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The Group Dynamics of Mass Unsolicited E-Mail Lists:
Every once in a while, some random person sends out an unsolicited e-mail to an assembled distribution list of anywhere from 50 to 200 addresses found on the web trying to either settle some personal score or bring attention to a cause.

  In my experience as an occassional recipient of such e-mails — whether because of blogging or the day job, or some other random connection — the dynamic usually goes something like this:
1. A few people will respond with a "reply all" suggesting to the sender that it's really not nice to spam so many people like that, and/or that the message of the e-mail is wrong or offensive.

2. One or two people will respond with a "reply all" asking everyone else to "please take me off this distribution list."

3. A bunch of people will then chime in with "reply all" responses urging recipients to "STOP REPLYING WITH 'REPLY ALL' AS NO ONE CARES, AND HITTING 'REPLY ALL' IS REALLY ANNOYING!!!."

4. After the flurry of "reply all"s condeming the use of "reply all"s, some time will pass, and then someone on the list will have to follow up "reply all" with some kind of comment on the substantive message of the initial e-mail.

5. The comment will draw one last "reply all" condemning the use of "reply all"s, and then the round is over.
It's the folks who participate in Step 3 without a hint of irony that I find the most amusing. But then the whole thing is sort of funny, I guess.

  UPDATE: I switched (1) and (2) around, as I remembered that people usually don't start asking to be removed from the list until a handful of e-mails from the list are in their inbox.
alkali (mail) (www):
Every once in a while, some random person sends out an unsolicited e-mail to an assembled distribution list of anywhere from 50 to 200 addresses found on the web trying to either settle some personal score or bring attention to a cause.

To the extent there is ever a legitimate reason to do this, the trick is to put all those e-mail addresses in the "Bcc:" field so that the recipients don't see each other's addresses and couldn't reply-to-all even if they wanted to.

Some e-mail programs don't allow sending to only bcc: recipients, in which case the work-around is to make yourself the "To:" recipient and everyone else bcc: recipients.
8.26.2006 1:53pm
Chico's Bail Bonds (mail):
I find the people in Step 4 most annoying. After getting all that fair warning, they have no excuse for using "reply all." Full Disclosure: I am a Step 3 person myself. Some people are so clueless that using "reply all" to tell others that "reply all" is annoying is a necessary evil.
8.26.2006 2:08pm
dearieme:
Given that my software is American, why isn't there a "reply y'all" option?
8.26.2006 2:21pm
Stephen F. (mail) (www):
Given that my software is American, why isn't there a "reply y'all" option?

That's standard in the southern regional release, Winders XP.
8.26.2006 2:24pm
Nick Good - South Africa (mail):
I use Qurb, a piece of software that wont let e-mail through unless the address is confirmed or on your 'white' list. It's certainly amongst the best of the bunch.

It works as advertised (I have personal interest in the product, fiduciary or otherwise).
8.26.2006 2:28pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
On the one hand, step 3 seems necessary, since the guy who sent the first reply all isn't likely to be the same guy who does it again. But I suppose after a couple round 2's, they'd probably dry up on their own anyway...
8.26.2006 2:39pm
Steve Lubet (mail):
what makes you think that there is no irony involved in step 3?
8.26.2006 3:05pm
Katherine (mail):
But why wouldn't you just send the "don't hit reply all" email to the 2-3 people who actually did hit reply all?
8.26.2006 3:30pm
DJR:
The step 3 folks really should reply to the individual reply all responders individually. The majority of the list has not used reply all, and if the Step 3er really wants to chenge the behavior, he should target the offenders, not the majority of people who (like Orin) have been through this many times before and understand the annoyance of reply all.
8.26.2006 3:32pm
Greedy Clerk (mail):
People should learn to just use the bcc line on emails when they are sending out things to a large group. Send the email to yourself, bcc the group, and then no one can reply all. Simple.
8.26.2006 3:52pm
Gary McGath (www):
What you're describing is probably a "tip of the iceberg" effect. Hundreds of people are flaming the poster privately, but 1% of them did a "Reply all" by mistake.
8.26.2006 4:57pm
Toby:

I use Qurb, a piece of software that wont let e-mail through unless the address is confirmed or on your 'white' list. It's certainly amongst the best of the bunch

What I really like is people who sign up on web sites that have a "Must confirm email addresss before account is active function who use software like Qurb. There software makes automatic demands that the web server sign up, or reply, or go to a web page to request permission to send, while the owner of same software/filter sends angry enail asking why his registration never completed to any adddress he can find...
8.26.2006 5:04pm
Jeremy Pierce (mail) (www):
Steve Lubet: Orin didn't say that there is no irony in step 3. He said that people will engage in step 3 with no hint of irony. As someone who has deliberately used irony in step 3, I do find it somewhat annoying when someone doesn't see the irony in step 3 and does it without a hint of irony.
8.26.2006 5:24pm
Steve Lubet (mail):
The irony is implicit, Jeremy. Maybe (and Orin) just don't get the hint.
8.26.2006 5:35pm
A:
This post is going to get sooo many trackbacks.
8.26.2006 5:41pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
There probably has to be some limit in any case; if 9 or 10 people consecutively do step 2, and you've been privately flaming each of them as they do it, you're eventually probably going to break down and flame the whole group. And the vicious cycle continues...

