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What Happened When NYU Students Discovered They Could E-Mail 40,000 People At Once

One student's accidental "reply all" on an archaic Listserv system led to the discovery that practically any NYU student could bombard nearly 40,000 other students with e-mail.

It all started with a simple e-mail encouraging New York University students to opt for the paperless, electronic delivery of their 1098-T tuition form this year.

Unsure of what he should do, sophomore Max Wiseltier figured he should probably ask his mom for advice. But his harmless inquiry, "Do you want me to do this?" was inadvertently sent to every single student at NYU on the list — all 39,979 of them — prompting a campus-wide discovery that any student could "reply all" with whatever they wanted.

At first people were confused.

But soon realized...

Some used it as an opportunity to express their frustration...

...or to ask for help.

Others were not amused.

But one guy turned the e-mail fail into an opportunity.

And others took it as a chance to make new friends.

But almost 24 hours later, the e-mails were still coming.

Those are just some of the thousands of e-mails pumped into my inbox — along with every other NYU student — over the course of the last day.

Student publication NYU Local's tech editor, Ben Zweig, explained how this could have possibly happened:

NYU uses something called E-Mail Direct for most mass emails. That system is meant for one-way emailing. E-Mail Direct does not allow for reply-alls, therefore you cannot respond to most mass emails. Several NYU departments still rely on the older, discussion-based ListManager program, however. ListManager also sends mass emails, but allows discussions (in the form of reply-alls), unless the settings are adjusted, disabling group discussions and only permitting emails from admins.

David Vogelsang of the NYU Student Resource Center, the initiator of the e-mail, finally fessed up and told NYU Local:

Hi everyone — I’m the culprit behind the Lyris blunder. I was assisting the Bursar with an email message and in populating one of the SRC Listserves did not realize the list I was using was one that allowed for responses and thus the “replyallcalypse”.

This morning I deleted everyone on the list. ITS had disabled around midnight, but there were so many that responded, emails were still in the que. Thanks to ITS, the que was cleared and the listserve deleted. We are monitoring for any residual emails.

And yes, you are absolutely correct that I should have used Email Direct instead of Lyris.

I take full responsibility for this blunder and offer my sincere apologies for the frustrating situation that was created.

David Vogelsang
NYU Student Resource Center