St. Petersburg Times Online
 Devil Rays Forums

printer version

Some e-mailers prefer flying blind

Sending copies of an e-mail message to multiple recipients leads to the question: To Cc or to Bcc?

©New York Times, published April 10, 2000


When Spencer Grey sent a message to a group of friends and colleagues last fall notifying them of his new address, he thought nothing of putting all of the recipients' e-mail addresses in the "To" field of the message.

But when he returned from a vacation in Hawaii a couple of weeks later, he discovered that one of his friends had copied the e-mail addresses of the other recipients and sent them an invitation to a party he was throwing in December -- on the theory that any friend of Grey's was a friend of his. For the most part, it was a harmless, "the more the merrier" gesture. Except the party invitation ended with a tongue-in-cheek reference to drugs, and Grey's e-mail list included some clients of his New York Internet consulting business.

"It was this major e-mail faux pas," Grey said, adding that he was relieved that his friend's message was not more offensive. "If I have learned anything, it's the value of the "Bcc' option," he said.

Just as electronic communication has presented new social issues or prompted the evolution of etiquette, how to deal with recipient lists in electronic messages is an issue that has become more complicated with the growing use of e-mail.

For those who use e-mail to communicate with friends or business contacts, the question is one of the appropriateness of revealing or of hiding recipients' e-mail addresses. Stories like Grey's suggest that increasingly, the latter option is gaining momentum.

To hide the addresses in most e-mail programs, users type them into the "Bcc," or blind Cc, field, instead of the "To" or "Cc" areas. In business-related messages to a colleague, the blind Cc option is often used to send copies to others without the colleague's knowledge.

For that reason, using Bcc can be devious in the workplace. But anecdotal evidence suggests that the Bcc feature is gaining popularity for personal correspondence sent to a large group of people, especially among those who have had their Cc lists reused without their consent.

Joy Tadaki, a banker in London, said she has been more careful about group messages since an incident last year when a colleague from business school used the e-mail addresses from a message Tadaki had sent informing friends about her new address. In this case, the purpose of the message was more commercial than social: The colleague sent Tadaki's list a message advertising a couch for sale in London.

"It was a bit annoying for a lot of people," Tadaki said, particularly since she has lived in various countries and her e-mail list included friends in the United States, Singapore and Japan. In other words, it was not a list of people who were likely to buy a couch in England.

Like Grey, Tadaki said having her e-mail list borrowed made her rethink how she addresses messages to a large list of recipients. "Next time I send out a change of address, I will definitely do Bcc," she said.

Even so, Tadaki said there were cases when she would use the To field for group messages -- namely, an invitation to a party or some other social gathering. "It allows people to see who else is coming or who is invited," she said.

And that issue, at least in terms of social correspondence, is what presents the "to Cc or to Bcc" dilemma. On one hand, privacy concerns have increasingly made Internet users skittish about sharing their e-mail addresses -- a view that in some cases extends to friends' addresses. On the other hand, it can be a bit disturbing to receive a party invitation via e-mail where the To field says "undisclosed recipients" or "recipient list suppressed" -- phrases some e-mail programs insert when all of the recipients have been blind Cc'd on a message.

Donna Booher, the marketing communications manager for a health-care technology company in Silicon Valley, said she tries to balance Internet etiquette with social etiquette when deciding how to address group messages. To pass along information about a change of address, a new job or some other announcement, she said, she generally uses the Bcc feature.

For party invitations, though, whether she Cc's or Bcc's the addresses depends on the size of the event. "If it's a small group and I think people might want to carpool or something, then I Cc," Booher said. "They know each other, and they're not going to spam each other." But when she is having a bigger party, Booher said she generally blind Cc's the entire list. "It's a privacy issue," she said. "There's no reason to give everybody your Cc list and have them potentially use it for spam."

Despite these precautions, Booher said an acquaintance once asked her for her e-mail contact list to invite everybody on it to another event. Booher demurred. "I said, "Why don't you just bring fliers to my party and pass them out instead.' "

As for those who said they had used e-mail addresses gleaned from friends' correspondence, most were reluctant to have their names published, for fear of being electronically blacklisted.

Of course, contacts initiated via a serendipitous encounter with a list of e-mail addresses are not always considered unwelcome or suspect. In some cases, a group e-mail can spark a new relationship or reconnect old friends.

Beth Niestat, a program coordinator in Boston for the Jewish campus organization Hillel, got back in touch with a friend from high school when she recognized her name on a group e-mail message from a mutual friend. Ultimately, the correspondence sputtered out. But Niestat said she suspected most people shared her tendency to peruse the other e-mail addresses listed on group messages.

In fact, she said her friend Katy Filner has gone one step further -- on occasion striking up random e-mail conversations with other recipients of a message from an acquaintance, asking things like, "I saw your name on Bob's e-mail list and wondered, how do you know him?"

"She figured, if this person is on Bob's list, he's one step closer than a stranger," Niestat said. "The thing about e-mail is you do things a little bit more capriciously than you'd ever do otherwise."

Filner confirmed that she had indeed initiated e-mail conversations in this rather offbeat manner. She said a good source of e-mail addresses are the joke messages people often forward to friends, in most cases, leaving recipients' addresses visible in the headers.

"At the time, I was single and I thought, oh, I'll just look for a guy's name," Filner said. She said she sent messages to about five people, at least one of whom wrote back saying, "Don't ever write to me again." But one person responded more positively and they ended up corresponding via e-mail for about a year, although they never ultimately met.

Although she hasn't written to anyone found on a list lately, Filner says she still scans the addresses listed on e-mail messages. "I always look down the lists just out of curiosity," she said. "I think it's fun just to see if I know anyone."

As for her own policy about sharing friends' e-mail addresses, Filner said she Bcc's large lists. "I never forward people's names because I know what people like me do," she said, laughing.

Which is why those who send e-mail messages to multiple recipients would do well to remember that once you hit the Send button, it's out of your address book and out onto a very large, very public network. In other words, Cc at your own risk.

Back to Tech Times

Back to Top
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.