“I’ve been sharing my inbox with a stranger who doesn’t even know it.” “I’ve been sharing my inbox with a stranger who doesn’t even know it.”
For the past few years I have had an email doppelganger.
I’ve been sharing my inbox with a stranger who doesn’t even know it. I receive emails meant for another person with the same name as me a few times a month, and I’ve never been sure what to do with them.
When you see one email that you know nothing about, you worry about identity theft or fraudsters. But when the emails keep coming, there’s something else at play. And it’s not just other people getting email addresses incorrect – my doppelganger can’t seem to remember his own address.
I know a fair bit about him. He’s an English bloke who likes caravans, has a gas stove that plays up and has recently got into e-books.
I had thought I had an uncommon name, but my English doppelganger isn’t my only one. There was a guy in Queensland, and more strangely, receipts for church donations from a Leighton King – a churchgoing American with poor typing skills.
We worry about online privacy and metadata, but with human error, there is so much personal information that goes astray.
Last week I got an email with my English doppelganger’s home address. I have thought about writing him an old-fashioned letter. But what would I say? Return to sender
You have to feel for people with common names. There are only so many permutations of John Smith available for email addresses. With so little defining information contained in an address – and no human postmaster checking the details – lost emails are bound to happen.
US technology ethicist David Polgar knows the feeling.
“As it happens, I just received an email today that was meant for another David Polgar,” he replied when I emailed him this week. “The problem of receiving emails meant for someone else is going to grow in the next couple of years as email addresses become more publicly available.”
For misdirected emails, Polgar says it is best to stick to the “return to sender” philosophy of the postal service.
“If you receive an email accidentally, your obligation is to reply back to the sender and indicate that they have the wrong person. You do not have an obligation to find the right person, especially since you might make a mistake.” A cautionary tale
Stray emails are even more of a problem for people who only use their first initial for their email, instead of a first name.
Carla Bissett, of Maroubra, has a host of doppelgangers – Cheryl, Cheri, Chad, Collette, Chris, Christopher, Cate, Conrad and Carol – using the account she set up years ago using her first initial, chosen to protect her privacy and remain gender neutral.
“It’s a cautionary tale,” she says.
She knows a lot of personal details about a host of strangers. One of her most regular doppelgangers is an American woman called Cheri.
“I know everything about her. I even have the blueprints for her bathroom,” she says.
One Valentine’s Day a few years ago, Bissett received an email from a US online dating site.
“Cate had signed up for eHarmony,” she says. “It was so sad when I realised the date. She’d obviously thought, ‘I’m going to take matters into my own hands and sign up for eHarmony’ and then she put the wrong email address in.”
Bissett returns emails to the sender if it’s personal, and she has exchanged emails with a few of her doppelgangers if she’s found out their correct address.
“Sometimes they want to talk about genealogy. One tried to be friends and said ‘Oh, I know some Bissetts in Australia’, but I wasn’t interested.” First contact – or not
So what should I do about my email doppelganger? I have no way of working out what his real email address actually is. Most of the emails are from do-not-reply addresses so I can’t return them to the sender.
I’ve thought a lot about getting in touch with a letter, but that seems too familiar since our relationship (if you can even call it that) is so one-sided.
Polgar says even though people with the same name often know of each other’s existence online, it still seems weird to get in touch.
“I have thought about reaching out to another David Polgar, since he comes up often in Google searches. I know who he is, and I can assume that he knows who I am,” he says. “I worry that reaching out would seem too creepy. The same goes for your letter. It would shatter the fiction that both parties don’t know the other exists.”
But the power of the internet can connect strangers in strange, unpredictable ways.
In 2000, comedian Dave Gorman aimed to meet 54 Dave Gormans as a bet with his housemate. He turned the quest into a stage show and book. He’s now met more than 100 of his namesakes from all over the world.
Last month, New York-based Buzzfeed journalist Matt Stopera became a minor celebrity in China after he visited the man who had inadvertently bought his stolen iPhone. Chinese social media users helped track the identity of the mysterious Chinese man through the pictures that had started to appear on Stopera’s photostream. The pair were swamped by fans and photographers during his visit and a strong cross-cultural bromance bloomed, despite the language difficulties.
Would it be like that if I sent a letter to my email doppelganger? Probably not. I’d be surprised if I heard back. I probably wouldn’t write back to a stranger who wrote to me. We definitely wouldn’t be friends – we have nothing in common besides a name.
So things will probably go on as they have, with me sharing my inbox with a stranger who doesn’t even know it, and perhaps my doppelganger wondering where all his emails go. I’ll never know. Tips for avoiding an email doppelganger Technology ethicist David Polgar suggests not using a full stop in your email address – they confuse people. “They create too many opportunities to enter the wrong email address,” he says.If you have a common name, choose a smaller email provider. “They may have more availability with a first name-last name combination,” Polgar says.Be careful when typing your address, especially when signing up for newsletters. For every stray email you get, there’s a chance you’re sending them as well.
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