E-mail debacle, ensuing spam sparks Boston College cyber-phenomenon

(U-WIRE) CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – What started out as a single e-mail snowballed into a campuswide movement this week, spurring the creation of Facebook groups, YouTube videos, T-shirts, and an inside joke that all of Boston College could appreciate.

The Internet phenomenon began Tuesday night with an innocuous e-mail sent by Genevieve Kimberlin, LSOE ’10, requesting housing near BC that would fit in with her boyfriend’s schedule.

What can be referred to as nothing other than an unfortunate mistake saw this e-mail forwarded to 13 listservs belonging to various groups, ranging from clubs and organizations to an orientation group to classes to three ResLife listservs.

“When I started typing this e-mail, I thought I could use the listserv to choose individual people I wanted to send the e-mail to within the list. When I realized I couldn’t do that, I redrafted the e-mail, but only to my direct contacts. But I was really tired, and sent the wrong e-mail. I had no idea what kind of backlash that would have,” Kimberlin said.

The original e-mail, which Kimberlin had no intention of sending, read, “Forgive me for exploiting the many listservs I’m on, but I wanted to reach as many people around BC as possible,” and asked students to respond if they had Boston housing available on a flexible basis.

The original e-mail reached only those who belonged to the 13 listservs, but another mistake sent multiple copies of the e-mail to a large portion of campus. Some students received upward of 900 e-mails.

Caitlin Maguire, A’S ’10, and her roommate, sent a response to all of the e-mail’s original recipients, claiming that a friend did in fact have an extra room available in her off-campus apartment.

“My roommate and I hit ‘reply-all’ as a joke. We sent out an e-mail saying our friend Lizzie had a room, but she didn’t really, which sparked all the replies,” Maguire said. “I don’t think a lot of people recognized it was us at first, but a few came up to me and said, you were the first to respond. Then, people started hitting ‘reply-all’ and that’s when people started saying ‘take me off the list.'”

Some students, believing that the e-mails would be discontinued if they requested to be taken off the listserv, began responding to all of the e-mail’s recipients, and thus, many students received multiple copies of every e-mail sent on the chain.

“The first e-mail was sent out Tuesday night. On Wednesday, I received a few e-mails and responded to them personally, apologizing for the mistake. On Thursday, I woke up and saw post-it notes from my roommates saying things like ‘don’t worry.’ I had a feeling something bad had happened,” Kimberlin said.

It was not the massive amounts of e-mail that flooded students’ inboxes on Wednesday and Thursday that stands to be remembered, however. It was BC’s response.

Since Wednesday night, at least five Facebook groups have been created in response to this cyber-phenomenon. As of Sunday afternoon, the sum of their membership totaled 2,119 BC students.

One group has advertised the sale of T-shirts; the front of the shirts reads, “I was listserved by Genevieve,” and the back, “RE: Housing near BC,” multiple times.

Another group, called “Genevieve ruined my BlackBerry,” has acted as a soundboard for the laments of students who were charged for each e-mail in accordance with their cell phone services’ data package.

“As a BlackBerry user, I got all these e-mails on my cell phone. At first I started deleting them, but I’d leave my phone down, come back, and there’d be hundreds of e-mails. I ended up just turning off my data,” said Ronald Kenny, A’S ’10. “I’ll definitely see a difference in my phone bill. This is unfortunate, and I called the help desk and I’m sure these problems will get resolved, but I’m surprised about BC’s response. They haven’t sent out a tech alert or anything.”

After she viewed one of the various groups surfacing on Facebook, Kimberlin opted not to subject herself to the flurry of Internet activity that sprung up around the incident.

“I deactivated my Facebook almost instantly,” Kimberlin said. “I would appreciate if people would take themselves out of [the Facebook reaction], and deal with their frustrations in a civilized manner.”

She could not, however, delete the comments and questions from BC’s students on Thursday, when she felt the campus reaction in full force.

“A few more people recognize me. It’s disconcerting that everyone knew it was me,” Kimberlin said. “I haven’t really been confronted, but there have been a few incidents with people coming to my room and shouting things, but by the time we answer the door, they’ve run away.”

Though Kimberlin said she didn’t feel she was in danger, threatening e-mails stirred alarm in administrators involved in the incident.

“As far as any police investigation, she was concerned with the nature of some of the responses and a report was filed,” said BC Police Chief Robert Morse.

Kimberlin, though, coolly dismissed the threat. “The Internet provides a barrier, and people say things they wouldn’t necessarily say to me in person. I never felt unsafe,” she said.

Retaining this upbeat attitude, Kimberlin said, “I never anticipated this response. You just have to laugh about it; you can’t take it too seriously.”

Such threats, however, will not be tolerated by the Office for the Dean of Student Development (ODSD).

“With regard to student reaction, it is understandable that students are frustrated and angry,” said Judy Robinson, interim assistant dean for ODSD. “Vindictive and threatening responses are of great concern and we hope that BC students would express their frustration in appropriate ways. Threatening e-mails are not acceptable and will not be tolerated.”

In response to the e-mail sent by Kimberlin, however, the administration took a softer stance.

“In a really general sense, there are Information Technology Services (ITS) violations that we hold students accountable for. Clearly, this was inadvertent. There was no malice,” Robinson said. “Our approach is an opportunity for educating the entire campus for understanding and kindness. She’s been vilified. It was a mistake. We don’t want to minimize that this was an enormous issue. It happened, and we’ll deal with it from an ITS, administrative, and educational standpoint.”

Included in the University’s policy on use of technological and information resources is a clause that states, “University technological and information resources are not to be used in a manner that is invasive or that diminishes their efficiency. One example of such usage involves the broadcast function. Although current technology enables users to broadcast voice, e-mail, or video messages to all members of the University community simultaneously, the use of this technology is restricted.”

“The University will consider the intent, effect, and seriousness for the incident in levying sanctions for violations of this policy,” however.

Students who responded to the e-mail may be in violation of the policy as well. Those who distributed pornographic Web sites under the guise of a link that would remove students from the listserv violated a clause that prohibits offensive behavior by users of the BC network or information technology infrastructure.

Robinson echoed this statement: “According to ITS, the student who originally sent the messages clearly violated the IT use policy, but it is important to recognize that all those students who “replied to all” violated the policy as well. Their collective response perpetuated the problem and indeed this is what made this incident so problematic,” she said. “The appropriate way to handle spam e-mail is to forward the e-mail to abuse@bc.edu. ITS will not tolerate misuse of the system in this way and will terminate access to BC systems for those students who abuse the system.”

With the student concerned, however, “We’re ta
king an educational approach. All of this has not been lost on her. It’s been challenging for her as well,” Robinson said.

BC is not alone in this experience; Villanova University underwent a similar incident in February of last year.

According to Villanova’s student newspaper, The Villanovan, an e-mail regarding changes in the school’s dining services sent over university distribution lists generated over 200 responses, resulting in complications with using Villanova’s e-mail service.

University Information Technologies, Villanova’s computing, information, and networks services provider, was able to close down use of the distribution lists, preventing students from sending further reply-all messages.

To those at BC who were affected by the e-mails flooding their inboxes, Kimberlin offered an apology.

“I’m so deeply sorry for upsetting the campus and I feel badly about everything that happened,” Kimberlin said. “I’m a student and a human being, what I’d appreciate most from people is compassion.”

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