Last Sunday afternoon, at 12.34pm, I received an email from someone I did not know. The email was titled simply “Hey.” and contained a link to a nefarious looking website.
Within a half hour or so, another person I did not know responded, adding simply “spam?”
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the beginning of my ascent into “reply-all” hell. Since Sunday afternoon I’ve received 293 emails from people I don’t know in response to this first email. What’s worse, is that this doesn’t seem to be the standard case of stupidity, naivety, or unfunny jokes — instead, me and the 342 other people trapped on the email list from hell seem to be stuck in some kind of infinite loop.
It took me a little while to realise, but it’s all Facebook’s fault.
Every person who has a Facebook account has a Facebook e-mail address. This is an email address that can be used to send messages to your Facebook account.
This feature was implemented in 2010, but the service never really took off — despite Facebook making it your “default” email address. It’s still there, however, and it’s still possible to send messages to people via their Facebook email address, which is usually related to their username.
One place you are likely to have seen Facebook email addresses is in your mobile phone’s contact book. If you’ve ever synced your contacts with your Facebook profile, you may notice that when you look at a contact on your phone is an “@facebook.com” address for them. It’s a little confusing, and has sparked a small amount of controversy from some who said it was replacing their original contacts, but other than that it always seemed harmless.
That is, until it trapped me in an infinite loop of “reply-all” emails.
I actually never read the first email with that nefarious link that was sent to me — my spam filter caught it. Looking back, I can see that I must have been in the person’s address book because they tried to contact me about a story a couple of times (I never responded). Then it appears that this person got some kind of virus that sent the dodgy link out to everyone in his contact book.
Curiously, I would guess that the email may have been sent from this person’s phone. How can I tell? Because more around half of the addresses on the list seem to be “@facebook.com” email addresses, amongst the many gmail addresses and the automatically created “@craigslist.org” addresses.
By their very nature, the Facebook email addresses add another layer of disaster to this “reply-all” email thread. This is because they are two things at once — both emails and Facebook messages.
When one of the Facebook users, understandably, wants to leave the conversation, they click “leave conversation” in their Facebook message window. Doing this, however, sends the following message to all people on the email chain:
“Auto-generated message: [Person’s Name] has left this conversation and will no longer see your messages”
For reasons I don’t quite seem to understand, it’s not quite as simple as that for the Facebook users. Despite the 293 emails that have been sent, almost all attempts to leave the thread, my latest email shows 306 people on the respondent list for the latest email. According to the emails, some people appear to have “left this conversation” multiple times, but they are still there in the latest email. Those who are receiving the messages on their normal email addresses, like me, for example, have no option to “leave the conversation” at all.
Personally, I am not particularly upset when I get stuck in “reply-all” email threads. I am aware of how to block email addresses or mute certain conversations in gmail. Whenever I get a new email in this particular email thread, I chuckle to myself, thinking “Wow, it’s still going.”
However, amongst the others, things are getting a little Lord of the Flies-esque amongst those in this “reply-all” society.
If I find out who put me on this list, they will be banned from my Friend’s list.
“David” seemed confused:
What in the world is all this about and why now am I seeing it on Facebook after a day of constantly having to clean out my regular [mail] inbox the last couple of days?
“Rebecca” is exasperated:
how the hell do you make this message stop.. I have hit leave conversation now over  times and this shit keeps showing up in my inbox and popping up a chat box. .
Someone named “Big David” wrote 560 words in size 18 font admonishing people for hitting the “reply-all” button — slightly missing the point, I felt.
Sadly, the problem may not go away away anytime soon. According to Facebook’s Community Help pages, the issue is widespread. One man complains he’s been getting hundreds of messages for months. In a post marked “leave a conversation for eternity,” someone complains that they’ve been getting the messages for around 6 months and have tried multiple tactics to get themselves out of the infinite message loop.
For now, I’ve put up a filter that will keep the emails out of my inbox. It’s a minor annoyance, sure, but it’s a sad legacy for an email system even Business Insider once called “brilliant.”
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