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Ontario Technoblog

Ontario Emperor technology blog.

This blog has been superseded by the mrontemp blog
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Location: Ontario, California, United States

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Monday, September 11, 2006

The Religious Wars of the Reply To Field

My contribution to the blogosphere is in the form of an anecdote.

I work for MegaCorp, a large company with thousands of e-mail users. One day, a few of these users decided to solicit participation in a volunteer effort within MegaCorp. So they created a mailing list, which I'll call mailinglist@megacorp.com. Out went the following message, early in the morning:

From: Volunteer Team [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
To: Volunteer Opportunity Candidates [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
Subject: Join Our Volunteer Opportunity Today!

Hey you!

Join our Volunteer Opportunity, and you can enter a drawing to win a free MegaCorp WidgetPlus!

Wowee Neato!


Now, I happen to have changed some of the facts above. Obviously I've obscured the company name, the actual name of the mailing list, and the nature of the volunteer opportunity. I've also changed one other fact - the actual message wasn't a text message, but a formatted image message in excess of 200KB.

Some of you have already guessed how this story's gonna play out.

A couple of hours later, someone sent a message which, by the time I received it, looked like this:

From: Volunteer Team [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
To: Volunteer Opportunity Candidates [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
Subject: RE: Join Our Volunteer Opportunity Today!

MESSAGE FROM John Doe (jdoe@megacorp.com)

Please remove me from this list.

-------

From: Volunteer Team [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
To: Volunteer Opportunity Candidates [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
Subject: Join Our Volunteer Opportunity Today!

Hey you!

Join our Volunteer Opportunity, and you can enter a drawing to win a free MegaCorp WidgetPlus!

Wowee Neato!


A few minutes later, I received the following message:

From: Volunteer Team [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
To: Volunteer Opportunity Candidates [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
Subject: RE: Join Our Volunteer Opportunity Today!

MESSAGE FROM Jane Smith (jsmith@megacorp.com)

Get me off this list too.

-------

From: Volunteer Team [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
To: Volunteer Opportunity Candidates [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
Subject: RE: Join Our Volunteer Opportunity Today!

MESSAGE FROM John Doe (jdoe@megacorp.com)

Please remove me from this list.

-------

From: Volunteer Team [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
To: Volunteer Opportunity Candidates [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
Subject: Join Our Volunteer Opportunity Today!

Hey you!

Join our Volunteer Opportunity, and you can enter a drawing to win a free MegaCorp WidgetPlus!

Wowee Neato!


And so on and so forth.

After about 15 minutes of this, the messages started to change.

From: Volunteer Team [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
To: Volunteer Opportunity Candidates [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
Subject: RE: Join Our Volunteer Opportunity Today!

MESSAGE FROM Manny Hothead(mhothead@megacorp.com)

Hey you stupid people! Stop hitting Reply To All!


Unfortunately, Manny didn't realize that with the From and To address setup, there was no way to respond to the list administrators.

Meanwhile, our local IT person (whom I am praising profusely, should he ever find this message - can I have a new laptop now?) took a smarter tack:

From: Local IT Guy[mailto: localitguy@megacorp.com]
To: Californians [mailto: californialist@megacorp.com]
Subject: DO NOT RESPOND TO THE Join Our Volunteer Opportunity Today MESSAGE

Do not respond to the Volunteer Opportunity message. All responses go back to the entire mailing list.


Not that the local IT guy's message solved anything:

From: Volunteer Team [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
To: Volunteer Opportunity Candidates [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
Subject: RE: Join Our Volunteer Opportunity Today!

MESSAGE FROM Diego Surferdude (dsurferdude@megacorp.com)

This is WAY uncool. Like, get me off this list, y'know?


So, since email was not a viable option at the moment (I was getting 1 MB of email every couple of minutes), I started researching the whole issue of the proper use of the Reply To field in email. The first salvo was fired by Chip Rosenthal:

"Reply-To" Munging Considered Harmful
An Earnest Plea to Mailing List Administrators

---

An email message requires some amount of processing when it is redistributed to a mailing list. At the very least, the envelope must be rewritten to redirect bounces directly to the list administrator. While the message is being processed, the list administrator might take advantage of the opportunity to munge some of the message headers.

Some forms of header munging are helpful, such as special loop-detection headers. Others are questionable. Most are ill-advised or dangerous. Many list adminstrators want to add a Reply-To header that points back to the list. This transformation also is one of the most ill-advised.

Some administrators claim that Reply-To munging makes it easier for users to respond to the entire list, and helps encourage list traffic. These benefits are fallacious. Moreover, Reply-To can have harmful -- even dangerous -- effects. If you think Reply-To munging is a good idea, I hope I can change your mind.


