Backstory: Wrong-domain man and other Web intrigue
'No voice, no face, just a guy in cyberspace.'
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — This is a story about Scott Calvert. Not Scott Calvert my husband, the 34-year-old journalist who lives in South Africa. This is about the other Scott Calvert, the computer expert living near Chicago, the man who came into our lives via a slew of misdirected e-mails.
In the end, really, it is a story about a cyber voice, one that left us with poetry and smiles along with unanswered questions and dangling ends, a classic Internet connection.
It all started some time ago when Chicago Scott, obviously more cyber savvy than my husband, managed to snag a Firstname.Lastname address with one of the country's large e-mail providers. This is no small feat. Ask anyone who has tried to set up an account recently with Yahoo or Hotmail or Gmail. A name is no longer sufficiently unique – you must add letters or numbers to make a distinctive address.
So when my husband signed up for his account, he included his middle initial – Scottmcalvert. It wasn't a big deal. After all, I'm srhanes in cyberworld. My cousin, Jessica, is jessie8689. He didn't think about who owned regular old scottcalvert, and certainly didn't imagine a name double typing away in the Midwest.
But before long, the cyber gods were messing with us.
My Scott – who would become known as SMC, or "smack" – wondered why he kept missing important e-mails. Chicago Scott – now known by his initials SLC, or "slick" – wondered why he was being spammed with dozens of Africa-related press releases. (My husband is the Baltimore Sun's correspondent here.) SLC also got e-mails about our house in Baltimore, our life in Johannesburg, our jobs. Eventually, he would receive details about our lease, as well as a happy birthday e-card from some woman named Carol.
"Who are you and why are you sending me a birthday card?" he wrote to Carol, my mother-in-law.
"You're kidding, right?" she responded. "I'm sending you a birthday card because I'm your mother, you dope."
Sometimes SLC responded to the senders, informing them of their error. Sometimes he just forwarded the e-mails to SMC. In January, we sensed his patience was wearing thin.
"This e-mail was sent to the wrong recipient; please notify the necessary parties so they can change their records," he replied to Global Witness, a group focused on resource exploitation. "The sender of this e-mail will now be put on my blocked senders list. Thank you."
After that, my Scott wrote back.
"Sorry about that, SLC." Signed, "SMC."
"SMC, Thank you." Signed, "SLC."
The next thing I knew, Scott and Scott were e-mailing back and forth, comparing weather in Chicago and Johannesburg. (Johannesburg: sunny and mid 70s. Chicago: snowy, foggy, windy.) In a bizarre sort of way, they became, well, not really friends, but acquaintances.
Much has been written about the Internet's power to connect, and to pull people apart.
There are the horror stories – the antisocial teenagers glued to the keyboard, the Internet predators. But there are also the positive social bonds – the neighborhood chat groups, discussion boards for dog lovers, weekly e-mail notices about global human rights issues. There are couples who meet on Match.com; families who keep in touch using e-mail and Web phones.
A recent Pew Internet & American Life Project report found that 60 million Americans turn to the Internet to make major life decisions, such as career shifts.
"If people are tucked away in their homes rather than conversing in cafes, then perhaps they are going online: chatting online one-to-one; exchanging e-mail in duets or small groups; or schmoozing, ranting, and organizing in discussion groups such as listservs or newsgroups," University of Toronto researchers suggest in a 2001 Centre for Urban and Community Studies article.
There are also the random connections.
A colleague of mine, for instance, was puzzled to come across his name double online, and even more surprised to discover that the other Jeff Barbee was also a photographer. He e-mailed, pointing out the coincidence.
My stepfather, Ken Goldman of Potomac, Md., regularly receives wine store and synagogue notices for a K Goldman in Connecticut. When he informed the synagogue of the error, they replied that they could take donations from well-wishers in Maryland, as well.
My mother's friend, Roberta, couldn't understand the annoyed response from another friend, Sue, to a number of e-mailed dinner invitations. It turns out Roberta had added a letter to her friend's last name – the e-mails were going to another Sue who thought she was being harassed. When Roberta realized the error, she invited this new Sue to dinner as well. Sue politely declined.
These connections tend to be fleeting. As the Pew study, "The Strength of Internet Ties," points out, the Internet primarily connects people who are already acquaintances, or who have similar interests and have sought out a particular online community. "The relationships maintained with online communication only rarely are with an entirely new set of individuals who live far away," the report says. "Instead, a large amount of the communication that takes place online is with the same set of friends and family who are also contacted in person and by phone."
Still, the SLCs of the world have an important job in cyberspace: They bring smiles to strangers, the e-equivalent of Random Acts of Kindness. With SLC, the ill-directed birthday card from my mother-in-law was the breakthrough. Here is his response:
I know a man who works for the Sun
Who is waiting on an e-mail from his mum
Birthday wishes it does contain
but it was sent to the wrong domain.
Now you know wrong domain man
Who helped you complete your e-mail plan,
No voice, no face, just a guy in cyberspace,
All he cares about is putting a smile on your face.
Glad I could help you spread some love
to someone so dear sent from above,
He is so close yet so far away,
and you make his birthday a special day."
I haven't heard from SLC in a while. I wrote to him to tell him about this story – he checked with my husband to make sure I wasn't an e-stalker, or someone trying to scam him. He never wrote back – I guess Internet rejection is also part of the game. But we have to admit, we're kind of glad for those missent e-mails. And my mother-in-law is musing about hiring SLC for some online help with her computer.