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

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2007

Last month, venture capitalist Fred Wilson drew a lot of attention on the Internet when he declared a 21st century kind of bankruptcy. In a posting on his blog about technology, Wilson announced he was giving up on responding to all the e-mail piled up in his inbox.

"I am so far behind on e-mail that I am declaring bankruptcy," he wrote. "If you've sent me an e-mail (and you aren't my wife, partner, or colleague), you might want to send it again. I am starting over."

College professors have done the same thing, and a Silicon Valley chief executive followed Wilson's example the next day. Last September, the recording artist Moby sent an e-mail to all the contacts in his inbox announcing that he was taking a break from e-mail for the rest of the year.

The supposed convenience of electronic mail, like so many other innovations of technology, has become too much for some people. Swamped by an unmanageable number of messages -- the volume of e-mail traffic has nearly doubled in the past two years, according to research firm DYS Analytics -- and plagued by annoying spam and viruses, some users are saying "Enough!"

Those declaring bankruptcy are swearing off e-mail entirely or, more commonly, deleting all old messages and starting fresh.

E-mail overload gives many workers the sense that their work is never done, said senior analyst David Ferris, whose firm, Ferris Research, said there were 6 trillion business e-mails sent in 2006. "A lot of people like the feeling that they have everything done at the end of the day," he said. "They can't have it anymore."

So some say they're moving back to the telephone as their preferred means of communication.

"From here on out I am going back to voice communication as my primary mechanism for interacting with people," wrote Jeff Nolan, chief executive of the business software company Teqlo, in his blog announcing his e-mail boycott.

The term "e-mail bankruptcy" may have been coined as early as 1999 by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who studies the relationship between people and technology.

Professor Sherry Turkle said she came up with the concept after researching e-mail and discovering that some people harbor fantasies about escaping their e-mail burden.

Turkle, who estimated that she has 2,500 pieces of unread e-mail in her inbox, is one of those people. A book she has been working on for a decade is coming out soon. Turkle joked that it would have taken her half the time to write it "if I didn't have e-mail."

Some people who don't want to go through the drastic-seeming measure of declaring total bankruptcy say they are trying to gently discourage the use of e-mail in their communications in favor of more personal calls or instant messages.

"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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