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Opinion/Ideas

Accidental voyeurs

E-mail has created a new social possibility: immersion, against your will, in the life of a complete stranger

Email|Print| Text size + By Carolyn Y. Johnson
November 11, 2007

WHEN JIM BECKER, a systems engineer who lives in Maryland, first started receiving "Dear Mom" e-mails from a stranger, he just ignored them.

But the chatty messages full of personal details began to pile up, so Becker tried to do the right thing - he wrote back to let the sender know that she had the wrong e-mail address.

She replied: "Hey Mom, this guy keeps writing to me saying he's getting your e-mail!"

In an age of exhibitionist blogs and no-holds-barred social networks, the kind of information Becker received seems almost innocuous: the details of a stranger's life, kids, and relationship with her mother. There were no Social Security numbers or credit card information, no medical files or incriminating family secrets.

But it highlights a new social experience that becomes more common as people conduct more of their lives via e-mail: accidental immersion in the life of a complete stranger. The occasional wrong number or misdelivered letter has been a fact of life for a century. Yet now, as people come to increasingly trust e-mail, technical glitches and typos are creating a new, unsolicited kind of human connection. Just by opening his mailbox, Becker was exposed to a woman's entire relationship with her mother. Others find break-up e-mails from girlfriends they've never met, bank notices that aren't theirs, or job offers for careers they've never considered. And I myself experienced this new kind of relationship when I started getting e-mail aimed at other Carolyn Johnsons - notes from their college-aged kids or e-mails about a spiritual life that was very different from my own.

"We focus on identity theft and that's an important issue," said Nathan Ensmenger, a historian of technology at the University of Pennsylvania. "Another interesting thing is that these communications technologies can create a kind of {hellip} inadvertent intimacy."

Mistaken identity is not a new concept - it has produced the engine for Shakespearean plays and countless novels. But the Internet adds another layer of confusion - and it systemizes the mistake. While it's common to get a call for the wrong number, it's not very likely the caller would continue talking, divulging one detail after another, and then call back the next day.

Identity is one of the central issues facing the Internet today. Anonymity was built into its architecture, and this allows for the free flow of ideas and dissenting opinions from people across the world. But the lack of accountability on the Internet opens the door to fraud, identity theft, character attacks, and the rapid spread of rumors or false information. All of this comes from fact that there may be no easy way to know who truly lies behind a particular e-mail account, MySpace page, or blog.

"There's a blessing and a curse," said John Clippinger, a senior fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

When a mistake occurs, it is often up to the individuals sitting at the keyboards to unravel the problem themselves. Sometimes it's just a one-off error - a confirmation for car insurance that doesn't belong to you that goes straight into the trash. Other times it's an ongoing saga - the inbox becomes a portal into a different person's life, revealing everything from what year they graduated from dental school to their kinky fetishes.

For me, it was mundane yet intimate material that started with a few e-mails from a family member - then an e-mail about a consulting job, bank account information, a doctor's referral, and more.

My life had become enmeshed with a digital doppelganger, and I didn't know how to make it stop.

With a relatively common name like Carolyn Johnson, I get digitally confused with other people at least once a month. I recently got invited to view some Pumpkin Patch photos from a woman named Connie I've never met. Last November I got a "family update" e-mail that included a poignant eulogy for Buster - a beloved dog who was laid to the rest on the farm and who was loved despite his "mannerisms and idiosyncrasies," whatever those might have been. In May, I was lucky enough to receive an e-mail welcoming me to a program in regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania - without even applying.

At times I e-mailed the people who were writing to me; I rarely got a response. But this summer, I began getting dozens of e-mails a week for a person in England with a very similar e-mail address.

I opened my box each day to find e-mails from her job search, her husband, her dearest friends facing their own life challenges, her party invitations, and - most disturbingly - her financial consultants. I let the other "me" know that I was receiving the e-mails and e-mailed some of the senders to alert them, too. The e-mail stream continued, and the events of my digital doppelganger's life began to intertwine with my own - an e-mail headed "Trip to Romania" from her husband sitting next to my friend's e-mail about our dinner plans that night. An e-mail about incorporating a company right next to my dad's message describing his love of bird decoys.

