Phil Gyford


Monday 26 May 2003

PreviousIndexNext The all@ rite of passage

One of the things that fascinates me about dotcom-esque companies is the balance between being a fun little gang and a serious grown-up company. At some point during the journey from being three people in a cupboard to an Aeron-chaired corporation with a swanky board room a certain amount of “growing up” takes place. The UpMyStreet senior management, for example, were hell bent on wrenching the company into what passes for adulthood while many employees were content with a state of easy-going adolescence. In my limited experience there is always one rite of passage that marks this painful growth: the sanitisation of the company-wide email list.

Start-ups generally have a mailing list to which everyone in the company is subscribed, handy for news of website updates, mentions in the press and company announcements. Of course, in a laid-back company of, say, a dozen people, the list will also be home to plenty of amusing URLs, jokes and argument over the evening’s pub. Inevitably, there comes a point where management decides the list should host only official company business and all the incidental chatter should, as if by magic, disappear.

This may well seem like a sensible and simple rule; after all, what would investors or board members think if it seemed the workers spent all their time exchanging rude jokes? However, an outright ban on such behaviour is not only pointless — chat will always find another home — but can also drastically harm relations in the company. This management decree is effectively saying to workers, “Your conversation is not important to this company and we don’t want to hear it.” Not a message an enlightened dotcom management would ever put down in so many words. Handling this inevitable situation can be tricky and will only ever sweep the chatter out of sight, rather than eradicate it.

The list remained intact for several months before the Wired UK management decided it should be serious and work-only, lest the Americans watching over our shoulders read something they shouldn’t. The alternative Haddock mailing list was born for the “fun stuff” and, perhaps unusually, friends outside the company were invited; perhaps this is why the list survives six years after Wired UK folded.

At Syzygy the company-wide list survived unharmed for longer but eventually this too had to be tamed, so an alternative and unofficial list was created for general chat away from the watchful eyes of senior management.

The way in which UpMyStreet handled a similar situation is a textbook case of how not to do it. There were two mailing lists: one typical list through which anyone could send an email to the rest of the company, and an announcement-only list for important messages from a handful of authorised people. (The announcement list was born so those who hated the chatter had a way of only reading company business.) How was the conventional company-wide list tamed? By simply shutting it down without warning and declaring its demise on the announcement list.

Within minutes confused heads began popping up from behind monitors as everyone looked around them for an explanation. Emails bounced around the office, dragged by lengthy CC headers, looking for rumours and reasons. Before long a Yahoo! Group was set up and is still going today. Eventually a new company-wide list was born, solely for official business. (When senior management were made redundant by the administrators this list enjoyed a week of happy anarchy as it was reclaimed by remaining staff.)

Handling this corporate rite of passage in an insensitive manner will create unwelcome features of an adult company: an “us and them” attitude for example. In UpMyStreet’s case it suddenly changed (in my eyes, and I suspect, others’) from an inclusive and friendly place to a company in which management was only interested in broadcasting to the workers, rather than engaging in a conversation. Banning chat on a company-wide mailing list may ease the load on a management Inbox but it’s also a great way to demotivate everyone else.

Unless you’re planning to read all email sent within your company there’s no way to eradicate chatter; it will always find a way. So I’d imagine the best tactic would be to provide a compulsory “work only” list and an optional “anything goes” list from the beginning. But I’ve yet to see it done this way. I’d be fascinated to hear how other companies handled this particular growing pain…


I remember being severely chastised at Freeserve when I first joined for sending an 'all@' email - and it wasn't even fun, it was a work-related URL and a comment.

I find the flurries of responses to all@ emails that occasionally surface really interesting. When they changed the parking policy where I now work, a whole discussion surfaced when someone responded to the original 'all@' from the facilities team.

An impromptu debate about the validity of the new parking policy emerged, which soon descended into farce and jokes, as threads on any discussion list inevitably does. Eventually it was curtailed by a message from the MD that didn't chastise people for posting, but hid behind the "you're annoying people who don't want these emails" excuse.

This was the excuse at Freeserve - I was chastised for sending an all@ because I was 'spamming' my fellow workers. I thought this was nonsense, but since then I've found the vast majority of people who do feel that these company-wide discussions are annoying.

Basically, like all online communities, they are subject to power laws and don't scale. I'm used to participating in high-volume discussion lists, and was shocked that people's tolerances were so low. But the majority of other people I've worked with much prefer the traditional water-cooler chat and the occasional email send to a list of friends than the massive company-wide discussion.

