Email Passeth All Understanding

The other day, the Dean Dad remarked on one of the quirks of academic technology:

Last week I saw another iteration of something I still don’t really understand. People who are perfectly civil in person are often capable of firing off incredibly nasty and hateful emails. Sometimes they’ll do that with cc’s all the way up the chain, as a way of spreading the manure over the most ground with the least effort. Yet, when confronted, they’re surprised that anybody would take offense, and they revert to their perfectly civil selves.

It is, indeed, mystifying, and seems to be more common in academia than out. It’s especially puzzling coming from a class of people who spend their entire careers finely parsing every word in texts to wring out the last drops of meaning– you’d think they would know to be careful with word choice.

Of course, there’s another, even more fundamental failing of academics interacting with email: the utter failure to grasp the difference between “Reply” and “Reply to All.” My inbox is constantly being filled up with replies that are sent to the entire faculty for no good reason.

And, of course, when you combine this tendency with the tendency toward random hostility, hilarity ensues. Only, you know, not in a funny way.

I’ve occasionally suggested that we ought to have the ability to vote colleagues off Email Island– the rest of the faculty should be able to suspend the all-faculty email privileges of people who hit “Reply to All” too often, or who send weirdly combative email to the entire college. They would still be able to email the entire faculty, but they would need to type in all the names individually.

Some sharp programmer needs to get to work on this system. I think it’s an idea whose time has come.

Comments

  1. #1 Tony P
    July 31, 2008

    I’ve noted that I have different personas offline and online. But there’s one thing I’ve noted in both.

    If I’m passionate about something I can bring out the big guns. It’s a rare thing if I don’t crank out 1,000 words or more on it.

    Otherwise I see email as way to streamline communication while keeping a record of that communication.

  2. #2 Hank
    July 31, 2008

    It happens out in industry as well. Granted, I’ve only worked at tech companies, which is an obvious source of bias. At some places I’ve worked discussions around minute details of little interest to anyone on the outside can get pretty heated and filled with invective.

    As a matter of fact, the last one was a classic cc:all flame fest over text editors.

    Perhaps it’s time Penny Arcade revise their hypothesis (probably NSFW).

  3. #3 Ian Durham
    July 31, 2008

    As a note, sometimes people do understand the difference between Reply and Reply All, but the difference is irrelevant if the original message was sent to certain types of mailing lists or listservs. I personally find this to be highly annoying.

  4. #4 Pam
    July 31, 2008

    In my industry setting, the exact opposite is the case. People (myself included) are far more likely to be mean in a face-to-face conversation than in e-mail. I ascribe this to the fact that all e-mails are archived for all eternity and potentially monitored by corporate IT.

  5. #5 llewelly
    July 31, 2008

    None of these phenomena are unique to academia. I see them all the time in my own profession. One common speculation – which goes back to attempts to explain usenet flamewars as far back as the mid-1980s – is that we subconsciously expect a great deal of non-verbal communication to be included in any verbal conversation – and we don’t get that non-verbal communication, we’re more prone to interpret a person’s words as being angry or insensitive.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    July 31, 2008

    Of course, there’s another, even more fundamental failing of academics interacting with email: the utter failure to grasp the difference between “Reply” and “Reply to All.”

    Most of the people who send me e-mail have learned this difference, but a few years ago this was a major annoyance.

    I second Ian’s remark that nowadays it may not even be the fault of the replier, depending how the e-mail list is configured. I am on at least one e-mail list that is configured to make the list the default recipient of any reply to a message sent to the list. There is a perfectly good reason for making it the default–the list in question was set up to be a discussion list–but it means I get several e-mails a month from that list which I really didn’t need to see.

    But if it’s a case where all of the faculty e-mail addresses are included in the message, then yes, people need to know that “Reply All” is usually not the appropriate option.

  7. #7 mollishka
    July 31, 2008

    For a few months, GMail had a delightful bug (for some users) such that if you just clicked in the Reply box, it defaulted to Reply-All instead of Reply. So freaking embarrassing, especially before I figured out WHY it was happening…

  8. #8 Dan
    August 1, 2008

    I agree that people are more prone to be nasty over email. Interesting to speculate on why this is so, aka try some “armchair psychology”. The point made by llewelly #5 makes good sense. Also, most people avoid making mean remarks face-to-face, since there is usually an immediate and unpleasant fallout. With a nasty email, you postpone dealing with that fallout (or in some cases never experience it). Kind of like paying cash vs. paying with a credit card.

    Another possiblity is that when someone annoys you in person, you can defuse your irritation via unconscious body language, and keep your speech civil. When they annoy you via a computer, you tend to express your irritation through the only channel you have — the text of an email reply.

  9. #9 cisko
    August 1, 2008

    I think much of the time, people know what Reply to All means; they just don’t think about whether it’s useful or not.

    I don’t see much hateful email where I work. We’re the kind of company that says “help me understand” when we mean “this is insane”, and that carries over to email too. There was one guy, though. In person he was polite, quiet, restrained — zero affect. But he was ready to unleash his inner demon via email. A scary combination.

  10. #10 Dan
    August 2, 2008

    An interesting feature article just appeared on the NYTimes site profiling some dedicated “trollers” :
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03trolls-t.html?pagewanted=1&em

  11. #11 Jonathan Vos Post
    August 2, 2008

    This will date me terribly, but I remember emailing in proprietary networks BEFORE I was on (as of 1972) the ARPANET which became the DARPANET which became the ARPANET which became the Internet.

    And thus I remember the Garden of Eden, when we had email but Spam did not yet exist. And the Web when it had under 100 web sites. And John Baez inventing what is now called the Blog, and setting a standard that is not yet, IMHO, surpassed.

    And, by the way, you kids — get off my lawn!