1675: Message in a Bottle

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
Jump to: navigation, search
Message in a Bottle
I tried to send a message back, but I accidentally hit 'reply all' and now the ocean is clogged with message bottles.
Title text: I tried to send a message back, but I accidentally hit 'reply all' and now the ocean is clogged with message bottles.


Cueball experiences a moment of non sequitur while walking along a beach, when he finds a message inside a bottle saying "unsubscribe".

If you're part of an Internet mailing list, it's a common experience to come across random posts by users who may not be very tech-savvy, saying "unsubscribe". This is their attempt to unsubscribe from the list, accidentally broadcast to every other person on that list instead of just to the mailing list admin (who is either a person or an automated program that manages the list). Another common modern experience is that "unsubscribe" links don't always work (perhaps intentionally, for spam e-mails). In desperation, someone has tried to send their "unsubscribe" request in a bottle, hoping in vain that it will have its intended effect. Instead, Cueball receives it. A darker interpretation of the message could indicate the sender is unhappy with the world or life in general and wishes to leave it.

A "message in a bottle" is either a fun activity or an S.O.S. from someone stranded at sea, where one places a note in a bottle and throws it into the ocean. It then gets carried on ocean currents, possibly around the world to be picked up by some unknown other person at a point in the future.

The title text extends the joke to another common technological faux pas. It further mixes the metaphor of a message in a bottle with an e-mail list. It states that when he hit "reply all" (this is an option in most email client programs, but obviously not an option when one receives a message in a bottle), it sent a message in a bottle to everyone to whom the original message was sent - in this case clogging the ocean with bottles.

This mistake is often made when a person intends to send an email to just one recipient of a message that's been broadcast to a whole list of people, but they accidentally hit "reply all" instead of just "reply". In some cases, if the mailing list is sufficiently large, amplification effects can completely overwhelm mail servers (by analogy, "clogging the ocean"). For example, an employee may send a simple message like "does anyone speak Russian?" to the whole company address book. Several people are likely to reply using the "reply all" button by mistake, causing the whole company to receive the reply. Then, automatic "out of office" notifications and people complaining about the flood of emails will further worsen the situation.

This strip was probably inspired by the recent news of the world's oldest message in a bottle having been found last year, after over 108 years of being at sea, thus setting a new Guinness World Record.


[Cueball walks along a beach with six seagulls flying behind him over the sea. There is a small surf, and in the far distance, two mountains.]
[Cueball stops and looks down at a bottle lying in the sand just outside the surf. A letter can be seen inside, and there seems to be a stopper at the top.]
[A frameless panel shows Cueball (beach and sea not drawn) as he pulls out the letter from the bottle that he has now picked up.]
[Cueball holds the bottle behind him in one hand and the letter up in front him with the other hand. The text on the letter is written above him in curvy letters, looking like those often used to depict the writing of a dying or seriously injured man:]

comment.png add a comment! ⋅ comment.png add a topic (use sparingly)! ⋅ Icons-mini-action refresh blue.gif refresh comments!


The title text reminds me of the song Message in a Bottle by Police. ;-) Maybe enough that it should be part of the explanation? [[User:|Kynde]] (talk) 13:30, 2 May 2016 (UTC)

Why not? Seems to fit the description. Jacoder23 (talk) 14:07, 2 May 2016 (UTC)
Checked the lyrics, there isn't a line that resembles the text I'm afraid, Randall isn't making a reference here. Missed opportunity! 01:36, 3 May 2016 (UTC)
Are you sure? Walked out this morning; Don't believe what I saw; A hundred billion bottles; Washed up on the shore (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
Same subject matter, but no apparent link. Not every mention of apples, gardens, or snakes is a reference to the Garden of Eden. 16:36, 4 May 2016 (UTC)
I was referring only to the sentence "there isn't a line that resembles the text I'm afraid". I simply assumed you missed that one, because I certainly see a resemblance to the title text. I agree that it would be a stretch to have it as part of the explanation. Sometimes I have seen "Trivia" sections underneath, I believe? (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

I had a totally different take on the comic. I took it to mean Cueball had sent out a message in a bottle and someone was unsubscribing from his message list. DrGee 00:32, 5 May 2016 (UTC)

It may be worth mentioning that in certain mailing lists or mass emails people use "reply all" to unsubscribe or otherwise request being removed from the recipients list of future messages; meaning everyone else's inbox gets clogged with unsubscribe requests even though the message only needed to go to the originator. (The best part is the people who reply all to tell the other people to stop using reply all.) 14:14, 2 May 2016 (UTC)

We have had a run of this at work. There are really many possible recipients at work. It went exactly as you noted. The most funny was those complaining about those replying to all when complaining about the replying to all spam... and then doing so by replying to all! And the best was that after a week people getting home from holiday began it all again by replying to all on the original message that started it all ;-) Kynde (talk) 20:40, 2 May 2016 (UTC)

Isn't there another xkcd comic involving messages in a bottle? I feel like this comic might be related to that one but I cannot find the other one. 14:19, 2 May 2016 (UTC)

