How to Solve the “Reply-All” Problem?

(Photo: Jon Gosier)

E-mail has been around long enough for most of us to fall in love and hate and love with it at least a few times. Problems arise and are quashed, or dealt with. Innovations come along; customs evolve. But one grisly bad habit won’t go away: the “reply-all” dilemma. You know what I’m talking about. Someone sends you a group e-mail. Maybe it’s your company’s marketing boss, or the head of your bowling league, or the parent-teacher liaison in your kid’s school. And even if that e-mail was meant to be simply explanatory, or to garner responses only to the sender, inevitably a few of the people on the receiving end simply hit “reply all” and suddenly your in-box starts to fill up with a chattering storm of crap. Sure, you could mark all those senders as spam but then you might miss something important later. Sure, you could politely tell people not to use “reply-all” when it’s unnecessary but plainly they don’t think it’s unnecessary, and you’ll come off sounding like a jerk. Sure, you could just deal with it and chalk it up to a downside of a great invention. But does anyone have any better ideas?

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  1. Jeremy Taxman says:

    How about a simple pop-up that says “are you sure you want to reply to everyone on that list?” ?

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    • Amanda says:

      I always thought it should be a pop-up that tells you how many email addresses it’s going to.

      “Send response to 75,697 recipients?” <– Real example, there was an email that went to the *whole company* that people started replying-to-all, crashed the email servers.

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      • Dale says:

        One pop up is enough for maybe 10 or so.

        But if it’s more than that, and you say “Yes”, it should put up a second to ask “Are you sure?”

        And if it’s more than 100, a third that asks “Are you really sure about that?”

        Over 1000? “Are you absolutely positive about this?”

        And so on.

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      • Kurt says:

        FYI: Outlook 2010 & 2013 does EXACTLY what you describe for corporate Microsoft Exchange environments where enumerating the number of recipients prior to sending is possible. It’s called “MailTips” & among other things, displays the number of recipients of a person’s “Reply All”. (Or even a normal “Reply” where the target recipient list is very large)http://technet.microsoft.com/en-us/library/dd297974(v=exchg.141).aspx

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      • Jay says:

        Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Kurt says:

      This is a free plug-in for Outlook 2013 that my friend created:
      http://kurtsh.com/2013/04/04/download-the-new-reply-all-button-to-avoid-email-storms/

      It creates a button on emails that’s labeled:
      “Yes, I Have Thought Carefully About It and I Am 100% Sure I Want to Reply All”

      When used in tandem with a Outlook policy that disables the normal Reply All button, it would actually accomplish what you ask. For the record, it was written as a joke but… well… y’know. :-)

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    • RG says:

      Install the outlook plugin to prevent reply all or forward

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  2. Mike says:

    When sending an email to a mass audience I B.C.C. all recipients, effectively disabling the reply all capability.

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  3. Bryan Lindsey says:

    I’ll take the passive-aggressive approach and send the link to this post in a group e-mail to everyone at my workplace. The fallout will be the inevitable passive-aggressive replies to all.

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  4. Barman Roy says:

    ‘Reply All’ is an extremely useful (and sometimes necessary) feature. So it doesn’t make sense to completely do away with the feature. That being said, how and when the feature is used depends solely upon the sender and there is nothing to do apart from depending upon his/her judgement. Unfortunately, some people are stupid enough (in other words, deliberately ignorant) to understand the difference between ‘Reply’ and ‘Reply All’. On a similar note, some people are still ignorant about difference between ‘To’, ‘CC’ and ‘BCC’. There is nothing to do except make them aware of it and explaining what a nuisance this reply all can be at times.

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    • Jay says:

      If you’re (not YOU, but people) sending an email to a mass, then maybe email is not the best forum for what needs to be communicated.
      Email has it’s use…but there are better solutions to different communication methods. For example, a corporate back end website-great for commonly used files and policies, skype-for instant/quick questions and replies, or something like….this page which is a much more passive approach to communication. People can reply if they want, but not everyone is bombarded. Of course, an email alerting to the post can be sent to all to ensure that the communication is read “Employees: please make sure to check out the latest communication on www(.)mycompanyblahblah(.)com regarding the company picnic. Don’t forget to post what you intend to bring!”

      I put the blame on the original poster and system, not the reply-all person.

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  5. Derek says:

    I usually finagle the reply function to those that are relevant to my response. I will also include those who may provide further insight, but do not necessarily have a direct ownership of the matter at hand.

    So two groups
    1) Those I expect a response from
    2) Those who may contribute to the topic

    Its exclusive, but you won’t piss anyone off and it divests the message from being “spam” for really anyone.

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    • Hmmm... says:

      It can be dangerous to exclude certain people from a thread (especially in an office environment). This could certainly p*ss someone off ;)
      What if I decide to exclude a few people from the reply-all conversation, only to realize later that they would have been able to contribute to the topic? I.e. I may wrongly assume that this person is not in a position to contribute.
      Also … once I exclude someone from a thread, recipients who then propagate the “reply-all” will probably not realize that I have chosen to exclude certain people. Thus, the recipient list shrinks without anyone else knowing it.
      Which is why a lot of people default to “reply-all”, so that everyone gets it, just in case. Which inevitably means more spam for everyone :)

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  6. Paul says:

    This might only be the case with Outlook, but I usually create rules that place Reply All conversations into a separate folder automatically. You can then prioritize which emails to respond to. Although this doesn’t eliminate all possibilities, it really cuts down on “repeat offenders”.

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  7. AJ says:

    People should have to solve a math problem before hitting Reply All.

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  8. Roger Dooley says:

    In my experience, many, if not most, Reply All emails to large lists are misfires. Gmail is already smart enough to ask if you forgot an attachment if it sees “attached” in the message, it could prompt for confirmation if Reply All is used on an email with more than a preset number of recipients. (One problem: distribution lists, like “Marketing & Sales,” that look like one address but actually go to 100 people. Easy enough to control in a corporate environment by using a list naming convention that would trigger the confirmation step.)

    There’s a flip side to the problem – failure to hit Reply All. When a small group is discussing a problem by email, it’s easy to hit just Reply by accident and leave out the rest of the group. This usually triggers another email saying, “Ooops, sorry, forgot to include everyone…”

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