The wise old man of the Web

Ever wish your Webmaster could answer your every question?

Webmaster Bill McLain has been asked all kinds of questions as the recipient of hundreds of e-mails that pour into Xerox's Web site every week: whether animals can be gay, whether a pumpkin is a fruit or vegetable, and what the difference is between a hick and a redneck. Most sites would balk at responding to such bizarre requests. His advice: answer them.

McLain has become an online urban legend because he'll field any query under the sun. Net heads have dubbed the 66-year-old Webmaster "the Wise Old Man of the Web". When he started the job four years ago, rather reluctantly after a long career as a technical writer, he was amused when one of the e-mails he received wasn't a question about copiers, but a request for the lyrics to "Kumbaya". Out of courtesy, McLain responded.

The floodgates opened: do people who are born blind see in their dreams? Which animals besides humans mate face-to-face? Why do they call the baseball warmup area a bullpen? McLain took up the challenge. He began to research answers to such questions using books, encyclopedias, personal interviews and the Internet.

McLain's philosophy is that every e-mail deserves a response. These days he has three people working for him answering mail. His team sometimes receives up to 1000 messages per day.

Send a message, get a reply

McLain is serious about the importance of returning e-mail. "It's just a matter of courtesy," he says. "If you send a message, you should get a reply."

Instead of courting customers, many companies have set up e-mail boxes that are more like roach motels: the e-mail checks in, but it doesn't check out. On the receiving end sit today's Webmasters, who are often a customer's only contact with a company.

McLain's approach has helped generate measurable sales for Xerox. And after word-of-mouth and media reports spread, he started fielding calls from other companies trying to figure out how to manage their e-mail.

McLain tries to infuse his responses with humour. Once he was asked, "When God sneezes, what do you say?" McLain replied, "Because God does not get colds or flu and is not bothered with living in a dusty environment, he doesn't sneeze, so I would never have to say anything. However, if he were to sneeze, I'd probably say, 'Hope you're not coming down with something.'"

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