Already, I'm used to living a fairly confessional existence. I use social networks such as Facebook and MySpace, and it doesn't feel strange to know the political views, or favorite bands and movies, of people I barely know. I can name off the top of my head at least a dozen people whom I may have met only once or twice and yet I can describe their nuanced positions on marriage, or their favorite foods, or their opinion of lousy roommates.

Even so, it felt completely different when the voyeurism was unintentional. My alter ego never meant for her e-mails to show up in my inbox, and I never wanted to know the name of her husband, her sons, the fact that she is an Apple customer. I found it profoundly awkward to receive not just one, but a whole narrative arc of e-mails from a stranger's friends, family, and colleagues. Some days I received more e-mails for her than I did for myself.

The repercussions of mistyping an e-mail address run the gamut from alienating to absurd. When Tina Medin of Waltham received an e-mail from an acquaintance in Florida, she was shocked to open attachments that showed "sexual activities I'd only heard about but never actually seen," she told me in an e-mail.

She told me she wrote back: "I feel like I know you so much better now."

Sometimes, however, accidental intimacy can lead to an actual friendship of sorts.

Martin Bodek, an information technology manager from New Jersey, found himself unexpectedly tapped into a dental school alumni network, receiving electronic receipts for purchases that were not his.

"Hi, I'm Martin Bodek. So are you," he recalled telling a Brooklyn dentist named Martin Bodek. The two discovered they had a common ancestor and keep in touch - every once in a while Bodek (the non-dentist) forwards some misdirected e-mail to the other.

The list of crossed wires goes on. One woman, an actress and musician, said she started receiving medical records from patients who thought she was a doctor. A Boston man got a receipt from a person who appeared to be a prostitute, in addition to numerous e-mails from women who were not his mother and not his girlfriends.

While it may seem preposterous to think of accidentally receiving someone else's e-mail as the basis for a relationship, that's precisely what it is. There is the miscommunication as people attempt to figure out the problem and work through it. There are attempts to get a third party, like an e-mail provider, to step in and intervene. There is the perverse, passive-aggressive feeling that if you somehow communicate just how much you are finding out about a person, they might give up their e-mail address or take the problem more seriously and respond to you.

For me, the situation went on for weeks. My pleas to customer support went unanswered. I posted on bulletin boards asking for help and was told that what was happening was not technologically possible.

Eventually, I spoke to the other me - a woman with a pleasant voice a five-hour time difference away.

"Hi - this is Carolyn Johnson," I told her, then awkwardly explained about the volume of e-mail I had received. I learned that my efforts to automatically forward the e-mails to her and to some of her most frequent correspondents, such as - I hesitated to call her husband, Steve, by name - had apparently not worked.

She seemed taken aback. I don't think she realized how much I had been receiving. Early on, I had tried to convey this, but still I felt guilty for resorting to deleting the e-mails instead of constantly reminding her.

"Do you hate me?" I asked her.

She claimed no, but I could hear an edge in her voice. We resolved to find a solution.

But perhaps the oddest thing about accidental intimacy is the end. After customer support intervened and the problem was fixed, my weeks of receiving her e-mail came to an abrupt halt. My inbox was just for me - and for the occasional other Carolyn Johnsons.

I had spent weeks complaining to friends that I knew way too much about a stranger. I was sick of receiving e-mails about her son's a cappella group. But the virtual silence felt a little empty, and a little weird, too. We had been thrust together in this one-sided relationship that made me closer to her than to some of the people who are my "friends" online.

And the relationship, it turns out, is not entirely over. I've noticed a few times that the other me is online, available for a chat over an instant messaging program linked to my e-mail. One of my social networks, LinkedIn, suggests that I know this other person and asks me if I would like to connect with her. I don't get her e-mail any more, but our inboxes aren't ready to break up for good.

"When I tried to respond to your message," she wrote recently, "the answer popped up in my inbox."

Carolyn Y. Johnson is a member of the Globe staff. She can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.

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