"Because of the large volume of email received, the president cannot personally respond to each message. However, the White House staff considers and reports citizen ideas and concerns."
The first sentence is amusing in that someone at the White House apparently believes that in this global society of ours there lives an individual who possesses sufficient intellectual wherewithal to send an email but not enough to understand that the leader of the free world cannot answer all of his.
The second sentence reads as though it were written by a certain former president known for his semantic slipperiness. It suggests that email sent to this address will be read by White House staff and perhaps passed along to the president . . . although it actually says no such thing.
Grown-ups know, of course, that John Hinckley has a better chance of reaching the Oval Office than does an email sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Yet the White House, much like large corporations and image-conscious celebrities, perceives a need to maintain the fiction of an always-open two-way communications channel called email.
In the olden days, citizens wrote to the president using pen, paper, perhaps a typewriter and the occasional crayon. President Bush Version 1.0 was actually famous for scratching out countless longhand notes.
One reason his son can't personally answer all of today's presidential email is that email@example.com reportedly receives 15,000 messages every day. They are not all from concerned citizens. A healthy chunk is spam, both the garden variety endured by all of us and its close cousin: politically orchestrated, often-automated, mass emailings that are roughly equivalent to a cacophony of honking horns in a traffic jam. We're talking about a bunch of noise that is pretty darn useless for any purpose other than creating the impression of openness.
To its credit, the White House has launched an alternative - White House Web Mail - that it says is designed to do a bit better by weeding out the political spam. Whether that's really the motive is being questioned by some.
The Web Mail form won't win any design prizes . . . or friends. The thing has far too many required fields, each of which constitutes a potential barrier for the sender, in particular one unfamiliar with such forms. For example, the site originally rejected my submission because I had failed to select "Mr" from a drop-down menu of courtesy titles preceding my name.
Users are not only asked to declare the topic of their correspondence from a limited variety of choices, but also to state upfront whether their comments will support or oppose the president's position on whatever that topic may be. One need not be a cynical journalist to wonder if the categorisation has any bearing on the likelihood of getting a reply.
All in all, the form seeks far more personal information than required to simply ascertain whether the sender is a human being and not an automatic email-generating program.
So here's what I wrote to the president using the new system:
"Dear President Bush: While I understand the need to filter out all the junk that tries to pass as legitimate email to your office, this new system is far too complex and cumbersome. You'd do well to order a simplification before anyone starts to think you don't really want to hear from us."
Haven't gotten a reply.
Comments of any kind, should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.