When we emailed Kelly Hoey to ask her about why the autoresponder is a part of being a well-adjusted Internet person, we, fittingly enough, got this message right back:
Hoey, a cofounder of the WomenInnovateMobile accelerator, started using an autoresponder about a year ago. It was partly for her own time management: She felt addicted to making immediate responses—rather than having a clear head to work on the most important projects, she found herself addressing more immediate, but less substantive tasks, like wading through her inbox.
This, she says, is symptomatic of our always-on, always-available culture.
When it comes to emailing people, she says, "we're lazier than a Google search. We expect information to come immediately, so we feel a responsibility to spit information out immediately."
For many people, info-spitting makes up a huge chunk of their time—about 28% of the day. Plus, it seems that the higher you rise, the more you're messaged: MediaCom CEO Karen Blackett gets 500 a day. And the more visible you are, the more extreme the inundation can become: Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder of swissmiss, CreativeMornings, and TeuxDeux, is getting 1,000 emails altogether in her many inboxes.
"About a year ago, I really hit a wall of feeling such anxiety and guilt around my inbox and not being able to keep up, the thought of disappointing people and not being responsive and not getting back to people, that really stressed me out. It got to the point where it wasn't healthy." Eisenberg says. "So I put the autoresponder up to adjust expectations for people that email me."
The autoresponse, then, takes the sting out of the maybe-not-get-a reply. And with that, Eisenberg can regard her inbox a little bit more like Twitter—where having a connection is awesome, but a response isn't mandatory and a lack of one isn't guilt-inducing.
"We almost need to have an adjustment of what is realistic," she says. "Our society needs an adjustment on the email front. I don't want to be criticized as arrogant or whatever, but it's insane what I'm getting."
At other times, the autoresponder can be a much-needed productivity hack. As Ryan Holmes, the CEO of HootSuite, was explaining to us how he was cultivating a maple syrup mafia, he also said that he's constantly refining his inbox game: that includes canned messages for the canned inquiries for speaking engagements, business development, and whatnot, plus being precise about what message works for which medium—if a conversation's better done face-to-face, he forgoes the written word, as David Ogilvy did.
But his latest hack is putting an inquiry-directing autoresponder up, a "If you're interested in this, this, or this, here are the people to talk to" kind of thing.
Why? As Holmes explained:
I don't want to become a switchboard for my company, but I found I was doing that. I was spending a lot of time on these things that I didn't need to rewrite every time, so I'm just going to put this in front of people so they can go and chase down and be self-empowered. Some people might call that douchey, but I just think it's getting people in touch with the right thing. Hopefully I do that in a way that doesn't turn people off, but I don't want to spend my life being a switchboard operator.
Holmes's case, then, crystalizes the inbox quandary: We all have an immense number of demands heaped upon us. And with this Internet thing, we're more accessible to the world than we maybe realize. And if we have a reputation for being really nice—like, say, Hoey, Eisenberg, or Holmes—then the world will want all sorts of things from us. And will probably be pinging us to "pick our brains" soon.