Can somebody have too many e-mail addresses? Silly question, really. Like asking if Bill Gates can have too much money. Personally, over the last year. I've made a hobby of amassing e-mail addresses the way I used to hoard football cards. At the last count, I had five.

It's odd, when Britain's phone number capacity is so stretched that we're limbering up for another change in area codes, that e-mail addresses should be so easy to amass. This began when somebody came up with the wheeze of setting up a website that let people register for e-mail addresses; the idea being that the company would have so many regular hits from the same people that it could sell advertising. This is all fine on the face of it. But there are a couple of snags. The first, clearly, is that you need access to a web browser, which you can normally only have through an (paid-for) account with a service provider, or by shelling out for time in a cybercafe. The second is that you have to put up with having an advert for the website tacked onto the end of every message you send. The advantage is that you can pick up your messages anywhere in the world without having to faff around with telnet protocols (which, I'm prepared to confess, have always stumped me).

There are a number of these services around and, on the face of it, you can't imagine, given the limitations, that the uptake would be that high (apart from pathological anoraks like me, obviously) but, again, never imagine the impact of "Free". Not only does one national newspaper's picture desk (not ours, I hasten to add) have a Hotmail address but The Department of Environment has surpassed that by issuing all its staff with free email addresses. Let it not be said that John Prescott's flushing taxpayers' cash down the drain on expensive IT projects.

My hope is that e-mail addresses will go the way of telephone numbers, and when the system becomes completely saturated, I'll be able to flog off my spares for a colossal profit. This may sound a bit of a far-fetched idea, but I once sent a message to what I hoped was a fictitious address to see how long it would take to be bounced back to me (a bit like deliberately dialling the wrong number) and I never saw it again. I can only assume it found a home or is still wandering the net waiting for somebody to claim that address as their own.

Ultimately, though, when society breaks down and we have to choose between Kevin Costner lookalikes wandering the post-apocalyptic landscape and e-mail (the whole point of the Internet's hierarchy - or lack of it - is to survive a nuclear attack), I have a horrible feeling there will be plenty of people, sitting atop piles of smoking rubble with a laptop and a mobile phone, who won't really notice the difference to their lives.

The most well-known and popular sites for free e-mail addresses