Berkeley email spam mishap spawns community spirit

About 70 people attended a picnic to celebrate an email list mishap last week that brought thousands of strangers together. Photo: Drew Wheeler
About 70 people attended a picnic to celebrate an email list mishap last week that brought thousands of strangers together. Photo: Drew Wheeler

Thousands of Berkeley voters got stuck in an email storm last week after a technical glitch became a viral meme that prompted around 70 residents to hold a potluck picnic Sunday.

It all started late last Tuesday when Nigel Guest, president of a Berkeley community group called the Council of Neighborhood Associations, attempted to send an email to himself that mistakenly hit the inboxes of thousands of registered voters.

The brief email, with the subject line “test,” included a single character: “x.” Instead of ignoring the message, some of the recipients responded to ask why they gotten it. And, rather than replying only to Guest, they made the fateful, likely unintentional, decision to reply all. 

Email recipient Christopher Berry created a "highlights reel" from what's been termed Berkeley's "spampocalypse."
Recipient Christopher Berry created a “highlights reel” from what’s been termed Berkeley’s “spampocalypse.”

Those replies, which also reached thousands, stirred up a range of sentiments and, from one recipient, threats of legal action. In the days that followed, hundreds of emails volleyed among those on the list. Amid a spate of initial questions from many about why they had received the message, one person wrote: “Oohhh a mystery, we have to figure out what we all have in common.”


Several pleaded with the group to stop replying all, and another list member cautioned: “You can’t close Pandora’s box once it is open.” Dozens of emails continued to be sent to the whole list, and there was no clear way to get out of the loop. According to Berkeley resident Christopher Berry, who created a “highlights reel” of the exchange and posted it online, approximately 100 emails went out over the first four hours.

One frustrated recipient wrote to Guest to complain, but her email hit the entire list: “You recently sent a test email that has resulted in an incredibly unprofessional email chain that is disrupting my studies with emails every two minutes. Please find a way to disable this email chain, or prevent this from happening in the future.”

Her note, however, only prompted a new wave of responses: “For God’s sake I’m an old man and want to be left alone. I live in Mexico,” said one. Replied another: “Let’s communicate like it’s 1999!”

About half an hour into the exchange, several members of the list began creating graphic memes to capture the experience.

Berkeley "spampocalypse" memes.
Berkeley “spampocalypse” memes.

While some became irate at the intrusion, many others were highly amused by the hijinks, and sought to find ways to prolong what became known as the Berkeley “spampocalypse.” About an hour after the initial email, one person on the list suggested holding a potluck meet-up. Minutes later, a Facebook “support group” was created for people on the list who wanted to keep the hilarity going.

There was no word from Guest that first night, and one email recipient wrote: “I actually feel a little sorry for Nigel. This is not going to be pleasant to wake up to. Alternately, it’s a very good [psychological] test.”

Wednesday morning, Guest sent an email titled “Sincere apologies,” to explain that he had been setting up CNA’s email system when he inadvertently linked the organization’s main email account to a large list of people. He asked that the “reply alls” cease, and said he was working to correct the problem.

Guest's apology.
Guest’s apology.

The emails, however, did not stop. Just after 11 a.m., one list recipient said he was very concerned about the messages, and shared his theory with the group about how his address might have been compromised. He said he believed Guest had stolen his email address, using “house equipment,” when he drove by Guest’s home, near the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, on a recent outing. He wondered if Guest was “leeching on to devices that are somehow exposed.”

One recipient had his own theory about how his email address had been compromised. Image: Christopher Berry
One recipient had his own theory about how his email address was compromised. See more from the “highlights reel.”

One woman in particular was not amused as the emails continued to roll in. About an hour after the leeching email, she sent a sternly worded message to the list to threaten legal action.

One woman threatened legal action after her email address was included in Guest's test email.
One woman threatened legal action after her email address was included in Guest’s test email. See more from the “highlights reel.”

There were also reports of angry phone calls, from several unhappy list members, to Guest as well as others who “replied all” and included their contact info in their email signatures.

A woman on the Facebook “survivor” group shared the following: “I just received a phone call from an extremely irate individual threatening to call the FBI on me to report the email spam. Has anyone every tried calling the FBI? It’s got to be harder than getting through to the post office.” She added: “I’m afraid to walk away from my computer ’cause someone might say something funny while I’m gone.”

Wrote Berry, in his Spampocalypse highlights round-up, “Many of us found the outrage and frivolous appeals over something so benign and beautiful to be amusing.” That afternoon, the list activity hit a new peak. Wrote Berry: “In what may be the greatest act of trolling of all time, one email recipient sent an email to the listerv with fake instructions on how to unsubscribe.”

Those instructions told list recipients to write to CNA’s main email list with the words “Subscription terminate.” But, either due to continuing problems with CNA’s email system, or because the instructions were meant in jest, those emails, too, continued to reach the entire list of thousands.

"Subscription terminate" does not work as planned.
The “Subscription terminate” command does not work as planned. See more from the “highlights reel.”

Word was spreading Wednesday about the list, as recipients told friends and neighbors about what had been taking place.

Wednesday afternoon, one person sent the following message to the group, with the subject line, “Please Subscribe Me?”: “There’s a lot of people that want out of this list, I know a bunch of people that want to be put on this amazing list. Is there a way that we can make that happen?” People began adding interested parties to the email list, which had a 5,000-person audience, according to one person getting the messages.