If we're talking about problems to do with reply to all and mailing list, this story is always a good read: https://blogs.technet.microsoft.com/exchange/2004/04/08/me-too/ 14:22, 2 May 2016 (UTC)

Transcript: The curvy writing might also indicate that the paper was not kept perfectly dry inside the bottle. -- 15:39, 2 May 2016 (UTC)

The explanation of the main comic doesn't seem to provide much of an explanation. Here's how I read the comic:

This comic is about how hard it is to unsubscribe from some email lists. 'Unsubscribe' links often don't work (perhaps intentionally). In desperation, someone has tried to send their 'unsubscribe' request in a bottle, hoping in vain that it will have its intended effect. Instead, Cueball receives it. The title-text slightly shifts the premise: now Cueball is the intended recipient, an incompetent email list operator who replies in the wrong way, triggering the problem described in the current title-text explanation. 16:03, 2 May 2016 (UTC) Adam
I've added my own, somewhat nihilistic, interpretation of the original message. Despair and hopelessness are not topics that XCKD often delves in, but similar themes have appeared in some of the earlier comics. My interpretation may not be correct, but given earlier comics on the topic of heartbreak, and some news of serious health problems affecting the creator's life, I believe it is valid speculation. I did place it higher on the page than I would have liked, but I couldn't find a better place for it. I think it's worth keeping in, in some form, but if a few people feel otherwise, I won't engage in an edit war. Potato (talk) 02:48, 3 May 2016 (UTC)
I don't think this flows naturally from the comic, I think you're stretching it a bit to be honest, but instead of deleting I've moved it after the next paragraph just so it flows better 06:25, 3 May 2016 (UTC)
correspondence by message in a bottle is, in my memory, a common trope. beloved of tom and jerry at least. i read it that this new message was personal to cueball. that the message was a response to a previous bottle and that the recipient of that wanted nothing more to do with cueball. but, then, i'm dumb. -- 12:39, 3 May 2016 (UTC)

So, quick story about me! I'm in charge of the email list and sending emails for the fencing club I'm in. I make sure to include a "click here to unsubscribe" link at the bottom of every email, as well as instructions on how to unsubscribe without using the link (because I'm using a Google Groups to manage the list). I've even tested the link several times with my own email. However, in spite of this, every couple weeks somebody sends a "reply all" Unsubscribe request from somebody who joined the email list before I was in charge of it. It gets pretty annoying, actually, since everybody ends up getting more of these "reply all" unsubscribe requests than actual emails from the club. Plus, it's easier for them to remove themselves from the email list than it is for me to remove them. Most of the time, I just respond with an email from my own account (so there's no danger of accidentally replying to everyone) saying "Hey. If you look at the email, there's instructions on how to unsubscribe. If you can't figure out the instructions, here's my email (_________@___.__). Please tell me what's confusing about the instructions so I can improve them." I can relate to this comic, though. Pretty funny. End story time. Jeudi Violist (talk) 20:03, 2 May 2016 (UTC)

Unsubscribe 20:40, 2 May 2016 (UTC)

Given the timing of this comic, this is surely a reference (at least a partial one) to this news story about a recently found message in a bottle. Or am I over-correlating? PabloVergos (talk) 08:27, 3 May 2016 (UTC)

It looks to me that what was written on the note was unsub5cribe which even if intercepted by the automated mail manager would have been not interpreted as a command and would have been sent to the list instead of performing the intended action. Generally, most mailing lists have a separate e-mail address to send commands to but some allow commands to the list address. Rleblanc (talk) 18:35, 3 May 2016 (UTC)

Instead of Un (reverse action) + subscribe (the verb, not gonna parse it further), the morphemes could be parsed as: Un (not) + sub (short for submarine / underwater) + scribe (a person who writes): It's the signature line from a correspondent who isn't underwater. Perhaps the bottle was supposed to go to Atlantis to a mermaid penpal? :p 22:39, 3 May 2016 (UTC)

When I initially read the comic, the single-word message "unsubscribe" brought to mind commercial SMS services which accept similar responses to automatically disable message lists. Nonetheless, the reference to "reply all" in the alt text does make email as the inspiration more likely. 02:54, 4 May 2016 (UTC)

This could also be a reference to YouTube Comments, where people feel the need to announce that they are unsubscribing from the YouTube channel that created the video. This is typically annoying to other watchers, as it adds nothing to the discussion. PowerKitten (talk) 17:53, 4 May 2016 (UTC)

I interpreted it as Cueball trying to unsubscribe from whoever sent the note in the bottle, but I guess the current explanation fits the title text better... 19:40, 12 March 2019 (UTC)

If possible, please add this in the trivia. Some email websites indeed used to have "message in a bottle" simulators. --ColorfulGalaxy (talk) 20:20, 20 January 2023 (UTC)

Please explain what you think should be added to Trivia (or just do it yourself, but be prepared to cite it appropriately when you do). I've been using email since before there was even websites, and unless I've missed something peculiar to (say) AOL/other early web2mail interfaces I don't ever remember seing a "send to random other subscriber" thing, or anything else I could imagine you're suggesting instead. 02:17, 21 January 2023 (UTC)