Or maybe it's ok if you just note the irony. And then note the silliness of needing to note the irony, of course.
8.26.2006 5:46pm
Sarah (mail) (www):
When I was around 17/18 years old I spent a considerable amount of time (maybe 3-4 hours a week) emailing each and every one of the "real people" (i.e. people I knew, who were just ill-informed) who sent me mass unsolicited email and more specifically, mass unsolicited forwards of the "little boy needs a million cards" and "Bill Gates will pay you $1..." variety. I ended out with a standard email of about 1750 words, explaining the concept of a "spoof" mail, giving some basic advice about netiquette, and generally being "helpful." I left a space to add links from Snopes, Symantec, etc.

Fortunately, God intervened in crashing my computer and making Juno go to paid servies and me finding an internship at the State Department AND a boyfriend. By the time all that was fixed, nearly a year later, I was no longer in the habit and had lost that email file.

But even at my worst I never hit "reply all" -- in the worst case, it was a OneList/Egroups/Yahoo group, and I sent the standard email to the whole group. Usually when three or moer people re-forwarded the same, already debunked, email within the space of a week or less.

(though my tactics were unbearably self-righteous and smug and generally ill-advised, I did manage to train a few dozen women to stop sending out forwards... and I turned at least three of them into spam police. If only my campaign against HTML email in general and obnoxious stationary with unreadable background/font pairings in particular had been so successful.)
8.26.2006 6:03pm
James968 (mail):
What's worse is someone who refuses to follow the instructions on how to unsubscribe and then spams the other lists members demanding that THEY solve thier problem.

I once was a list and someone demanded to be taken off of it. (I don't know were the moderator was but he didn't respond). Several people replied back to the original poster, telling her, "Click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of the message". She refused to and demanded to be taken off the list. Eventually she started threatening anyone who posted to the list. (I eventually called the company she was posting from and complained to their IT department, they spoke to her).
8.26.2006 6:55pm
Sameer Parekh (mail) (www):
Back in the day, this phenomenon annoyed me. It still does. But the phenomenon of people emailing the list to unsubcribe also annoyed me. So I created a list, clueless@c2.org. You could subscribe clueless people who did this to the clueless list. Then they would send email to the list, saying 'unsubscribe'. Everyone else on the list, similarly clueless, would also respond, with 'unsubscribe' to the whole list, or asking 'how do I get off this list'. Hilarity. Ah, those were the days.

http://www.langston.com/Fun_People/1996/1996ATD.html
8.26.2006 7:26pm
crane (mail):
I got to experience a similar version of this back in 2001 when a newsletter I subscribed to got hacked. Not only did the hacker send out a virus-bearing email with nonsensical text to the entire mailing list, he also managed to alter the list setup so that anyone who replied to the sender would (a) not get through to him, and (b) spam the entire list.

So, first there was a mix of "What's up with this?" and automated "Your computer may be infected with a virus" messages, then a whole bunch of "Unsubscribes", and several "Quit replying, you're just spamming the list" explanations. It totaled over 100 messages before someone thought to contact the owner another way and he shut it down.
8.26.2006 7:56pm
Ron Hardin (mail) (www):
The feedback term depends on the number of people who feel that it's time for them to step in and straighten the things out, the same as what sets off infinite usenet threads.

If you can get this number up enough through this or that trick, your thread becomes endless.
8.26.2006 8:36pm
Gary McGath (www):
James968: Any mailing list where you have to "click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of the message" to unsubscribe is seriously broken. It assumes that everyone receiving mail on the list is accepting mail as HTML. There are very good reasons not to; before software companies started pushing HTML in email, the notion of an email virus was literally absurd. (Google on "Good Times Virus" if you aren't old enough to remember that.) There are widely accepted standards on how to make it easy to unsubscribe from a mailing list; requiring people to process the mail as HTML isn't one of them.
8.26.2006 10:54pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
unsubscribe
8.27.2006 1:34am
Jacob8:
I have never understood people who complain about this sort of thing, especially when the messages are at most a dozen or so. It's one thing to get hundreds of spam messages, but a few people replying to a list-serve, which you can identify easily by the subject lines, are not that big an inconvenience. The time it takes to flame privately or through reply-all far exceeds what it takes to hit the delete button a few times.
8.27.2006 2:32am
Bruce:
Orin, you'll like this twist: I was caught on such a chain at work once, and the other recipients were also lawyers or corporate employees. At some point around Step 4 one of the recipients e-mailed the entire list, claiming (IN ALLCAPS) that everyone sending him e-mail (i.e., the reply-alls) was violating federal law and his corporation was going to report all of us to the FBI. This was pre-CAN-SPAM; he must have been referring to the CFAA.
8.27.2006 2:36am
dwshelf (mail):
But why wouldn't you just send the "don't hit reply all" email to the 2-3 people who actually did hit reply all?