Meanwhile, over in the Facebook “support group,” those who found the episode amusing rather than maddening joked and reflected on the experience.

Said one woman: “I can’t stand it. I’m laughing so hard. People are still replying even as I type this! They just can’t stop themselves!”

One man wrote: “This has become such an important event in my life, and no one I try to explain it to can understand.”

Wrote another, on Thursday, “As of 10:47am on March 19th, I have counted 332 individual emails in my inbox relating to this whole matter. Come on people, pick up the pace! I’m only at 49% storage capacity in my gmail account. What could I possibly do with those extra 7 or 8 gigabytes?? My inbox isn’t going to fill itself up without your help, I want to see more replies. Don’t stop!”

It was also in the Facebook group that it became clear how the list recipients were connected. A woman who spoke to Guest said he had been working from a voter registration list with 16,000 names on it. He told her he had mistakenly linked about 2,000 of those names to the main email account, which he had tried to use to send a message only to himself. People with last names starting with the letters A-H were included. (One person who attended the picnic said Guest later said the email actually had gone to 5,000 people. Guest did not reply to a request from Berkeleyside for comment.)

Some on the Facebook group created T-shirt and button designs to memorialize favorite moments.

One person made buttons with the phrases "Subscription terminate" and "Re: test" (the subject line of many of the list emails). Another created a T-shirt to mark the occasion.
One person made buttons with the phrases “Subscription terminate” and “Re: test” (the subject line of many of the list emails). Another created a T-shirt to mark the occasion, reading “I replied all.”

Members came up with hashtags, such as #ChosenByNigel, and posited a variety of ideas about why they had been brought together and what they might do with the resulting energy and enthusiasm. Wrote one: “You have all been chosen. You will be contacted in the next 48 hours with more info regarding your mission. Best of luck.”

Wrote another: “All of us were chosen by Nigel for a greater purpose. I feel like we should do something. Together. For the community. I’m actually serious.” Others responded with ideas about what they might do, from creating “care packs for the homeless” to working with veterans or the unemployed. Another suggested that they might come up with training aimed at computer literacy classes for seniors. (Those ideas are still in development.)

Plans also firmed up for a Sunday “CNA Survivor Picnic” at Ohlone Park in North Berkeley. Wrote one group member: “Each of us had a moment where it dawned on us that this was more than an annoyance. It had become something crazy, random and hilarious. That is why I’m blowing off another potluck I was going to in order to attend the CNA Survivors picnic. I want to meet others who seized the humor and joy in the Spampocalypse and want to keep riding this random wave.”

Guest, pictured center with a can of Spam he received as a gift, is surrounded by dozens of "CNA survivors." Photo: Sofia Chang
Guest, pictured center in a brown shirt with a can of Spam he received as a gift, is surrounded by dozens of “CNA survivors.” Photo: Sofia Chang

About 70 people attended the Sunday picnic, and said the group wants to continue meeting on a monthly basis to solidify plans for volunteer efforts and build on the sense of community created by Guest’s mistake. Guest attended the picnic — and received a can of Spam as a thank-you gift. At one point, participants circled up to share their favorite memories from the email exchange.

Berry, who created the “highlights reel” from the email chain, said he had not been sure what to expect at the picnic.

“I thought it was going to be terrible,” he said. “Meeting up with a new group of strangers from the internet, you never really know what you’re going to get. But it was a 10 out of 10. Everyone was really friendly and really funny. We laughed and chatted, and whenever a newcomer came, the entire group welcomed them.”

Cris Benson described the group as “a good broad section of Berkeley” and said he felt it was a shared sense of humor that brought so many people together Sunday.

“It just grew organically out of proportion to what it was, and that’s what made it so great,” he said Monday. “I really did find kindred spirits at the picnic just because we are all connected by our sense of humor at this mistake that was made.”

Ben Bartlett and his wife, Yelda, said "We replied all."
Ben Bartlett and his wife, Yelda, said “We replied all.” Several members of the email storm got together last week at Eureka in Berkeley.

Berkeley native Ben Bartlett described last week’s exchange as “some sort of groundbreaking meta event: We are in the same geographic location. We are of a similar disposition, and we took this random email spam as an excuse to come together.”

“It’s really, really awesome, I’ve never experienced anything like it,” he continued. “Unlike social media, this was your email. It was like someone knocking on your door.”

Bartlett even composed a poem for the occasion, which he read during the sharing circle at the picnic: “The Message Came / It was a Test. / Who are you? / The people asked / Who are you? / Like yourself, / ‘I Replied All!'”

The “email storm” phenomenon has been documented on Wikipedia, but has not previously received such notoriety in Berkeley. The event is sometimes called a “Reply Allpocalypse,” and has made headlines in the past when it’s struck large companies such as Microsoft, or government entities such as the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department.

Bartlett hypothesized that a shared desire for community also added momentum to what transpired.

“We bonded over this,” he said. “Enough of us were into it to make it special. And I suspect that even the ones displeased by it kind of had to remark in wonder at what happened.”

Added Berry, who moved to Berkeley about three years ago and said he’s not really “involved in Berkeley things”: “It was really nice to meet people who also live in Berkeley. Now I might see them at Trader Joe’s and I’ll know that they’re my neighbor, and that they’re cool.”

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