The body of the email was blank, all its content squeezed into one breathless subject line: We had a whole bunch of little earthquakes through the night we might have to evacuate .
I hovered my mouse over the sender, a man named Bruce. His icon, a photo of a poorly docked sailboat, didn’t give me any clues, and neither did his no-nonsense bio: “I’m retired.” I didn’t know any Bruces, retired or not. I figured Bruce’s message was a goof—one of many that have found their way to me because my email address is volcanoes at gmail dot com.
Nearly every time I give a stranger my email address, I have the same conversation. “Volcanoes . . . at gmail?” cashiers ask, typing it into their store’s computer system to email me a receipt. “How’d you get that? ”
“Well,” I say, “when I chose a Gmail handle in 2004, I thought volcanoes were pretty cool.”
That’s a half-truth. The full truth is too long-winded for the kind of small talk you’re expected to make with strangers. In 2004, the convention was to use a handle, not your full name, lest the kidnappers your parents warned you about somehow found you through the web. I had a history of choosing decidedly uncool screen names—I was SuGaRHuNNi00 for three years, then aprilstAr1111, after a Something Corporate song. (I thought it was really clever to capitalize the A because it looked more like a star.)
So when my exclusive Gmail invite came during the first weeks of my senior year, I saw a chance to reinvent myself: A single word would be minimalist, sophisticated—reflective of my new personal brand. I landed on “volcanoes” from a Damien Rice song; I liked that volcanoes were also destructive and mysterious, yet beautiful. (Just like me, obviously. ) I wish I had a better story, like that I studied volcanology in my spare time, or was inspired after summiting Cotopaxi. I also wish I’d just grabbed my own name, or, at the very least, that I could go back in time and tell myself to use a more professional email address for my college applications.
The unexpected silver lining to owning [email protected] are emails from strangers like Bruce. Someone named Mariam once sent me photos of volcanoes, and Marisia snapped a photo of a trifold adorned with volcano pictures. Let me know what you think :D, she wrote. I’ve never been sure if these emails were actually meant for me—sending a volcano picture to [email protected] just for kicks seems like something I would’ve done as a bored middle-schooler.
The only time I ever responded to a volcanoes email, it was apparent that the sender, John, had just goofed:
Subject : Where do you go to watch volcanic news. Is there a sight dedicated to it you like. I think one went off or is going to in Columbia or something
Body of email : <blank>
volcanoes: personally, I enjoy volcanoes.com.
John: Who is this
John: Did I send you an email somehow
John: I was Emailing someone else and you reply to it. How did you get it
volcanoes: if you email one volcano it goes to all the volcanoes
It seems like John just had volcanoes on the brain when filling in the “mail to” box of his email. But I wonder if other emails I’ve gotten that are more personal—like one from a woman who was very worried about its intended recipient’s pregnancy and high blood pressure—were meant for [email protected], or [email protected] (I reached out to both, but neither responded.)
Bruce’s email about the earthquakes was harder to figure out. Shouldn’t he have emailed [email protected] ? I imagined the terror of “a whole bunch of little earthquakes,” and wondered where he was; I googled recent earthquakes, but no news stories indicated any unusual strings of earthquakes that would trigger an evacuation. I also Googled Bruce’s full name, which led me to a nursing professor’s faculty profile, an obituary, and a murder trial.
A couple of days later, videos of a Hawaiian volcanic eruption dominated my Twitter feed. The ground around Kilauea cracked open with viscous red lava, oozing through neighborhood streets and backyards. I immediately thought of Bruce. I wrote to him saying I wasn’t sure his email was meant for me, but that I guessed he lived on the Big Island and hoped he was okay.
Bruce’s response came five hours later: We’re right on the edge everything is pretty good so far lot of solvers lawn helicopters Lonnie vacuolation where’s it’s in mornings . The first bit was straightforward enough, but I had trouble deciphering the rest. “Vacuolation” looks like an obvious typo for evacuation; a friend theorized that “solvers” could be autocorrect for sulphur, and “Lonnie” for Leilani Estates.
What a strange place the internet is, where we can reach a stranger by the slip of a key or the omission of a character, or get their mail. My husband has been on the other side of errant messages: Emails meant for him have gone to a stranger whose address is two characters off from his. Our friend M recently sent a wedding invitation to that stranger and me, and when I corrected him, he told us he’d been “pouring his heart out” to that stranger for years: “ It's been so cathartic—I would write and write and N would just listen. He never judged, just listened quietly.”
When I searched my email for messages sent to the misspelled address, I was horrified to discover I have gotten my own husband’s email wrong. The only time the other person responded was in 2011, thirteen emails into a long thread offering our friend feedback on a start-up idea. It said, simply: “Don’t know any of you, please get me off this email.” Part of me wants to send him a message apologizing for all the errant emails he’s received over the last decade, but that would be just another unwanted message.
I started asking people for their stories about accidental emails, and have heard so many tales that it’s a wonder any of our emails get to their intended recipients. A common, unsurprising way wires get crossed is when intended recipient and actual recipient share a name. I’ve gotten emails and even a paycheck for another writer named Jane Hu; confusingly, we went to the same university for graduate school, and we’ve struck up a rapport as a result of the messages we’ve gotten for one another.
My friend Ian says his family has accidentally invited a British man with his same name to family gatherings, but that the other Ian has politely declined; on the flip, Kate says she’s received children’s birthday invitations meant for British Kate. Sarah got added to a lease in Australia meant for another Sarah, and got invited to another Sarah’s birthday party. Mike, whose email came from a nickname his students gave him, has gotten so many emails meant for other people that he knows the usual players: a dermatologist, a Seattle psychologist who moved to Sierra Leone, a Bay Area counselor. “I would respond with, I think you wanted Francis, I’ve cc’d him, or So, I make games and live in Guatemala, I’m not a doctor; who were you trying to invite to your party? Was it David or Francis? I have a list of emails to people to forward correspondence to,” he says.
Erin says she’s been treated to “little snippets” of folks with a similar name to her as a result of her email address. She had more foresight than me and snagged her first initial plus last name, so she’s received emails for other E. Lastnames. “Elizabeth in Georgia keeps signing me up for Republican email lists, and I also get her phone bill and consequently know her address,” says Erin. “Emily in New York orders a lot of clothes and Sephora, and also volunteers at the library. And Earl must drive a truck, because I regularly get emails that his shower is ready at various TA truck stops.”
Beyond the recipient’s handle, the email server itself can also be misspelled. Aly Khalifa found this out the hard way when his website, Gamil.com, kept crashing from the scores of people trying to check their Gmail messages. Reporter Ryan Teague Beckwith, who wrote about Khalifa’s Gamil site for the Raleigh News and Observer in 2006, stumbled upon the story when he was talking with Khalifa for a different story. “I had assumed his gamil.com address was a typo,” he said. Beckwith reported that Khalifa was getting an extra 300,000 monthly visitors to his site, prompting his Internet provider to raise his fees; he began to use the site to advertise his own goods, as well as promote local businesses and even a local pit bull shelter.
As for my accidental correspondent Bruce, I wrote him back asking for more news from “right on the edge,” but never heard back. I hope he evacuated before new fissures opened up in Leilani Estates. I like to imagine he’s safe, and has a comfortable place to stay. Most of all, I hope the rightful recipient of the emails Bruce sent me knows he’s okay, too.