really lucky, more than one, will send out this advice “please, don’t reply all.”  Of course, to send that message, they clicked “reply all” and the game is on.  You can walk away from your desk, come back later and find all sorts of gems.  “Please stop replying all and this will stop.”  “Just don’t reply all.”  “If you could all get a clue and just delete this, we wouldn’t have to keep deleting email.”  “Are there still cookies left?”  “I know I clicked reply all to say this, but if everyone would stop sending these notes using reply all, we could all get back to work.”

If you are still reading, you’re nodding your head, having been through this exercise countless times, or you just want to know where I’m going.  This happened within our division a few weeks ago resulting in a large volume of emails dropping in everyones email box.  At first, I blamed overzealous employees trying to be helpful until I did a little more investigation. 

The first clue I had that there was something more to this was sitting in a meeting.  I do not own a blackberry.  Since most of my meetings and work is done inside our building, I can simply carry my wireless enabled laptop everywhere and be connected.  However, many company people have blackberry devices.  They come to meetings, put the device on vibrate (assuming it will be less distracting) then put it on the table and watch it buzz 20 times during a 2 hour meeting.  I noticed that on the proper table surface, the device actually moves.  The vibrations cause it to move along the table’s surface.  (Okay, not all meetings are incredibly interesting.)  I’m not going to go into the physics of this movement, but lets just say if you were to get enough emails buzzing in, you could potentially see this device move from one side of the table to the other.

This needed further investigation.  If a device will move when it vibrates, couldn’t you actually set up a race?  Think about this for a second.  Put four devices on a line, set them on vibrate and see which one can cross the next line first.  I had to make a few phone calls and the more calls I made, the deeper I got into the underground sport of BLACKBERRY RACING.

Blackberry Racing, as it was described to me by a source who wishes to remain anonymous, pits device against device in a vibration sliding race across a set distance.  Rumors of these illegal races were running rampant. you would hear a whisper here, see a misplaced email there, but nothing was ever confirmed.  I had to find out for myself so I went undercover.  I didn’t commit all the way because I’m not in a position requiring a blackberry and I’m too cheap to purchase one and pay the extra monthly fee, so I did what any undercover operator would do, I muscled my way in.

Disguising myself as a marketing person (not difficult) I set out to a known bullpen of sales associates.  My guise was to claim I was just there for a seat ride, tag along sort of thing.  However, I appeared unannounced to see what I could find.  There was a quick look of panic, some side glances as I walked in.  I wasn’t sure if it was the pants and tie combo or something else, but I quickly deduced they were keeping me from a certain cube holding only a table withmasking tape 10 inches from each end.  I had to ask.  “Hey guys, what’s going on with that table, is the budget so tight you have to tape it to keep it standing?”  No response, but more discomfort.  Then we all heard a sound.  A quiet sound that was familiar and brought a look of anticipation to the associates.  It was the buzzing of a Blackberry.  They lost composure for a moment, looking at each other excitedly, then as if remembering an outsider was there, wiped their faces of the look and proceeded to answer my sales questions.

The buzzing continued, more involuntary glances at each other and toward the table cube.  I noticed a webcam setup in the corner of the cube pointing at the table.  “All right guys, enough.  Don’t torture yourselves.  I know what’s going on, just do what you need to do.”  That statement relaxed the room and suddenly there were ten people in the cube with their Blackberries at the far end.  Now that I could see, I noticed the line had the word START written on it.  One buzzed and moved forward, the owner cheered, the rest groaned.  Another buzzed and moved past the first.  A third buzzed and moved. 

“Okay, here’s the deal.  We set our Blackberries on vibrate and when things are slow around the office, we race them.  There is a pool we all paid into and we keep track of win, place and show like horse racing.  We haven’t been at this long enough to handicap the races so we just do 3, 2, and 1 point for each.  In the event of a tie, we award full points to each.”  I was aghast, this was the scoop, the information I was looking for right in front of me.  “Enough email comes in as a steady stream to keep things interesting, but every once in a while we hit the mother-load.”

“I’m sorry,” I had to interject, “the mother-load?”  The question was met with a knowing chuckle. 

“Well yes, you know how sometimes a note will go out and someone has copied in a ton of people?  And then one of those people hits ‘reply all’ just to ask some dumb question or say they didn’t need to be on the list?”  I nodded.  “Then that triggers this massive throng of people telling everyone else to stop replying all…well, that’s when the webcam goes on.”

I was afraid to ask.  “The webcam?”

“Oh yeah, a few weeks ago, someone figured out that we aren’t the only ones doing this.  I guess it’s something that everyone thought up at the same time.  All we had to do was agree on the dimensions of the racing surface and set up the site.  Sometimes we run against another office, other times it’s every person for them-self, depends on the day.  In fact, I have a feeling someone who is into this racing may have been an instigator in one of those reply storms, but who cares, it’s fun.”

I had to ask, “so when are you making calls, developing leads, selling product?”

“What?  In this economy?”