After laying out his case, Rosenthal summarized as follows:

Many people want to munge Reply-To headers. They believe it makes reply-to-list easier, and it encourages more list traffic. It really does neither, and is a very poor idea. Reply-To munging suffers from the following problems:

It violates the principle of minimal munging.
It provides no benefit to the user of a reasonable mailer.
It limits a subscriber's freedom to choose how he or she will direct a response.
It actually reduces functionality for the user of a reasonable mailer.
It removes important information, which can make it impossible to get back to the message sender.
It penalizes the person with a reasonable mailer in order to coddle those running brain-dead software.
It violates the principle of least work because complicates the procedure for replying to messages.
It violates the principle of least surprise because it changes the way a mailer works.
It violates the principle of least damage, and it encourages a failure mode that can be extremely embarrassing -- or worse.
Your subscribers don't want you to do it. Or, at least the ones who have bothered to read the docs for their mailer don't want you to do it.


But there is an opposing view. Enter Simon Hill:

Reply-To Munging Considered Useful
An Earnest Plea to Mailing List Administrators
Last revised: 3 January 2000

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

An email message requires some amount of processing when it is redistributed to a mailing list. At the very least, the envelope must be rewritten to redirect bounces directly to the list administrator.

While the message is being processed, the list administrator might take advantage of the opportunity to munge some of the message headers. Many list administrators want to add a Reply-To header that points back to the list. This transformation is also one of the most useful.

Some administrators claim that Reply-To munging can have harmful -- even dangerous -- effects. I assert the opposite, that not adding a Reply-To header has even more harmful effects. If you think Reply-To munging is a bad idea, I hope I can change your mind.


Again, let's skip to the end:

Summary
Many people want to munge Reply-To headers. They believe it makes reply-to-list easier, and it encourages more list traffic. It really does both of these things, and is a very good idea. To reiterate:

It adheres to the principle of minimal bandwidth.
It provides additional functionality to the user.
It increases a subscriber's freedom to choose how to direct a response.
It does not reduce functionality for the user of a reasonable mailer.
It aids and assists the user with a deficient mailer.
It adheres to the principle of least total work.
It helps to ensure that questions are answered on the list.
Your subscribers want you to do it.


After this morning's experience, I lean toward Rosenthal's opinion. So does neale:

"Reply-To" Munging Still Considered Harmful. Really.

An Earnest Plea to People Still Having This Debate

A long time ago, Chip Rosenthal wrote a fine document entitled ‘Reply-To’ Munging Considered Harmful. It details the problems caused by Reply-To munging. Chip’s essay basically points out that:

Munging only helps people with broken mail clients.
Munging can catch people by surprise, since in every other email they’ve gotten with multiple recipients, when they hit “reply” it goes only to the sender.
Munging totally breaks things for people who want replies to go to a different address than the one they sent the mail from.
In 2000 (or maybe earlier), Simon Hill wrote a response called Reply-To Munging Considered Useful, which is frequently offered as a rebuttal to Chip’s document in online debates. Simon’s response boils down to the following:

Munging encourages list discussion.
RFC 822 seems to indicate it’s okay.
Munging makes things easier on broken mail clients.
People still using these two documents to debate the issue are wasting everybody’s time. The issue was definitively settled in 2001, and Chip won....

Both Chip’s and Simon’s documents refer to RFC 822, “Standard For The Format Of ARPA Internet Text Messages”, issued way back in 1982, before most of us even knew what a computer network was. Indeed, RFC 822 doesn’t say anything about whether or not mailing lists can or should set the Reply-To header. Chip interpreted it one way, and Simon another.

In April of 2001, the IETF issued af new document, RFC 2822, which obsoletes RFC 822. In this new RFC, the author addresses the Reply-To header in a few places, but the most relevant to this discussion is the following in section 3.6.2 “Originator fields”:

When the “Reply-To:” field is present, it indicates the mailbox(es) to which the author of the message suggests that replies be sent.

Your list software is not “the author of the message”, so it must not set or in any way meddle with the Reply-To header. That header exists for the author and the author alone. If your list munges it, you are violating the standard....


This debate doesn't directly connect to the issue MegaCorp had, but it does illustrate the importance of a Reply To field.

Or, at the very least, mailing list opt in capability. Meanwhile, the list replies go on...

From: Volunteer Team [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
To: Volunteer Opportunity Candidates [mailto: mailinglist@megacorp.com]
Subject: RE: Join Our Volunteer Opportunity Today!

MESSAGE FROM J. Wentworth Mega III (chairmansson@megacorp.com)

I wouldn't get involved in this stupid volunteer opportunity, even if you paid me to do it.

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