Hillary Clinton, reply-all and other email annoyances: Don Pittis

One of the most persistent criticisms of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is that she was careless in using email. Decades since its invention, it seems that many of us are still careless.

The vexatious and incompetent email habits of otherwise successful people

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton poses for a selfie with YouTube personality R.J. Aguiar. (Reuters)

No wonder Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton used an unofficial email address instead of the official State Department one. She probably just wanted to avoid office reply-all.

And while the FBI has determined that Clinton was careless, not criminal, in her use of electronic messaging, Republican Mike Folk thinks she got off too easy. 

Without endorsing Folk's suggestion, sterner penalties might have been a useful corrective to all the other people in our offices who misuse email in a variety of annoying ways.

Though the date of email's beginnings is much disputed, it emerged from the arcana of geeks in the 1960s and '70s, proceeding to the halls of academia in the '80s and becoming increasingly widespread around 1990.

Still figuring it out

Even after decades of use, as many of us notice in our offices every day, Clinton is by no means the only one who hasn't figured out the subtleties of email.

Clearly, by 1998 email had emerged fully grown into popular culture with the adorable Christmas romcom blockbuster You've Got Mail, where characters played by Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan simultaneously have a frosty relationship in person and an anonymous romance by email.

"The odd thing about this form of communication is that you're more likely to talk about nothing than something," burbles Ryan's character.
The blockbuster romantic comedy You've Got Mail demonstrated that by 1998 email was well established in the popular consciousness. But nearly two decades later many people really don't understand how it works. (Warner Bros.)

And as you go through your office email, whether at a Canadian business or the U.S. State Department, you will likely find that still holds horribly, horribly, true.

Among my email pet peeves are messages returned days later without changing the subject line, so you get an invitation to a meeting under a subject line about holiday scheduling, and sending cut-and-pasted documents without revealing their source.

But after many years, one of the most annoying infractions is still the intemperate use of reply-all.  

The curse of reply-all

Here at the CBC we recently had an outbreak of reply-all that went a little further than usual.

For those few who never got as far as email or those young or sophisticated enough to have given up on it altogether and now communicate using Whatsapp, Snapchat, BBM, or Pokemon Go, a few words of explanation. 

Reply-all outbreaks begin when someone sends a relatively innocent email to a group destination, one with many hundreds or thousands of users.

The true outbreak occurs when people begin to reply to that original email, by sending an email not to the individual who sent it but to the entire group. 

That triggers snarky or clever comments such as "Sorry, I don't see your lost ring here in Edmonton."

Such comments are often useful, a fun way of reminding the perpetrators that they have committed an email faux pas. But if too many people join the repartee, hundreds or thousands of people suddenly receive a flood of not just useless but annoying emails. 

Next, the truly annoyed begin sending emails of complaint. But of course, instead of sending those emails to the perpetrators, some reply-all, compounding the problem.

Different reactions

In the recent CBC outbreak, people began asking to be "taken off the list." Anyone who knows how group destinations work should realize that is impossible, but a chum of mine who is also a wit replied-all promising to do so.

That of course set off a scourge of similar requests. To which my chum replied something like, "I'm doing it as fast as I can. Going alphabetically."

The question of why a well known national CBC reporter would spend time doing such an administrative task must not have occurred to the respondents.

Chatting with people after the incident, I was surprised how differently people reacted. Some, used to constantly winnowing out wheat from the chaff on social media, were hardly fazed at all, skipping over the chain of identical subject lines and ignoring them.

Some were clearly indignant at what they saw as a waste of their time and everyone else's.
Hillary Clinton, then U.S. secretary of state, checks her BlackBerry from a desk in a C-17 military plane in 2011. (Kevin Lamarque/Associated Press)

Lauren O'Neil from CBC's social media desk, one of those well used to making instant selections from a flood of information begging for her attention, thinks the difference in reaction is an issue of age and familiarity with the technology. 

"I've seen it happen so many different places, and not just in the workplace," O'Neil says.

She recalls one incident where a PR firm sent out emails to about 100 journalists without hiding their email addresses in a BCC or blind copy. Although the recipients supposedly were sophisticated communications professionals, soon they were replying-all to complain about the error.

Technology isn't easy

The most useful tip to come out of the CBC event was a reminder to those who didn't know that in some email systems, including ours, it is possible to break the chain unilaterally

Not being able to handle the complexities of reply-all may be less significant than exposing State Department secrets to foreign hackers, but there is a common message.

According to Clinton, there were "probably at least 300 people on those emails, the vast majority of whom are experienced professionals in handling sensitive material."

It is another reminder that many people who are extremely bright in some ways are unable to grasp the complex mechanics behind one of our most familiar technological tools. And it is hard to make technology foolproof. 

Follow Don on Twitter @don_pittis

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Don Pittis

Business columnist

Based in Toronto, Don Pittis is a business columnist and senior producer for CBC News. Previously, he was a forest firefighter, and a ranger in Canada's High Arctic islands. After moving into journalism, he was principal business reporter for Radio Television Hong Kong before the handover to China. He has produced and reported for the CBC in Saskatchewan and Toronto and the BBC in London.