I got the email address email@example.com back in 1995. Nobody else had ever had it, and nobody but me had that address up until some time in 2002 when I finally canceled my MindSpring account. During that time, I think I received email intended for just about every woman named Cynthia who had an Earthlink, MindSpring, or Pipeline account. Throw in more from MindSpring users to someone named Cynthia on another system—they forgot to put in the domain name and it came to me by default. It wasn’t usually a big deal—I replied to the sender and they’d correct the problem. I did have trouble with somebody who kept insisting that he’d been promised the address firstname.lastname@example.org for his girlfriend when he opened his account and wanted to know why I was getting her mail, but he was a wacko.
I didn’t get angry or annoyed with these folks—not at first, anyway. I just sent back a friendly note explaining their error. I received several very nice love letters, and wrote back to the gentlemen thanking them but explaining that I hesitated to accept their proposals as we hadn’t even been introduced! I generally got a rather sheepish reply. One young man asked if I thought the letter would be okay to send to his sweetie. Apparently, he’d really sweated over it as the first love letter he’d ever written (and I told him it was beautiful, of course).
The weirdo who decided I was getting his girlfriend’s email out of spite or something was an oddity. One family did something funky with their nicknames in Eudora Light and I kept getting cc’d on everything they sent to some of their friends—I did get a little bit touchy after the 15th email that kept coming after I sent them several emails asking them to check their address books, and even explaining how to do it—and then they wanted to know why I was reading their email! Actually, that has happened twice—the first time was while I still worked at MindSpring, though, and I finally called that family up and walked them through fixing the address book. One gal had my email address in the headers of her newsgroup program for a while after transitioning from Pipeline—I don’t know if she’d been email@example.com before, but I got quite a few email replies to her newsgroup posts. Again, I just sent back a polite note letting the folks know they should get a corrected address from her or just reply in the newsgroup. For several years another woman repeatedly forgot that her email address included her last initial, and kept giving my address as a contact point for her band. After about the third time that I wrote explaining to her that potential bookings would be lost if she didn’t stop, she got angry because I wouldn’t simply act as her secretary and send along anything that looked like it might be hers.
As time went on, I received more and more messages with dire warnings at the bottom that the included information was only for the intended recipient, and insisting that if that wasn’t me then I shouldn’t have been reading it and was not permitted to use the information in the message. Well hello—the message was sent to a mailing address that was and always had been mine, so why wouldn’t I read it and make any use I wanted to of the information therein?
I must admit that I did send email to the wrong person once—I forgot that the intended recipient had his own domain hosted at MindSpring, and didn’t realize that someone else had his address at the mindspring.com domain. No great harm was done there. I’ve never sent out any misdirected love letters, and certainly no accounts of sexual encounters (some things a lady just doesn’t commit to print, anyway). I figure only those of us with email addresses that are common first names, like cynthia, robert, drew, robbie, charles, etc. got this sort of mail in most cases. And in most cases, we were current or former MindSpring employees or very long-time MindSpring customers—it isn’t very common to have such email addresses now that they have so many users.
Still, after some of this stuff intended for others, take it from me—there are some details of your life that just shouldn’t be committed to print, okay? Nobody but the parties who were there at the time needs to know the precise details of your sex life! Especially when you’re screwing around on a spouse (yes, the situation in the email I received which finally inspired this article). At least PGP-encrypt that kind of stuff. Please!
By the time I received that one I was no longer surprised by misdirected email—it was simply the very explicit (and legally sensitive, if someone were in divorce proceedings) nature of this particular misdirected email that gave me pause. It does seem such content would be worthy of more care—but then since I wouldn’t ever commit such things to print, I suppose I’m not the one to ask.
I did get an email once from a MindSpringer intended for her lawyer! It was obviously a discussion of something pertaining to a sexual harassment lawsuit or something similar. You know what they say about everybody being three people away from knowing everyone in the world? I knew the guy she was suing—he’s an old beau. I hadn’t spoken to him in about six months, but when I contacted him I found that an incompetent employee he’d had to fire had filed such a suit. I forwarded the email to him and his lawyer, as it contained some very helpful information. After a meeting about the email, little miss twit dropped the lawsuit. It saved my friend’s company a great deal of money, and him a lot of hassle and potential damage to his career, all because of a misdirected email.
So remember, be careful what you write!
Originally written 12 September 1997
Photo by Muhammad Daudy on Unsplash