Recently, I received an email from someone who thought they were getting in touch with Jen Doll. I am Jen Doll. But I was not the Jen Doll this emailer was looking for.
Jen Doll may not seem like a common name, but there are several other Jen Dolls who live across the country, one of whom actually goes to my dentist in New York City. There's another one who lives in California. There's one who lives in Michigan (I think). There's one who's a baby photographer. And there's the one this recent email was for. The sender appeared to be a doctor, I gleaned from the signature line. The rest of the email was incomprehensible, a string of words that meant nothing to me — because the email was not intended for me. I deleted it and forgot about it.
Then it happened again. And again. The notes included inside jokes, thanks for a lovely visit, instructions to have a good first day at work, tips on where to get the best lamb in town, suggested courses to take, even pictures. The other Jen Doll was supposed to pick up free samples of a new medication (uh oh). A later email confirmed she had, and I breathed a sigh of relief, concern about everyone else's health being one of my top priorities.
I didn't know what to do. So I did nothing, leaving the emails in my inbox, just sitting there. I didn't want to delete them; what if the other Jen Doll came looking for them? People told me to reach out to the sender, but it felt too awkward to figure out what to say. I'd be calling him on his mistake, after all. At the same time, I felt guilty, and then annoyed that I felt bad. Was it my duty to inform him that he'd gotten the wrong person? I tried to rationalize. Wasn't it really his fault in the first place, either because he didn't check the email address, or because the recipient had given him the wrong address to start with? Can't people confirm these things before pressing send? Is nothing good and right and whole in this world?
I call this conundrum a case of digital misidentity. (Maybe it's happened to you?) Because if this Jen Doll is getting emails meant for another Jen Doll, you can be sure that Sarah Brown is getting emails for numerous other Sarah Browns.
"I have a Gmail folder called Other Sarah Browns where I keep all of these," one Sarah Brown told me. "By now I can easily identify the mail for the four main Sarah Browns (one in Oregon, one in Georgia, one in England, and one in Scotland), and I know so much about their lives it feels illegal. One of the OSBs makes a lot of poor decisions, like joining f--kbuddy.net at 2 a.m. but not understanding how to change her password. One OSB ordered $99.99 worth of pencils from Amazon. One ordered the same depressing thing from Dominos (Philly cheesesteak pizza) every night at 9 p.m."
My Sarah Brown shares the "truly insane" messages on Twitter, as does Danielle Henderson, who gets notes for Danielle Hendersons in three countries, "everything from car maintenance notices (time to change your fluids!), Sephora receipts, school notices, and job application responses. I always know when one of the Danielle Hendersons is late for work," she says, "because I get her automated time clock alerts that tell her how many times she was late every week." When an email came in for the wrong Danielle Henderson to go on a second interview at a fancy university, my Danielle Henderson did respond, telling the emailer they should reach out by phone. Jobs require responses, and so do funerals: When another commonly named friend of mine found herself the mistaken recipient of an email about a funeral, she wrote back, saying the message had reached the wrong person and that she was sorry for their loss.
Erin McCarthy has gotten emails from a realtor looking for late rent, an engagement ring designer, a trainer, and "one Erin McCarthy's Aunt Mimi trying to send her a greeting card from Blue Mountain. Once, my email address somehow got into the newsletter of romance novelist Erin McCarthy, and I got a whole bunch of entries for a contest she was running," she says. (Her Twitter bio reads "Not the Erin McCarthy who writes romance novels." She gets that McCarthy's followers anyway.) "I solved the mystery by emailing the people who had entered the contest, then tweeted at Erin, who apologized and sent out a correction," she explains. "I forwarded her all of the entries (I think there were 50 or 60)." Which seems like a lot of work! The other Erin McCarthy should say thanks.
These messages can be a funny sort of reminder of how much we all have in common, how similar humans and their lives can be. Sure, we all order different things at Dominoes ("I love getting the Domino's pizza order receipts from one of the Danielle Hendersons; homegirl really loves a fully loaded pie," says Henderson) but maybe we're more similar than we'd like to imagine. "Weirdly, one OSB had a baby the same week I did," says Brown. "We both had a boy. Those were some weird emails to read in a sleep-deprived fugue. I was like, 'Wait, do I have an Aunt Nancy?'"
Of course, there can also be some frustration when those we share a name with seem to be doing better than we are, the equivalent of someone else with your name bogarting your Google results. One Regan Hofmann gets emails meant for another Regan Hofmann who "is a prominent AIDS activist, so a lot of the messages I get that are meant for her are about how inspirational her life story is, or how something she said or wrote really touched a nerve with the sender. It's always VERY easy to tell they are not for me, as I've never inspired anyone in my life."
She adds, "I feel horrifically guilty when I get them by mistake. I always respond because imagine if you sent a heartfelt letter to someone you didn't know and got nothing but radio silence back? I apologize to the writer when I respond, and let them know they've got me mistaken for someone else. They're usually super embarrassed, and then I'm embarrassed, and the cycle continues."
But I don't hate it, entirely. There's a visceral thrill at seeing into someone's life, especially when the messages are amusing, or give us that satisfying infusion of schadenfreude. It's nice to imagine walking in someone else's recently ordered Zappos purchase for a day, especially when they are shoes we would never consider donning ourselves. And it's an impermanent, comfortable way to have a sliding doors moment, to see, however tangentially, that we could all be another one of us. It's bittersweet, all of these lives laid out before us in the utter mundanity of a mistaken email.
"There's something kind of heartening about that, but also sort of lonely," says Richard Lawson, who regularly gets emails meant for other Lawsons — including one for a big family reunion (for another Lawson family) in Arizona. " As easy as it is to be connected to one another these days, one simple typo can mean you shoot straight past them and into a stranger's life." And then you have to do something about it — or face the consequences. As McCarthy says, "I keep getting alerts about the Aunt Mimi greeting card, but that one I don't know how to fix, and I feel a little sad about that. Sorry, Aunt Mimi. :("
"It makes the world seem smaller in a good way," says Henderson. "But it also freaks me out that someone could receive sensitive information about ME just because our parents were not terribly original, you know?"
Seriously, tell that to the other Jen Doll.