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Ultimate BCC Botches from History, and How to Recover from a “Reply All”

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Kids, gather round– I’m going to tell you a story that has faded out of common knowledge and may soon be gone forever. It’s an age-old story about the appropriation of an outdated term to a new technology. The term? “CC” and its ensuing evil twin, “BCC.” These are two abbreviations that are bound to be commonplace in your day: should I include a second person on this email, in a secondary way? Should I include them in the email unbeknownst to the chief recipient of the email? All questions that CC and BCC answer. And many are, either by self-proclamation or by the declaration of others, ninjas in the art of BCC. But not all qualify.

BCC is a common stumbling block for the young professional. And the old professional. BCC is a confusing concept. The gist:

BCC stands for “Blind Carbon Copy.” It means that you’ve sent an email to a main recipient (that’s the “To:” field), but want to include another recipient without the main recipient’s knowledge.

When should one BCC? When and how should one respond to a message BCC’d to them? Learning a little bit about the history of the term “CC” will help you to parse when to BCC and when not to.

Carbon paper: the lost art

As some of you already know, “CC” is shorthand for “Carbon Copy.” Carbon copies are an actual historical thing. They came about in the early 19th century, when carbon paper was invented. There’s the boring story: Ralph Wedgwood invented a “stylographic writer” in 1806 to aid the blind in writing, and eventually realized the potential for business applications.

But the bro history of carbon paper? The story is actually pretty romantic— a total bro named Pellegrino Turri invented a similar machine to Ralph’s over in Italy around the same time to help his romantical partner write letters to him. Why did she need help? She was blind (and a Countess. Way to go, Pellegrino).

That’s where the involvement of “blind” ends in the history of carbon paper. Carbon copying began to be used for business purposes– receipts, mostly, but also for official documents that needed to be copied. Carbon paper, of course, was eventually subsumed by the whole “photocopying” thing. But the concept remained, and was translated in the early days of e-mail as a way of including multiple recipients in a hierarchical way.

So, BCC?

The point of telling you all the history of the carbon copy is to point out one thing: blind carbon copying isn’t in it. It’s a concept developed purely for e-mail purposes. In other words, it’s a shortcut for a completely different type of task. Usually this task is described as “saving a step between sending an e-mail and forwarding it on to someone who would be interested in the contents.”

The bottom line: BCC is a timesaver for forwarding e-mails. It’s not intended to rope a BCC’d recipient into a conversation. It’s purely for information purposes– to be both received and responded to privately.

Famous BCC Botches

Some of our favorite instances of “Reply All” fiascoes– and we’ve all had that heart-stopping moment– are below:

1. German Parliament: Babette, an employee of the German Parliament, sent a request for an employee directory– to every member of the Legislature and every administrative person in the Parliament. 4,000 people received the email– and many began to reply all to the message she had sent. NPR notes that “from the group, a sort of social network began to form– and as with most social networks, they didn’t have much to say.”

2. Bill Cochran, a now 45-year-old advertising executive, who sent an email about his in-house competition on a big account directly to that competition, along with a throng of other suddenly-drooling onlookers. The flub induced a WSJ-produced graph, shown at the right:

3. Here’s a collection of BCC botches that are pretty amazing. Our favorite: “We could easily convince the customer to buy it– even though he doesn’t need it.”

To Reply All, to CC, or to BCC?

Plenty of folks use Reply All, and plenty use CC and BCC as well. Why do we do that? Plenty of folks use these functions to make conversations a little bit more efficient– we use it constantly to facilitate introductions, reduce forwarding traffic, and loop team members in on interactions that are going on. But there’s some evidence to suggest that “Reply All” can be detrimental to overall productivity. So the ultimate lesson: use Reply All and Carbon Copy at your own discretion.

One thing we can all settle on, however: BCC is for private interactions, and above all, remeber: never hit Reply All on an email where you’re BCC’d.

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