Four Lessons from the Replyallcalypse

What happens when 40,000 college students suddenly realize they can email everyone on campus? A lot of crowded inboxes, first of all.

For those who may not have gotten wind of the “replyallcalypse,” here’s the gist. A message went out from the NYU Bursar’s office using an old listserv system. One student, intending to email his mother asking how he should react to the news, accidentally hit “reply all” and shot out a message to the entire student body. He immediately realized his mistake and sent an apology, but it was too late. Replyallcalypse had begun.

The emails that ensued varied from friendly to funny, from inane to downright angry. I highly recommend you check out some of the cream of the crop on this Buzzfeed article and this report from NYU Local.

But beyond the inevitable, aforementioned nonsense that ensued, there’s a lot to learn from this avalanche of emails and their aftermath. Here are a few of the key take-aways:

  1. Transparency rules. Skipping to the end of the story, the NYU employee who originally sent out the email using the faulty system sent a timely and genuine apology out to the student body. He admitted his mistake, took responsibility, and informed the campus as to what was being done to take care of the last of the mess. It brought the whole meshuggas to a classy close.
  2. People want to be heard. I always stress in my coaching and presentation that engaging in social media is an iterative process that begins with listening. While the social media revolution may be about talking, the social media revelation is about listening. That’s where the magic comes from. The fact that so many students sprung on this unusual opportunity to make a joke, ask a question, give a shout-out, or (ironically enough) to tell the others to stop talking and stop crowding everyone’s inbox, proves that ultimately everyone just wanted to be heard.
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of playfulness. The majority of the emails that went out were just, well, silly. One (a personal favorite) asked if anyone had a pencil the sender could borrow. Another sent around a picture of Nicolas Cage, referencing an old internet meme. While that playfulness may seem like nothing more than a waste of time, it also represents the beginning of self-organizing. When Twitter first came out on the market, it was filled with all kinds of foolishness (and that foolishness still exists, no question – just hear me out on this one). But those messages about finding a parking space or having a cheese sandwich for lunch demonstrated the power of the medium. Since then, Twitter users have raised millions of dollars for important causes, helped coordinate uprisings, and even saved lives. I can’t help but wonder: had the replyallcalypse been allowed to continue, what might the students have started? (As an interesting contrast, check out this story.)
  4. It all comes down to connection. The student who accidentally began this whole debacle said, in the end, “I think the best thing to come out of these emails is a rekindled sense of community at NYU (even if it’s based on being stupid).” While we may love technology, and new and shiny things make us happy as crows, social media is all about people and relationships.

Finally, dear readers, choose your technology wisely. Know how it works. Understand what tool is best for the job. And for goodness’ sake, be careful about hitting “reply all”!

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