(With apologies to Melville) The Wall Street Journal notes a career-enhancing moment by an executive at Carat International, who sent an e-mail with confidential information about restructuring (= large-scale firings) to the entire firm, rather than the (more limited) intended recipients. Fortunately, Carat’s IT department managed to “pull back” the message (known to geeks as “if unread, then retract”; when I worked at Lotus, this was among the most-requested feature additions by customers, and they’ve finally added it). Unfortunately, AdAge.com got a copy and published it.
This isn’t the first such goof. In fact, a classmate of mine accidentally sent his tale of summer associate leisure to a ream of his colleagues at Skadden Arps rather than just his friend. (It worked out fine for him, but one can only imagine the adrenaline shot on realizing the goof.) It reinforces that information is exceedingly slippery in an age of digital networked communication.
The WSJ writer, Sarah Needleman, proposes some technical ways of providing the pause that refreshes (or causes reflection) – essentially, having one’s e-mail client ask “Are ya sure?” before doing Reply to All or sending to a mailing list. There are two potential problems here. The big one is that people will immediately try to turn off this annoying feature. (Think about Vista’s user account controls.) No one likes it when Notes or Outlook acts like your mom. The second is that such a feature needs to display more information in order to be valuable. If it just asks “Do you want to send to all?”, the answer is, “Of course! That’s why I clicked Send!” The feature ought, therefore, to list all of the recipients when it nags you. There are technical reasons why this might not work – imagine if it’s a mailing list, or if the client is offline and doesn’t have the ability to expand a group into a list – and people are likely just to click past the warning anyway.
Speed is the antithesis of reflection. The brilliance and challenge of e-mail is that it enables near-instantaneous communication. We tend to write things we shouldn’t, and to send them to people we shouldn’t.
So, what if we used technology to force a period of reflection? What if your client let you impose a “cooling-off period” – such that it placed every sent mail in an Outbox, and then sent it after a period of time that you determined via configuration settings? (This works similarly to how mail clients such as Notes and Thunderbird handle things when you send mail when not connected to the Internet.) What if your company made a 60-minute cooling-off period mandatory? Or should we just let instances like this act as cautionary tales, changing perhaps our internal norms but not our mail clients?