Photo by Dennis Skley; CC, click on image for license and information.

 

Someone has been using my email address.

First, she registered it as the recovery address for another account she created, so I was notified about that account. Then she used my email address to register for FIOS (an Internet, cable, and telephone service provider), sign-up and make purchases on Groupon (which she then cancelled), and make a purchase for Proactiv. I ignored the recovery email—it actually went to my Spam folder—and deleted the FIOS installation notice, but when the Groupon emails started showing up I was sufficiently annoyed to feel that I needed to do something. I logged in to look for contact information, and finding none (but seeing that there was a credit card linked to the account) reached out to Groupon to ask them to cancel the account. After some back and forth, they complied. When the Proactiv shipping confirmation showed up, I was hopeful I would find a phone number since companies routinely collect this information for shipping, so I logged in and and was able to get a name and cell phone number. I sent a text message explaining that I was getting all of her order information—as well as access to her credit card, home address, and telephone number—because she was using my email address and asked her to please update her information. The reply I got was "Ok." Since then I've gotten email digests from various job boards but the order confirmations have largely stopped. I unsubscribed from the job boards, and then her rent receipt appeared in my inbox. Thinking that was sufficiently important for her to want a copy, I reached out again and asked if she would like me to forward it somewhere. She didn't—but she apologized and said she was taking active steps to update her address. That was the last I heard from her.

This isn't the first time this has happened. I've been accidentally invited to a baby shower in Florida, received someone else's travel confirmation, and received someone's nursing school registration package. Each experience felt a little like an intrusion due to the personal nature of the correspondence. These messages weren't spam; they had a purpose for an intended individual. Email addresses represent a vital part of our online identity. People may have multiple addresses to serve the needs of different aspects of their lives: a personal account to keep in touch with friends and for daily digests, a more professional account that may be tied to job searches and maintaining industry contacts, and an account for more clandestine online activities or online shopping or a place to send the spam that's generated when you become a member of almost any website today. (These personal accounts are, of course, separate from any work email accounts which are governed by their own set of rules and regulations as mandated by company policies.) Email addresses may be explicitly linked to us by using our name or they may cloak us in varying degrees of anonymity, again depending on how we want to use them online. Given the large role email plays in our our online transactions, it can be unsettling when it seems like one of our associated identities has been commandeered by someone else.

It's a common critique of the digital experience that people say and do things they wouldn't necessarily do in a face-to-face encounter. Offline we have a singular physical presence. We're bound by time and place. We have to physically retire from an interaction to remove ourselves from the transaction of the relationship. But online we can fragment our personalities. Coupled with the psychological and physical distance afforded by online interactions and we be disinhibited—even when our names are attached. We see this in social media frequently: People may try to maintain certain contacts within Facebook versus Instagram versus Twitter. And on each network may interact with others differently depending on the platform. And we have seen that even when their names or identities are available, people over share on Facebook, revealing personal details about their lives; people can be moved to provide support online when they might not do so offline; or people can be rude, threatening, and critical under the cloak of anonymity (or perceived anonymity) offered by the web and the distance it offers from the actual event. Disinhibition can be fueled by the immediacy of the interaction—it's easy to get caught up in the heat of the moment and be driven by emotions. A post on social media appears in friends' feeds almost instantly, for example. And given that we are primed to respond in these contexts, you can be assured that someone may Like, comment, or reply, validating your statement through acknowledgment.

In the asynchronous context of email, disinhibition can be challenged depending on the identity engaged. Because we don't have to interact in real time, we can essentially walk away and consider our responses. We don't have to cope with the influx of information in real time or shape a response in real time. And with the addition of time, disinhibition may deteriorate. Have you ever gotten an email that made you angry or upset? Did you take a moment and collect yourself before responding? Walk away—figuratively or literally—and come back to it? One of the primary rules of work email communication is that you should never respond angrily. Instead, you should take a moment to collect yourself and plan your response. This is preferred path because it helps preserve your offline identity, which is definitely linked to your email persona in this context. The same may be true depending on the personal email persona that has been engaged. If there is a clear link to the physical offline body, disinhibition may be more closely governed than if the account has a protective layer of anonymity.

This realm of asynchronous communication is akin to our living rooms. They're private spaces that others are invited into. You select who enters your inbox, whether that's by opting-in for a newsletter or sharing your email address with a friend or colleague. You choose the content you want to see and prioritize—anything else is spam, and can be marked as such so you don't have to deal with it. So when information starts to appear that you didn't invite, and it's clearly of a personal nature, it's as if someone has barged into your living room uninvited and sat down next to you on the sofa.

In the digital space where immediacy is key, email may be one of the last places where we can exercise control over our interactions. How do you deal with these sorts of intrusions?

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