Friday, March 28, 2014

Random e-necdote

Yesterday I got an e-mail from someone at my alma mater. I get a lot of e-mails from various people at my alma mater, and I tend to either delete them unread or skim them, then delete them. I do not consider this to be a terribly big deal. Most of the e-mails fall into the same broad categories: newsletters about what the local alumni chapter has going on this weekend (or this month or whathaveyou), informational updates from the current college president, and of course fundraising appeals. In other words, nothing which impacts me very much.

Perhaps I should clarify my general attitude towards my alma mater. I neither bleed green and gold nor do I wish a pox or cataclysmic geological event upon the place. I had a good time there, made a lot of good friends who are still a part of my life today (including, most obviously, my wife), and reckon I got my money's worth and then some out of the degree I earned. It's a part of the personal history that makes me who I am, but it recedes a little more into the background of the story every year. I don't feel the need to be an active part of the college's own ongoing story. I don't have any great compulsion to socialize with strangers who happen to be fellow alums, because I barely have time as it is to catch up with the alums I consider true lifelong friends. I don't lie awake at night worrying about the financial solvency of the college; I don't really lie awake worrying about my own finances, either, but it's not as though I make so much money that I could have a campus building renamed after me. And did I mention I have three small children who need to be clothed and fed and who keep my fairly busy and exhausted and are the primary reason I haven't indulged in the full-on homecoming experience all that much lately? Bottom line, I'm not going to donate directly to the school and I'm not going to the alumni association charity auction, not this year or next year, and we'll have to see about after that. But none of that reflects particular ill will, and it is honestly nice to be kept in the loop, or at least to have the option to ignore the loop.

Right, so, yesterday. This particular e-mail was targeted at people who not only went to to my college but completed an honors thesis en route to graduation, as I did (I've mentioned it in passing here and there, maybe one of these days I'll tell the whole story of how I managed that feat despite my indisputably wretched work ethic). And the way the e-mail was targeted was via a mailing list. I do not remember signing up for this mailing list, and despite my abiding mistrust of my own memory I think I really never did sign up for it. It's possible that at some point in my college career, maybe even during the application process (although I am old and electronic mail was a nascent technology way back then), that I ticked some box and signed something agreeing that the college could hold/collect my contact information and communicate with me forever. That doesn't strike me as too much of a stretch, honestly. Anyway, the head of the honors program is starting a new program designed to help students acquire funding for the research they need to do to complete their thesis projects, and he's hitting up everyone who ever wrote an honors thesis for donations. Makes perfect sense, I skimmed it and immediately knew I wouldn't be sending any money, and I moved on with my day.

And then the fun began.

Six minutes after the e-mail appeal hit my inbox, I got another e-mail with the same subject line, which of course was a reply from one of the recipients. A brief yet positive reply, in fact, pledging support and offering a few bromides about what an invaluable experience the thesis-writing process was. But however innocuous it was, pretty clearly it was intended to be a message directly to the dean. So my immediate thought was that it was slightly embarrassing for the response-writer to have accidentally copied everyone on the message, but that is one of the known risks of mailing lists. At least it happened right away, and everyone else could learn from the example and be careful about their own replies.

Or not.

I forget sometimes that due to my line of work and my years of professional experience, not to mention my personal proclivities and fascinations with modern media, my understanding of various internet technologies might just run a little deeper than the average person's, even the average nerd-among-nerds who went to my alma mater and wrote an honors thesis! And sure enough, four minutes later another person chimed in with their own rah-rah one-liner. Not that this bothered me, per se; I found it amusing, the same way I used to find it amusing how the fare card machines in the DC Metro stations could utterly flummox tourists. But I could also imagine it bothering someone of a different temperament quite a lot.

So of course, after about a fifteen minute lull, someone sent a "please UNSUBSCRIBE me" message ... to the entire list. Now, again, this might just be me, but I find this utterly hilarious, because my usual response to blatant and presumably non-self-aware hypocrisy is to laugh. If you write a snippy, three word message with keyword(s) in deeply aggrieved ALL-CAPS then clearly you think getting spammed with unwanted e-mails is one of the worst indignities of life. And yet, you just spammed everyone with your message. Bravo. But it gets better! Another message came in from another recipient, this time saying the idea sounded good but she was unable to make a monetary contribution (sister, I hear ya). That was followed by not one but two messages from the same would-be unsubscriber who had sounded off before: one read in its entirety "How do I unsubscribe from this list????" (yes, four question marks to make her point) and the other "where is the UNSUBSCRIBE link??".

