Computers and social media

Friday morning rant: How can such highly educated people be so clueless about mailing lists?

Continuing on a theme, physicians can be really clueless sometimes; case in point, what happened at my medical school a couple of days ago.

The university that I work at is pretty large. It has three campuses several hundred, if not over a thousand, faculty members spread out between the campuses. Like many large universities, it has multiple mailing lists which are used to distribute information and make announcements. There are mailing lists for the basic science faculty, for graduate students, for medical students, for the residents of various departments, for staff members, and for everyone.

And, of course, there’s a mailing list for the clinical faculty, which is where my rant begins.

I’m sure that many of you who work in large organizations or companies have come to detest certain mailing lists, and I’ve come to dislike (but not yet detest) the clinical faculty mailing list. Every department seems to use it to hawk their Grand Rounds (really, I don’t care about Neurology Grand Rounds and have never gone to it!) and make pointless announcements that are really of interest to a very few people. The Department of Surgery, fortunately, doesn’t do this, as there are mailing lists for surgery faculty and and staff, but I can’t really unsubscribe from the clinical faculty mailing list because sometimes important news for the whole faculty is distributed using it.

Yesterday, it was through the clinical faculty mailing list that members of the clinical faculty demonstrated just how clueless they are with regards e-mail listservs. It all began when an announcement was apparently sent out in duplicate. This prompted faculty member to send an e-mail message requesting removal from the list. The problem is, this clueless wonder apparently hit “reply to all,” and the message requesting removal from the server went out to all the hundreds of clinical faculty at our university.

I bet you can guess what happened next.

Soon, others were doing the same thing. Within a few hours, dozens of requests to be removed from the mailing list had been sent to the mailing list, clogging up the e-mail boxes of everyone on the list. The effect snowballed. As more pointless messages were sent to everyone on the list, more people decided that they didn’t want to be on the list anymore, and they started sending out “remove” requests to the list. One of them was someone I knew, a truly brilliant physician and researcher that I have admired since I first met him. I couldn’t believe that even he was clueless on this matter.

Really, it was comical at first, but rapidly went from comical to profoundly annoying.

A couple of voices of sanity tried to stop the flood. One of them (a surgeon!) posted a message explaining that hitting “reply” to such messages sends the message to every member of the listand not to the list administrator who has the authority to remove addresses from the list. Because such replies go to everyone except the correct person, this voice of sanity said, they waste the sender’s time as well as that of other faculty members who have to deal with such untargeted messages. He also made a complaint that too many departments abused the list to send out messages of very little interest to the vast majority of the faculty. Personally, I wanted to point out that it wouldn’t matter anyway; the clinical faculty e-mail list is designed to get information to the clinical faculty. As far as I know, faculty can’t really opt out and probably shouldn’t if they could. For my part, I sent out the occasional nastygram (cut and pasted after the first couple) to some of these folks (only to individual offenders, not to the list) whenever the flood started to annoy me, while wondering why IST allowed literally anyone to send e-mail to these lists.

This incident has taught me two things, though. First, cluelessness tends to proliferate exponentially until it burns itself out. Second, physicians are just as prone to cluelessness as anyone else.

Here’s your chance to tell your tale of similar annoyances, if you wish. The comments are yours.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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