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Meet the most dangerous button on your computer

  • 'Reply to All' can also function as a self-destruct button
  • NYU student mistakenly replied all to 40k people this week
  • 'The Internet doesn't just enable mistakes, it amplifies them'
Be very, very careful when you hit the "Reply to All" button in your email.

We’re often told there is a fine line between love and hate. But did you know you can actually see this line? And by the way, it is pretty fine.

In fact it’s probably somewhere on your screen right now. It’s that tiny little vertical strip in your Compose Email box, which separates Reply from Reply to All.

Got a ridiculous group email from your boss to which you just have to fire off a snide reply to a co-worker? “Reply”. LOVE.

Got a ridiculous group email from your boss to which you just have to fire off a snide reply to a co-worker? “Reply to All”. HATE.

That button is flammable; capable of setting your career, friendships and relationships on fire. The first thing you hit is "Send". The next thing you want to hit is the Panic Button.

It’s a very fine line. And at this point in the long-enough history of digital communication, we all know someone (perhaps in the mirror, *facepalm*) who has crossed it.

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This week, we met NYU student and computer science minor, Max Wiseltier who accidentally replied all to 40,000 people on a campus-wide email. A humiliating way to introduce yourself, but at least the benign content of Max’s email (a brief question intended for his mom) left him with a few shreds of dignity still intact.

And hey, it’s college. Someone else is bound to screw up even worse and more publicly any day now. Max will be off the hook (with the exception of any Google searches of his name from now until forever) and free of the piercing hallway glares in no time.

The same cannot be said, however, for the public relations professional who inadvertently replied all to her entire company -- with a confidential document listing the salaries of every one of their 200 employees.

Or the creative director who trashed his colleagues in an email to a co-worker, unknowingly clicked Reply All on a message including those very colleagues and calmly went back to work. For about one minute – when the first of many messages alerting him of what he’d done landed in his inbox. Followed immediately, no doubt, by flop sweat, heart palpitations and a hastily booked plane ticket to anywhereintheworldohmygodjustgetmeoutofhererightnnow.

We’ve had how long now to figure out how to use email? And so many of us still keep making this basic, self-immolating mistake? Like, at what point in the 1930s did drivers finally stop stepping on the gas when they meant to tap the brakes? What’s that? It still happens? And several times an hour on Miami Beach? Well then. This whole thing may linger a bit longer than I anticipated.

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And yet the sides of the (standby for a phrase you haven’t heard in 20 years) Information Superhighway remain littered with the disposed reputations of those poor, poor bastards who committed the simple sin of merely misfiring on their mouse. The Internet doesn’t just enable our mistakes, it amplifies them.

A friend has deemed Reply All the Most Dangerous Button On The Computer and I’m pretty sure he’s right. But if that’s the most dangerous button, than Recall Message is the most useless.

It seems like your emergency digital zip cord in these cases, but the thing is a total tease. It typically only works if the recipient has not yet opened your regrettable message. So in most instances, no, it will not unsend your email, won’t scrub your humiliation off the Internet’s floors.  

Basically all it does is send another message to everybody, drawing further attention to the fact you totally screwed up and that you now really, really want that one back. But you’re not getting it.

There are some functional out clauses: Gmail users can flip on a feature which spots you 30 seconds to undo any sent message and there’s a program for Outlook called "Reply to All Monitor", which prompts you to confirm that you really want everyone receiving your message.

Whoops: 40,000 students in best/worst 'Reply All' chain ever

Which would be an excellent way to prevent the phenomenon known as an email storm. In this variation – which you’ve very likely experienced – the content of the message is nothing especially sinister or awful, but the “everybody’s got something super clever to say to everybody else” torrent of server-jamming replies, is. This is exactly what happened in that NYU debacle.

The email storm’s typical life cycle usually recharges when someone announces they want off this list. And 30 more "Please stop emailing everybody!" emails immediately follow.

The first handful of funny replies? Love.

The onslaught which soon follows? That’s right: Hate.

Save yourself, save your friends and don’t cross that thin line.

Follow Jonathan Anker on Twitter @JonFromHLN

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