Reply brawl: inside the undergraduate email chain

Emi Stewart — Staff Writer

On Monday, January 6th at 10:52 AM, freshman Raymond Evans sent out an email, expecting to receive some help with class registration. What he did not expect was the 200+ replies from his undergraduate peers. Evans quickly realized his mistake: he had accidentally emailed the entire undergraduate student body through the alias “Undergrad Students.”

“The whole time I was laughing because of how bad I messed up,” said Evans.

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Senior Tom Oord offered helpful registration advice to Evans, which was quickly followed by a request for “an F in the chat” by senior Aidan Bender. This email evoked a series of emails from fellow students containing only the letter “F”, which landed in each student’s inbox. Some found the incident funny, others found it obnoxious, and over 1,000 people didn’t even bother replying.

“It was the best thing I’ve ever done, and I could not stop laughing,” said Bender. “Every part of me hurt from laughing so much… I can’t say I regret it.”

Most emails merely answered the call for F’s, but some were more inventive. Original memes, entire movie scripts, and famous speeches were shared through this strange, newfound platform. Meme-creator sophomore Caleb Schreurs saw something special about this type of community interaction.

“I think engagement is big things – like coming together after a campus tragedy – and also coming together on the small things – like when someone screws up an email chain,” said Schreurs. “Every square inch.”

Others, however, were less inspired by the show of engagement.

“Less than 100 people replied to the email, said Bender. “Unity in a 10th of the student body is nothing.”

Some students involved in the email chain went as far as to call the interactions bullying. Bits of foul language littered the chain, some of which was aimed at specific students who were in opposition to the thread’s existence.

“I don’t think there are any people that came out and saw this email chain said, ‘Oh good, time to cyber bully,’” said Schreurs. “I have a little bit more faith in people than that. I do think there were a few hostile responses.”

When people sent complaint emails, they were typically sent a reply that could be interpreted as less-than-friendly. Students banded together through this chain, for the better or worse.

Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Luralyn Helming noted some social psychological aspects of this incident — namely, deindividuation.

“Mob mentality is not what you’ll see in your textbook usually, but deindividuation is definitely there,” said Helming.

Deindividuation is a phenomenon that hinges on people who believe that their identity is hidden, or at least partially obscured. It is most prominent in groups, crowds, or the internet.

“It feels anonymous, but you’re talking to real people on the other side of the screen,” said Helming. “It’s a lot easier to be confident behind the screen where you don’t get the immediate feedback.”

That confidence rolled into the morning of Friday, January 17th, as a new all-undergraduate mass email thread appeared in inboxes across campus. This time, the email was intentionally sent using the alias, and beckoned its recipients to a campus-wide snowball fight. Students awaited an authoritative word from administration on the matter, but none came.

“I want to know why we never got an email from anyone higher up than Tom Oord,” said Bender.

Due to a lack of previous fiascos, Dean of Students Robert Taylor had trust in the student body to not abuse this email alias. Now, that trust is wavering.

“There are times when student government or other student groups have a legitimate reason that’s approved to send a message to the student body,” said Taylor. “If you don’t have problems, you leave it available… we never want to see [the alias] abused because we feel like it erodes our ability to communicate with students.”

Despite mutterings on campus, the solution is more complex than simply clicking a button to make the students unable to use the alias. Once they are in place, email threads cannot be removed.

“And even if you could go in and remove the thread, should you? Because then all of the sudden you’re curating this thing that should be an open communication network,” said Taylor. “That’s something that IT professionals spend a lot of time thinking about.”

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