Sorry for the angry title, but this little quirk in the Outlook email program really irks me. And it seems to me that Microsoft can eliminate this problem so easily. But even if Microsoft does nothing, there is a simple solution that we users can apply.
First, however, let’s look at the problem: One of my jobs is to work as a part-time professor in our local state college system. Frequently some state official will send out an email with about a thousand professor email addresses in the To: or CC: box. (We’ll talk about this mistake later.) And then invariably one of us thousand professors will reply to the message by hitting – you guessed it – the Reply All button. Then, two or three other professors will feel obligated to notify the offender of the problem by pressing – you guessed it again – the Reply All button. Now of course I could just ignore these worthless replies in my mailbox. But I really can’t. There is a good chance that someone is going to be called an idiot, and I just have to watch.
OK, I didn’t lose that much time, but add up the potential time wasted by the other 999 professors. And figure that this happens several times a year, and not just in the college system of one state, but in practically every business and organization in the world. The potential time wasted is enormous. And, it is so easy to fix the problem.
Attention, Microsoft: Here’s the Fix
Unless I am very mistaken, Microsoft can very easily fix the problem. All that is needed is some minor tweaking of the programming code in Outlook. Here’s how it should work:
The user presses the Reply All button. Then, instead of just copying all the addresses from the To: and CC: boxes of the original message to the reply, it counts them first. Now, if the number of addresses is greater than X, then a dialog box appears asking, “Are you sure you want to send a message to [number of addresses] people?” If the user clicks the No button, then the Reply All becomes a simple Reply. And if the user clicks Yes, well, it stays as a Reply All, and, well, you think of a good punishment.
The question is, how large should X be? In other words, what is the largest size of a group for which Reply All’s are considered appropriate and unchallenged. Indeed, the reason that the Reply All button even exists is that it is a very useful tool – for small groups. How big does a group have to be before the Reply All becomes a problem rather than a solution?
Fortune magazine once suggested that the ideal size of a team is 4.6. We can of course round that up and add a fudge factor. The maximum size could be 7 or 10 or an even dozen, but certainly no higher. The exact number does not matter, as long as some number is set.
So, Microsoft, in the next update of Outlook, please, please, put some kind of warning on the Reply All button.
BCC: An Interim Solution for the Rest of Us
Of course, perhaps the reason that Microsoft has not fixed the Reply All button is that they never see the problem to begin with. The folks at Microsoft are obviously very intelligent, and are surely smart enough to follow this simple law of email addressing:
Thou shalt put long lists of addresses ONLY in the BCC: box,
NOT the To: or CC: boxes.
So, when CEO Satya Nadella sends out a note to, say, 20,000 employees in Redmond, WA about the availability of GMO-free brownies in the cafeteria, he puts all the addresses in the BCC: box and puts only his own address in the To: box.
Following this simple law not only protects the privacy of all of your addressees, but also defangs the Reply All button.
Which, by the way, suggests another fix for Outlook: Maybe when the user presses Send, the program counts up the number of addressees in the To: and CC: boxes, and if the number is too large, it suggests using the BCC: box. Hmmm.
How about it, Microsoft?
— Rich Malloy