At UMS, you had a bulk of people who were used to high-volume lists, as you did at Wired. Outside of the new-media business, this kind of experience is still relatively rare, and people just don't like the level and volume of an email conversation when it's mapped across a large number of people.


Posted by chrislunch on 27 May 2003, 9:27 am | Link

[Note: I just changed the "everyone@" in the title to "all@". I'm guessing all@ is more common and it's slightly catchier. But it's still an ugly title.]

Posted by Phil Gyford on 27 May 2003, 1:11 pm | Link

At Delphi back in '96 we had a main office list and an irreverent (in the purest sense of the word) side list that was just employees, no management - it was set up by the sysadmin (Stuart Tily) and management (who were all News International people) didn't know about it. So it was great for making snide/silly comments.

At least, it was until management found out that there was an employee chat list. They didn't try and shut it down, but they did ask to be subscribed, at which point the list fell completely silent and the employees moved to a more-secret list.

(My memory of this is very hazy. Matt or Stuart or other ex-Delphites will probably remember more, including the name of the list in question)

Posted by Yoz on 27 May 2003, 1:57 pm | Link

Excellent stuff. The issue of whether management should be on the "anything goes" list is tricky. They'd want to monitor the list if it was officially hosted, but that would probably only spawn a more underground alternative (as you say). UpMyStreet's management-free Yahoo! Group was a great outlet during the painful administration process.

Maybe it's just employees' duty to start an externally-hosted, management-free chat list whenever a new dotcom starts :)

Posted by Phil Gyford on 27 May 2003, 3:43 pm | Link

Standard management paradox. The free-for-all@ list serves an essential tension-release function for the organization, but management have to be officially disapproving for the thing to function.

Posted by Lukas on 27 May 2003, 5:50 pm | Link

Surely the establishment of both formal and informal at the beginning with clearly defined usage parameters for each. No other way surely.

In this manner, employees (management included) choose whether or not to take any notice of the more casual backchat, with the knowledge that they will receive the 'required' information that has to flow through the company (without having to wade through acres of dribble and hungover rubbish).

I'd avoid any pre-disposition that the informal list would be 'good' or 'fun' or 'better', however. The fact that some of us enjoy extraneous information does not mean everyone does. If someone does not wish to join in, it does not make them any less 'fun'. Some lists can reek of superiority to people simply trying to get their job done.

I would also caution against an expectation that it is the 'management' who are neccesarily uninterested in a more casual list; these lists can be intimidating, or just plain boring to people...

And - why does a casual list *have* to be irreverent/rude to the point where any management interest will shut it down? Is it in the definition of 'company'?: "... to have a raft of dissatisfied employees who have to bitch about the management elsewhere in cyberspace..."?

Was it the volume of dribble rushing through the first UMS list that shut it down, or was it the creeping use of swearwords? Or was it a symptomatic development of adolescence, as you say?

Posted by Ed on 27 May 2003, 6:09 pm | Link

Sure, some people other than management wouldn't like a "chatty" list. But management often don't like it *and* are in a position to do something about it.

And you're right about an "anything goes" list not necessarily being "good" - I unsubbed from Syzygy's as I found it dull at the time.

I'm not sure exactly why UpMyStreet's list was shut down... it was discussed in management meetings and news failed to reach any non-management people I spoke to.

Posted by Phil Gyford on 27 May 2003, 6:46 pm | Link

In my experience after the first year this stuff didn't actually happen on mail lists in the company directory: it either started on lists or groups outside, or everyone had their own personal "list". Perhaps this is because after about T+1.5 my employer was an accretion of so many different companies that it no longer had an identity as a company that had gone from startup to grownup - its lifecycle by then was from one reorg to another. When you're not sure who everyone@ actually includes, you're less likely to use it. I suspect we had many overlapping, informal lists.

For me, more exemplary of that moment betw startup and grownup is when you realise that not only are you spending more time in meetings about the work that you do than you spend doing the work, but those meetings have permanently drained away your energy for and interest in the work, without you even noticing.

Posted by rodcorp on 27 May 2003, 10:15 pm | Link

Jamie Zawinksi talks -- -- about how in its early days, Netscape had a 'bad-attitude' newsgroup, ostensibly to allow the employees to let off steam.

Except that later employees got offended, and so he started the 'really-bad-attitude' mailing list. Which was fine, until it got subpoena'd by Microsoft.

