Stop holding people's inboxes hostage

All told, we're sending about 300 billion e-mails a day worldwide, according to research firm Radicati.

Story highlights

  • Stop the e-mail madness and prune carefully before hitting "send"
  • Acceptable reasons to BCC the recipient list include an unweidly list
  • it is your unspoken duty to keep the To: field neat and tidy
It's hard to believe that just two decades ago, we got through the day without sending or receiving e-mails.
Now, the accelerating onslaught of digital missives shooting back and forth online resembles an epic laser battle between the rebels and the Empire -- and recently, the volley was almost enough to critically injure the good ol' United States Postal Service.
All told, we're sending about 300 billion e-mails a day worldwide, according to research firm Radicati. The average business e-mail account accepts and shoots out more than 100 daily notes. And, we're just going to come right out and say it: A bunch of those e-mails are just unnecessary, the result of send-happy computer users splattering frivolity across their contact lists.
E-mail courtesy is contagious, and it begins with you. With that in mind, here are three ground rules for sending group e-mails.
1. Think long and hard about the "To:" field.
For all the whining we do about our overflowing inboxes, we don't spend enough time sympathetically imagining our friends dealing with the things we send. Apply Mindfulness, that buzzy pop-psychology concept of being in the moment and thinking about what you're doing, to e-mail-sending.
All sixty-three participants probably aren't going to appreciate the admittedly adorable video of puppies sneezing. People who live in a different state don't need to know the curtain's rising on your new puppet-punctuated re-imagining of "Lost in Yonkers." The casual friend who never, ever, ever responds to weekend-planning group e-mails is not suddenly going to want to be in the know as you plot out your Friday night bar crawl.
Stop the madness and prune carefully before hitting "send."
2. Don't BCC blindly.
We've mentioned before that Blind Carbon Copy is one of the web's most abused tools. Here it is in bullet points -- read it sloooowly so it sticks:
Acceptable reasons to BCC the recipient list:
● It's a huge and unwieldy list (in which case, see #1)
● There are people on the list whose e-mail addresses the rest of the world oughtn't have (e.g., the personal email of that B-movie star you used to go clubbing with in Berlin)
● You honestly should have included this person in an earlier e-mail blast. You realized the omission later and thought, "Dang it, I forgot about Tommy; it would be awkward to tack him onto the conversation now so I'll just send a fresh e-mail, BCC him, and let him think this is the first time I'm alerting anyone to my chicken-wire-and-silly-string art installation opening party." Hey, it happens.
Unacceptable reasons to BCC the recipient list:
● You don't want people to know who else is invited (or who else possesses the information you're revealing). Sometimes people BCC the invite list for their birthday party in order to give it a feeling of exclusivity, for example. This backfires when one invitee mentions it to a non-invited friend, or, worse, doesn't come because he's afraid his sulky ex-girlfriend has been invited, too.
A related problem can crop up when the BCC doesn't realize he's been BCC'ed: He'll pipe up in the conversation, revealing your indiscretion and embarrassing you both. Instead of BCC'ing, forward an exchange to the relevant Peeping Tom afterward.
3. Let people opt-out.
It's an injustice, really, that you can't unsubscribe from person-to-person e-mail threads the way you can slice away those daily deal offers for fruits cookie-cuttered in the shape of animals and letters and flowers and whatnot. But alas, when an unwanted e-mail hits your inbox and it isn't offensive enough to get the "spam" treatment, you're forced to rely on the rest of the group to give you the boot.
Quick example: Your friend Debbie e-mails the whole gang to ask if anyone wants to see her co-worker's ska punk indie band, Pigeon Phat, on Friday. You quickly reply-all to tell your friends you'll be at your grandparents' house in Ohio all weekend, drinking cordials from their dusty liquor cabinet and watching bad television in the five-hour interim between their bedtime and yours.
And this is where the hostage situation begins. Clearly you don't want to read the ensuing 300 e-mails planning the pre-partying location, beverage procurement and outfit choices of the entire group, but your friends just won't stop hitting reply-all. (This applies in business situations, too: You realize you're not in on this project they're buzzing about, yet you're stuck in the e-mail crossfire.)
Take-home message: If you're the originator of a group e-mail (the Debbie in this situation), it is your unspoken duty to keep the To: field neat and tidy. If someone hints that they want out, even if you have nothing new to add to the thread, it's your job to quickly respond and say, "I took so-and-so off the chain. What about the rest of you?"
One more tip for irked recipients, though: If the message is coming to you from a group listserve [an alumni mailing or a Google group, say], don't just click Reply and write "Unsubscribe me from this" in the body of yet another message. It doesn't loose a magical unsubscribe fairy on your inbox, but instead spams the whole group with your missive. Instead, take the extra 20 seconds to scan the offending e-mail for unsubscribe instructions.