You've got mail, a cyber sackful of it

How to cope with a full inbox? Unless you're famous, there are few short cuts

Three hundred and forty-nine: that's the number of emails that were waiting patiently in my inbox upon my recent return from a fortnight's holiday. I greeted them jet-lagged, and feeling slightly unloved. Back when I was managing editor of a major web publication, a post that made it necessary for almost everyone on the 12-strong staff to copy me in to any email they happened to send, I received that number every day. While my partner snoozed off the time difference, it took me about an hour to process them all.

Everyone has his or her own way of dealing with email. Unbelievably, it is still common among the powerful in the offline world to treat each important email like a letter, receiving a lovingly printed copy on their desk from a secretary, and dictating the response at leisure. It's an open secret that many successful columnists simply never open the inbox of the email address diligently printed beneath each of their articles in the national press. But in the online world, those who have garnered respect, and significant fan bases, have to treat their emails a little differently.

The internet is about unfettered communication. Thus, those who champion technology must also keep the communication channels open. How do they deal with the truckloads of email every day (Bill Gates reportedly gets four million)?

There are different strategies. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the http (hypertext transfer protocol), has a pre-emptive page on his W3C website entitled "Before you mail me". Tellingly, it begins: "If you need someone to find something for you about some arbitrary subject (travel agents, or parakeets or whatever), don't ask me."

One of the co-authors of the web's most popular blog, BoingBoing, appears to have set up a system that feeds your email through a semantic parsing program. Depending on the content of your missive, you are likely to receive an automated response along lines not dissimilar from the universally despised Microsoft Office paper clip: "It looks like you're trying to suggest a blog post . . ."

Another famous geek sends out an automated response which begins: "I am not on vacation, but I am at the end of a long time delay. I am located somewhere on earth, but as far as responding to email is concerned, I appear to be well outside the solar system." It then launches into six paragraphs explaining the batch system employed to deal with each email personally, and the associated delay time in responding.

What can we learn from these strategies? Unfortunately, nothing. Unless you yourself happen to be an immortal of the internet, any of these methods is going to make you look rather presumptuous and silly. Woe betide the rising techie who employs automated response systems too early on in a prolific emailing career. And, with my traffic at 349 every two weeks, I think I can cope for now.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website openDemocracy.net, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change