Posted by nick on 27 May 2003, 11:03 pm | Link

How about avoiding this de facto model of managers as 'bound to dislike any informal list'?

An informal list can be an inclusive group oriented space of its own, which should harmonise a company. For example, such a list could avoid chinese whisper style pub invites, and democratise the whole going to the pub thing... So the 'management' could well approve of it thorougly - you would just have to set up clearly defined parameters.

In light of this thought - perhaps this is a post about the nature of management and how the traditionally more serious players in a company have to come to terms with the current fad for 'flatter' 'team-based' styles of working.... Perhaps informal mail lists are simply a tool within this paradigm...

Posted by Ed on 28 May 2003, 1:06 pm | Link

Yes I agree about the benefits of informal lists. But I can only go by my personal experience (in companies that were quite "enlightened" on the scale of things). In those cases management didn't want mailing lists that discussed non-work stuff.

Posted by Phil Gyford on 28 May 2003, 1:41 pm | Link

Two different companies I've been involved with have taken the "best tactic" described above. One never got large enough to really test the theory; in the second one, having a siphon worked quite well. The us vs. them thing is inevitable, but this was not one of the hallmarks of it here.

Posted by M on 30 May 2003, 12:40 am | Link

I would also like to let everyone know that I am also aware that this email message is a HOAX!!! CC: All

Posted by dingdong secketary on 1 June 2003, 6:40 am | Link

A similar thing happened as our company grew in size overnight during the dot com boom. . . all of a sudden people were outraged to be getting company wide emails from other coworkers.. unless it was a message letting them know that there were leftover catered sandwiches in the cafe... :)

Posted by kyle on 2 June 2003, 5:28 pm | Link

Not precisely related, but something like the other end of the telescope: I worked at a Major Global Financial Services Company, which was going through a rough patch, ditching its outsourced IT division and bringing a small fraction back in-house, and selling off one of its bread-and-butter brands. People were nervous about Big Announcements. An Everyone e-mail went out straight from HR -- it may have been about a videoconference being scheduled. For some reason some person responded to this mail, /and the server permitted them to/, thus sending their reply to everyone at this Major Global Company. (We've all seen this happen: someone in the Denver office puts out a "Adopt a Puppy, See Jill in Parking Lot" that goes to London, Portland, and Seoul. But wait.) It wasn't a particularly polite reply, and may have been a sarcastic comment about the supposed contents of the videoconference or the manner of delivery of the presumed message. Well, after that message, someone else replied that you shouldn't reply to an Everyone mail. And someone else. And someone else. Pretty soon everybody's computer was going "bong!" every few minutes as the original message reached remote Exchange sites and people replied thinking they were the first.

This cascade was the subject of some snickering among us savvy IT folk. But it just didn't stop. Then people started replying to the snark with their own snark. You were getting "People are so stupid to send these messages all around the world" being sent all around the world, in addition to obvious stress-reduction in commentary on the company's status. Computers kept going bong-bong-bong. By the end of the first day there had been a couple hundred messages, which of course were in *everyone's* Inbox, and the Exchange farm began to slow to a crawl.

Overnight some of the mail team began attacking the problem. A lot of the messages were gone when we came in. But new ones kept coming in! Remember, there were a lot of remote sites, probably upwards of 200, and cleaning them all required running scripts remotely on each. The mail cascade continued, the nasty comments about the cascade continued, the snark about the company became positively giddy as it continued without apparent reaction.

About 2pm the 2nd day, an announcement went out that parts of the mail farm were being taken offline, period. That was the turning point. For another day or three, messages continued to bounce in (many of them still reacting to the very earliest parts of the cascade), but it was mainly under control.

Eventually an official announcement from someone at a senior VP level went out that more or less chastised everyone for unprofessional behavior but wrote it off and said it would be technically blocked from then on. (They had finally determined how to set the Everyone address to be accessible only to certain names.)

The social aspects of this taboo-breaking, stress-busting cascade were quite interesting, particularly in a really buttoned-down company that just didn't DO this.

And then the videoconference came and went, and whatever it was (I forget), it was underwhelming. Some minor cutbacks in discretionary spending, hiring freeze, whatever. The hair-pulling had been for naught. But we couldn't forget that for a couple of days all the rules of corporate e-mail had been chucked out the window.

Posted by Dan Hartung on 3 June 2003, 5:37 am | Link

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