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I Inflicted a Reply-All Nightmare on Dozens and Dozens of Contributors to the New York Times

A reply all tsunami.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock, Ali Yahya/Unsplash.

I always knew I’d be the guy who replies all and causes an email disaster. I’ve made similar mistakes in the past, like the time I tried to send an email to someone I chatted with at a meet-up of New York Reddit users and accidently wrote to the entire group. My email typos have occasionally extended to my own signature. Don’t worry, acquaintances: I know my name isn’t “Eloi.”

But nothing compares with what happened this past weekend, when I caused a reply-all nightmare for New York Times contributors and other vendors—and didn’t even realize what I’d done until an entire day later.

In recent weeks, my inbox has been flooded with General Data Protection Regulation-related emails in which companies and others organizations asked me whether I still wanted to receive their emails. In most cases, I did not. The Times was an exception—I had written an essay for the opinion section in December and had sent the paper the customary paperwork at the time. When it sent me an email earlier in the week with some forms, I wondered if the Times needed me to confirm I’d received them. It was right before sundown on Friday when I pulled the note back up on my phone, just before I would log off the internet for 26 hours to observe Shabbat. I replied to Times email address with a simple, “Thank you. Do you require any follow up signatures or something?” That’s what I thought I had done, anyway. I plugged my phone into the wall charger and turned it off.

While I spent Friday night eating dinner with a group of friends, this was happening in my inbox:

I had no idea this was occurring as our post-meal discussion stretched into the early morning, nor did I realize the email chain had metastasized to include many dozens of replies as I ate Shabbat lunch with a couple I’m friendly with on Saturday afternoon. It was light—we ate poke salad and drank expensive beer. Then I met my friend’s roommate in his apartment and we had a six-hour conversation—something of a relic in 2018. It was wonderful.

Meanwhile, my inbox was hosting a digital dust-up that I had kicked off.

When I turned on my phone later that night—it was after 10—I felt a little sad. I was crossing back over into the place I live six days a week, where long conversations aren’t possible and where phones occupy the spaces between us.

The first thing I noticed was that my Gmail app contained an unusual amount of activity. At first, it seemed like I had been accidentally CCed on someone’s company email. I also saw five messages that were auto-replies. It all seemed like spam. I was still in Shabbat mode, confused and a feeling little hazy amid the onslaught of information. Faced with this challenge, I closed the app and logged into Facebook (because that’s the counterproductive antidote for my information-overload problems).  There, my friend Abe, also a Times contributor, had tagged me in a comment on Friday night. “You caused this! And you won’t even know until tomorrow evening.” He then used a profane word, referencing the Big Lebowski and my Shabbat observance.

I had done what?

To my horror, I realized countless Times contributors—many of them prominent names who had written for the op-ed page—had received my email asking whether the paper was looking for a signature “or something.” I imagined the thousands of very important people annoyingly getting my email on the Friday night of Memorial Day Weekend. Heads of state, CEOs, academics. While I was logged off, unplugged, 180 people replied to my email.

At 8:03 p.m. on Friday, a former U.S. ambassador responded, “???”

The governor of Montana responded with curiosity. At 9:33 p.m., a Harvard alum invited the group to a bar in Harvard Square. Later, a data designer and programmer wrote, “new phone who dis.”

A famous musician whom I adore responded with a joke.

A few emailers valiantly implored us to stop replying all, which raises philosophical questions about sending mass emails to stop sending mass emails.

People checked in from Poland, Germany, and Istanbul. A famous adult film star who had written for the opinion section chimed in to promote her adults-only website.

The tone of the emails was light and collegial. I was not the most hated man in the world.

A meetup in New York was scheduled for that evening, as were meetings in airports in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Mexico City. These contributors were certainly far-flung and impressive. If I was on a list including their names, it felt like it was a mistake.

Someone started a Google group of users on the list and started a thread called “What are you in for?” I replied via email, but received this message: “The group does not allow posting through email.”

This weekend, I plan to attend a New York City meeting of the contributors on whom I inflicted this reply-all tsunami. I’ve since become friends with the governor of Montana, who is helping me plan a trip this summer.

While the state of my inbox in recent weeks has suggested that new privacy regulations can be kind of annoying, I can now thank European regulators, the New York Times employee who forgot to use BCC, and my own hasty reply for bringing a bunch of people a little closer together—well, after a few too many emails begging each other to stop replying all.