Please enjoy this image of dancing Spam.

Two minutes after the third message begging to be unsubscribed, another recipient chimed in, and I swear I am not making this up: "Normally I curse reply-all, but this time it has brought me a connection to my former roomie." It then went on to address the first person who had replied in a tone of warm bonhomie. I admit I was agog at this breach of netiquette, and I'm still not sure if saying you hate reply-all and then replying-all with a message that is clearly not for all is better or worse than using reply-all to try to unsubscribe. Whatever the case, the online reunion of roommates was followed by two quick responses: one which addressed the dean specifically and asked if there was anything he could do about inboxes being flooded with reply-all messages, and another which only said "Yes please do not reply all." presumably intended, in fact, for all. And that was the end of the thread. (So far!)

I was sorry (in an admittedly mean-spirited way) to see the unspooling drama come to a halt before the unsubscribe-supplicant really blew her top in a spectacular meltdown. But the whole brief interlude was such a perfect storm that I barely know where to begin picking it apart, beyond the commentary I've already provided. First, a technical point: the mailing list of honors thesis alums was constructed in such a way that while the initial message appeared to come from the dean, it really came from the list itself, and the list was the default reply-to address. So people were not mindlessly hitting reply-all (although that is a real thing that people everywhere need to break the habit of, please) but simply hitting reply. Even the "hey, old roomie!" message was probably intended to be a reply, but the writer wasn't paying attention to what got populated in the to: field. Again, because of list configurations, not only the initial message but all subsequent messages had their default reply-to address set to the mailing list alias that fed into everyone's individual addresses.

So really the biggest violator of netiquette in this whole episode was the dean who set up the mailing list. Mailing lists are great for actual discussions where everyone needs to see and potentially respond to every other message. But for one-way, outbound communication they are problematic, especially when people haven't opted into them and aren't necessarily familiar with their delivery mechanisms. (Oddly enough, this isn't a case of my fellow alums not being up on the latest techno-wizardry, but rather that mailing lists are kind of an antiquated way of using the internet; it's like expecting people to be more than passably familiar with ham radio conventions.) I now suspect that the dean did, in fact, call the computer science department and ask them to at least temporarily deactivate the mailing list, which strikes me as more likely than all of the hundreds of the people on the list seeing the final "Yes please do not reply all." message and immediately abiding by it without exception.

Incidentally, you may have lost count during my re-telling, but the grand total number of messages I received in the honors thread was 10. That was the extent of the "flood" of e-mails prompting at least one person to throat-clearingly insist that the dean do something. Ten messages, the original announcement and nine replies, over the course of approximately forty minutes. This is the size and scope of things people lose their minds about these days, apparently.

All kidding about nervous breakdowns aside, though, I do have to wonder about Ms. UNSUBSCRIBE, and how much she actually gets how e-mail works(????). I wonder if she knows there are tools in any e-mail program, even web mail, which allow you to block senders, or shunt them immediately into the Spam folder. I also wonder if she knows you don't have to read every e-mail that hits your inbox (I sure don't!), you don't have to spare a fraction of a second to delete every message in real time (wait 'til the end of the day and do a mass purge) and you don't have to check your inbox every time you get a desk top alert or a chirp of your phone letting you know there's a new message waiting. I mean, yeah, I get it, if your phone dings and you fish it out of your purse or your pocket and unlock it and open your e-mail app and it's just another accidental reply-all, that's annoying. Doubly so if you are legitimately waiting for an important e-mail that could come at any second. But it's still a choice to succumb to that kind of Pavlovian conditioning in how you respond to your phone.

When I fetch snail-mail from the box at my curb, I sort through it as I walk down the driveway so the junk can go straight into the recycling bin next to my garage. When telemarketers call on behalf of charities I don't care to support or polls I don't care to participate in, I hang up on them. And when I get e-mail that's not vital to my existence, I barely notice the extra electrons on my screen. I read it or I don't, I delete it then or maybe later when I'm in the mood, it's just a virtual non-event. I thought we had left behind all the hoary jokes about how you could lose an entire day's work productivity to sorting through spam right around the time we got over the Y2K hump, but apparently not. But I still will never understand the people who think they are entitled to a 100% annoyance-free life, and bemoan the fact that it has yet to be delivered.

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