The Great Mailing List Fail of 2011 (Updated)

Posted by at 8:05PM

After today, five minutes of all training sessions for Stanford administrative staff will be devoted to instructing people on the proper way to communicate information to students. That is, NEVER ADD THEM TO ONE GIANT MAILING LIST THAT THEY CAN SEND EMAILS TO. They will figure this out, they’re Stanford students.

At 5:20PM, all 6000+ students of Stanford’s undergraduate population found themselves added to the ugres_rcfs mailing list (which is officially the distribution list for Student Housing Undergraduate Room Condition Forms). The first email from the list was a repeat of a police report that had been issued last night, probably from the list’s administrator. Within minutes, people started asking the entire membership of the mailing list questions about the list, sparking several message threads of increasing confusion, rage, and diabolical glee.

Some people posted ridiculous YouTube videos and pictures, others spammed the list with campus events, a few gave shout outs to friends, and there was even a surprise appearance by Senator Palpatine, who was so excited that he misspelled his own name. A couple students expressed their annoyance about the onslaught of emails flooding the inboxes of their smart phones and begged people to stop replying to the list, provoking further replies.

And far too many students fell victim to a prank email that claimed that you could unsubscribe from the list by sending “unsubscribe-list-this” to the list with no subject line. Seriously, guys. This couldn’t have been the first mailing list you unsubscribed from. If it was, here’s a quick tutorial:

Step 1: Check the link at the bottom of the email

ex) https://mailman.stanford.edu/mailman/listinfo/ugres_rcfs

Step 2: Enter your email where it says “To unsubscribe from (mailing list), get a password reminder, or change your subscription options enter your subscription email address:“

Step 3: Press the unsubscribe button.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

After 55 minutes and about 200 messages of utter chaos, there was silence. Apparently word had gotten to the administrator that we were making a mockery of the list, the list was shut down, and students’ productivity was restored.

In the aftermath of this silliness, I’m pleased to say that although the conversations eventually devolved into nonsensical phrases and pictures strung together, there was a distinct absence of the malicious messages that are usually found in other internet conversations that last this long. Most notably, Godwin’s Law, which states that any online discussion that lasts long enough will inevitably lead to a Nazi or Hitler comparison, didn’t hold in this case. This could be because this was a very public forum with absolutely no anonymity, but it’s still comforting to know that when Stanford students are given the opportunity to spam the rest of their undergraduate community with anything they want, the absolute worst they are willing to come up with are the latest Ark Music Factory videos.

UPDATE: Aaand the requisite Hitler parody video shows up.

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3 Responses to “The Great Mailing List Fail of 2011 (Updated)”

  1. BurgerKing says:

    Yeah in contrast to the 2010 incident where people sent death threats because the chatlist was anonymous….

  2. Isabella says:

    I don’t think it was possible to unsubscribe from the list. I checked mailman.stanford.edu (long before the unsubscribe-this-list fiasco), and it would not let me unsubscribe or edit my options. Although the unsubscribe-this-list was clearly a prank after the first twenty or so people posted without actually getting unsubscribed from the list, you can’t blame the first few for trying, especially since the official unsubscribe method didn’t work (at least for some students).

  3. Anonymous SU Alum says:

    The unsubscribe-this-list “prank” probably sounded authentic to some users (and maybe the “prankster” himself/herself) who are used to mailing lists managed thru Majordomo, a still commonly used mailing list manager from which Stanford gradually transitioned to Mailman only within the last five or six years and that almost exclusively uses email commands for subscribing/unsubscribing users, moderating posts, etc. In fact, Mailman also supports email commands– the “suggested” command was simply incorrect.

    I suspect whoever created the list made an honest, but unfortunate mistake. Subscribing that many people to a mailing list is a dangerous task and requires close attention to detail. I, probably like many others, always prefer to be allowed to choose to subscribe to a mailing list rather than being automatically subscribed like this, but it may have been considered “operationally necessary” for all undergrads to be on this mailing list and therefore, set up the list to require approval for unsubscribe requests (meaning, no one can unsubscribe and one possible reason why some were unsuccessful in their attempts to unsubscribe via the web page as described above).

    In any case, what I find heartening is that yes, as stated in the post, there was a “distinct absence of… malicious messages” and those 200 messages were just, at worst, annoying. On top of that, word did get to the list administrator (perhaps via some good Samaritan?) and the situation was remedied within an hour, which seems like pretty good response time. And in the end, everyone got an important lesson on mailing lists and an unexpected hour of silliness to keep things interesting :)

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