06/22/2012 05:32 EDT | Updated 08/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Reply All: Good for All? Or Threat to All?

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney set off a frenzy in Ottawa after he accidentally sent an e-mail in which he described Alberta's deputy premier as a "complete and utter asshole" to a larger audience than he intended. Such is the problem of the "reply-all" function in e-mail. This simple mistake shows how we have devalued communication and correspondence. Yet, it also exists as the ultimate communication tool.


The reply-all email function represents the best and the worst of modern electronic communications. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney experienced the negative side of it last week when he sent out an email in which he described Alberta Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk as a "complete and utter asshole" to a larger distribution list than he likely intended.

The email set off a squabble in Ottawa over the disintegrating relationship between the federal Conservatives and Alberta's Progressive Conservative party, and it gave Tory-haters one more chance before the summer Parliament break to lament the lack of people-skills exhibited by the party's leadership

Kenney's mistake was significant, especially at a time when the Conservatives could have really used some good PR to temper backlash to the omnibus budget bill. But it is a goof-up we can all relate to; who among us can say they have not been burned by the cursed reply-all button? It is the most oft committed online faux pas, even though it is entirely preventable with just a little care and concentration.

That reply-all errors pop up with such regularity signifies the way in which we have devalued communication and correspondence -- it proves how little we care about what we are saying and who is hearing and reading it, that we can't be bothered to make sure the message we are sending will be received by only those we think should see it. When we misuse reply-all we prove that our worst qualities -- laziness, lack of awareness -- are sustained online.

And yet, where would we be without reply-all? For all its ills, that one simple button in your email program represents all that is good about the Internet, too. It defines the freedom and lightning speed of online conversation. And as clichéd as it sounds, reply-all eliminates all kinds of real and metaphorical borders that divide people, and connects us in a uniquely intimate manner to a vast world of people who are, in all the important ways, really just like us.

Without reply-all, email would be nothing more than a sterile convenience, a way to be in touch without actually seeing or hearing each other. A single email to a single end-user is ultimately passionless compared to a phone call or an in-person meeting (or even a hand-written letter which at least has a modicum of personality attached to it) -- we rifle these things off without a second thought, all day, every day with such volume that there is essentially no real value to any single email. We don't measure email by content but volume -- as in, "I had 250 unread messages in my inbox when I woke up this morning." With reply-all, email becomes conversation.

Reply-all is the foundation of social media -- what, after all, is Facebook but reply-all on steroids? Both offer the possibility of communicating with friends, and friends of friends and friends of friends of friends, not to mention complete strangers. A reply-all email is no different from a status update -- it offers the same benefits of mass communication of an idea or emotion.

But the potential pitfalls are so much higher -- an insensitive status update or "like" can be quickly deleted and, depending on the time of day and some luck, almost no one will notice. But a reply-all can't be taken back. Once sent, it becomes an irrevocable piece of history, and you only have two options: pretend the problem doesn't exist (a futile exercise, as Kenney found out) or apologize (in which case you are admitting to a stupid mistake, not to mention, that any insult contained in the message was sincerely meant).

At the most elementary level, reply-all embodies responsibility, such as it exists online. It proves that the Internet is alive, that the online experience doesn't exist in a vacuum -- that there are consequences to carelessness and stupidity. One wrong click of the mouse and feelings will be hurt, relationships broken, reputations tarnished.

It is acceptable, both for top-tier politicians and the rest of us, to make the reply-all mistake once or twice, because mistakes happen (and the reply-all button is usually right next to the regular "reply" one -- why this hasn't been changed is beyond me). It's easy to forget, among the multitude of messages we send every day, that while email is fun and simple and a very effective means of basic communication there lies within an increased risk of wreaking social havoc.

Then again, by now there are so many cautionary tales out there that all of us should know to tread carefully around mass electronic communications. That we haven't figured it out yet says less about the limitations of the Internet and simple email functionality than it does about how our worst attributes have assimilated online.