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E-Mail Reply to All: 'Leave Me Alone'

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"I am reachable, just e-mail is not a good way to do it," said Sean Bonner, chief executive of a news blog network who has automatic responses set up on his work and personal accounts warning he doesn't check e-mail as often as he used to.

Even those who've chosen partial e-mail engagement say they continue to struggle with the question of whether or not to reply.

Stanford University technology professor Lawrence Lessig publicly declared e-mail bankruptcy a few years ago after being deluged by thousands of e-mails. "I eventually got to be so far behind that I was either going to spend all my time answering e-mails or I was going to do my job," he said.

Thereafter, Lessig's correspondents received e-mail equivalents of Dear John letters: "Dear person who sent me a yet-unanswered e-mail, he wrote, "I apologize, but I am declaring e-mail bankruptcy," he said, adding an apology for his lack of "cyber decency."

He eliminated about 90 percent of his e-mail traffic, but said he can't quite abandon it entirely. "The easiest strategy is just to ignore e-mail, but I just can't psychologically do that," Lessig said in an interview.

If there is a downside to completely turning a back on e-mail, it's not one many former users notice.

Stanford computer science professor Donald E. Knuth started using e-mail in 1975 and stopped using it 15 years later. Knuth said he prefers to concentrate on writing books rather than be distracted by the steady stream of communication.

"I'd get to work and start answering e-mail -- three hours later, I'd say, "Oh, what was I supposed to do today?" Knuth said that he has no regrets. "I have been a happy man since Jan. 1 , 1990."

The critics of e-mail themselves have critics, who say copping out is a reactionary and isolationist way of dealing with modern communications.

Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor David J. Farber receives piles of e-mail as the administrator of the "Interesting People" technology news mailing list. He has no patience for e-mail bankruptcy.

"For a venture capitalist to say something like this -- he should get out of the technology field," Farber said.

Wilson, the venture capitalist, did not respond to a phone call placed to his firm -- or to an e-mailed request for comment.

Staff writer Sabrina Valle and staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.


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