The shortest article the New York Times published in its nearly 150-year history, consists of two letters. They are: “No”. The word contains one of the most important Internet rules. It answers the question: “If I accidentally land on an email distribution list, should I click ‘All Answers’ and ask to be removed?”
What sounds like a simple instruction seems to be extremely complex. “Noooooo”, cursed a Microsoft developer last Thursday on Twitter. “Don’t answer everyone, you idiot”. She was not alone with her despair: dozens of colleagues shared the drama with the Twitter public and took part with little helpful advice: “Everything you have to do: 1. Answer everyone: ‘Don’t answer everyone, you idiots’ 2. Answer everyone: ‘Please take me off the list’ 3. Start over”.
Nightmare of all managers
It was too late, the avalanche could not be stopped. Microsoft’s servers groaned under an all-answer chain with more than 52,000 recipients. Like the tech portal The Register reported, a well-meaning offer triggered the chaos. An email informing about discounts for US employees landed in Microsoft employees’ inboxes worldwide. Promptly followed the question of whether the offer was international – by “All Answers”.
In the five-second day Outlook flashed and beeped, reports a Microsoft developer. The huge mailing list became a nightmare for managers who value productivity: people started sharing mems and sent photos of their pets to tens of thousands of colleagues. While a virus is spreading around the world, Microsoft was hit by a “Reply Allpocalypse” – and of course it only took a few minutes before someone thought the whole distribution list on this parallel to have to draw attention.
Longstanding Microsoft employees know this situation. In 1997, an employee discovered that his address was on a mailing list called “Bedlam DL3” that he did not know. He wrote a circular email and asked to be removed from the list. His message alarmed 25,000 colleagues. They followed his request or asked the entire mailing list not to answer the entire mailing list. Over 15 million emails and read receipts were sent within an hour. The server collapsed and it took days for the system to work again.
Over the past two decades, dozens of companies and government agencies have been paralyzed by such digital tsunamis, including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the German Bundestag and the New York Times – which led to the passive-aggressive one-word article that is apparently unknown to Microsoft. The reminder should still be alive: the Bedlam incident repeated in early 2019, this time with more than 11,000 recipients. After that, Microsoft announced a feature to prevent a third Bedlam for all Microsoft customers. It is to be introduced in autumn 2020 – at least for Microsoft itself, it was too late.