Because you intend to maximize the punishment of the original (dolt rather than evil) spammer by holding him up to the ridicule of people he hoped would respect his email.
8.27.2006 3:19am
David Wangen (mail):

James968: Any mailing list where you have to "click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of the message" to unsubscribe is seriously broken. It assumes that everyone receiving mail on the list is accepting mail as HTML. There are very good reasons not to; before software companies started pushing HTML in email, the notion of an email virus was literally absurd. (Google on "Good Times Virus" if you aren't old enough to remember that.) There are widely accepted standards on how to make it easy to unsubscribe from a mailing list; requiring people to process the mail as HTML isn't one of them.


Of course, this entire complaint is moot if the "click to unsubscribe" is an actual http address, which you can copy/paste if you don't receive as HTML (as it is on most of such messages I've seen).
8.27.2006 3:42am
Gary McGath (www):
David Wangen:

Another point, though, is that any unsolicited mail that requires you to "unsubscribe" is dishonest. It is claiming that you have somehow "subscribed" to the spammer's list, when you haven't. Requests to "unsubscribe" from such lists usually just confirm to the spammer that you really exist and are a target for more mail.

Of course, so does flaming the spammer.
8.27.2006 9:50am
Eugene Volokh (www):
In my experience, lots of people send the "unsubscribe me from this list" message to lists to which they had subscribed. But of course they don't save the instructions for unsubscribing that they received when subscribing; and they don't pay attention to the fact that each list e-mail has the URL of the unsubscribe-me page included in plain text at the bottom.
8.27.2006 11:43am
Jeremy T:
There is a Step 3B. People like me who start replying all just to annoy the "Don't reply all!" bitches.
8.27.2006 11:55am
Public_Defender (mail):
You missed Step 3.5:

Some people use reply to all to complain that the complainers are chilling free speech.
8.27.2006 12:58pm
Syd Henderson's Cat (mail):
I remember once when someone had one of those automatic answers saying they were on vacation. He was on a mailing list, so when someone sent a message, the automatic message was returned, sent to everyone on the list including the automatic messenger, whose machine automatically replied saying he was on vacation...and, of course people sent e-mails to the list complaining, which meant we got an automatic response to the complaint and an automatic response to the automatic reponse...

I think that problem's been corrected since then, otherwise I'd have seen it a lot more.
8.27.2006 12:58pm
elChato (mail):
A couple of years ago after attending an ATLA convention I was surprised, along with a couple of hundred other people, to be on some kind of emailing list for "Republican trial lawyers." The day they sent out their mass welcome email I could hardly get anything done on my computer, as dozens and dozens of people sent out "replies to all" to complain about being on the list and to let everyone know they never had or would join such a group . . .
8.27.2006 1:27pm
Christopher Cooke (mail):
Yes, it is a common trick among spammers to include an "unsubscribe" link at the bottom; when you click on unsubscribe, it confirms to the spammer that you have a valid email address, and it makes the spammer's list of email addresses more valuable to others who purchase such lists. So, the moral is never to click on an unsubscribe link on spam. Just delete it.
8.27.2006 1:43pm
Marcus1 (mail) (www):
Christopher Cooke,

When I worked at the FTC, they said there was actually no evidence that responding increased the amount of spam (after testing the theory), though I'd agree with the advice in any case.
8.27.2006 6:58pm
mike (mail):
I'm a regular volokh.com reader. Come on, Kerr, I know you can do better -- this post was the most meaningless piece of fluff that this site has seen in a long time. (It amazes me that so many of the groupies felt like chiming in on the topic.)
8.27.2006 7:20pm
mr.x (mail):
and yet, you took the time to comment on it
8.27.2006 7:44pm
Houston Lawyer:
Count me as more annoyed at the "must confirm your email" message than the spammers. If you have such software, don't complain about not receiving your email. If two parties have this software, can neither send to the other?
8.28.2006 12:01am
Norman:
mike,
Come now. That is the beauty of volokh.com (and of blogs in general): it is a mixture of serious thoughtfulness, humorous observations, and random musings. I, for one, appreciate a sprinkling of lighter "pieces of fluff".
8.28.2006 11:21am
JasonJason (mail):
This could all be prevented if people would just use the BCC box.
8.28.2006 12:51pm
Kacie Landrum (mail):
You know what annoys me? When I'm signed up for a mailing list by someone else, and that mailing list does NOT have an 'unsubscribe' option at the bottom of every e-mail. Case in point: the English department at my university signed me up for their list after I took some English classes. There was no link at the bottom of the e-mails that I could click to be unsubscribed automatically. What was I supposed to do? Eventually I was forced to become one of those annoying people everyone hates because they e-mail a mailing list asking someone to unsubscribe them. In the vain hope that it would prompt a change in the system, I pointed out that the moderator would be spared the no-doubt onerous task of manually removing everyone from the list by including an automated unsusbscribe option to the list.
8.28.2006 1:34pm
Aaron:
Has no one caught on that Mike is spoofing the mindset of the people who indulge in Step 3?
8.28.2006 1:34pm