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Accidental Pen Pals

How a case of mistaken identity led one man to the best advice of his life

This is the second installment of a series spotlighting the concept of the digital doppelgänger. Read up on the basics of the phenomenon here:

Interviewing Your Digital Doppelgänger

With a name like his, you would be correct in guessing that Phil Williams gets the occasional misdirected email. Over the past decade, the Portland-based advertising accounts manager has grown painfully familiar with his many digital doppelgängers — and their landlords, contractors, even potential employers — since snagging his prime email real estate during Gmail’s beta back in 2004. His major competition here in the United States is a formidable Nashville-based investigative reporter, whose biggest fans email the wrong Phil regularly, begging him to investigate their conspiracy theories (one was a dead ringer for a memorable X-Files episode). But strangely, most of the Other Phils (the ones who can’t remember their own email addresses, at least) are British — and really into porn.

“This is such a first-world problem, but it’s weirdly annoying,” he tells me over the phone, admitting he appreciates the relative anonymity British Phil (he likes to think of them as a composite) provides him on the internet, even at the expense of an unwillingly, eternally NSFW inbox. “Because they’re people who share my name, I feel somewhat more unnerved by it. Like, ‘Come on, tighten up, you’re a Phil Williams, too! Pull it together, you should know your own email address!’”

For the most part, the misdirected emails go directly to the trash, unanswered. (After all, determining which doppelgängers unwittingly sent you those concert tickets is a lot of work.) But one day in 2014, Williams got something he just couldn’t send the way of those member updates: a friendly email from a woman named Joyce.

Well, actually, he did ignore the first one, deleting it and presuming she’d realize she’d messaged the wrong Phil Williams. A few weeks later, however, she sent a follow-up, wondering why her friend hadn’t written her back. Williams realized that Joyce must be older, not quite accustomed to digital communications; this time, he fired off a quick reply, informing her she’d reached the wrong Phil Williams. She wrote back, thanking him, but not long after, he received a third message from, in which (still believing she was emailing British Phil) Joyce wrote about the nice American Phil Williams she had accidentally contacted.

“I could tell she was confused,” Williams recalls, “but there was just something about the way she wrote…Maybe it was a weird combination of timing and mood, but I felt like I should write her back.”

So he did, gently informing her again of the miscommunication, but also — since he and his wife Lauren had recently honeymooned in the U.K. — adding a question at the end: “Where in England are you from?”

One reply became two, then two became three, and now, two years later, the pair have become regular pen pals. Joyce, Williams learned, was born in London in 1930 and survived the German bombings during World War II as a child; she told him all about how they’d managed to escape. She’d grown up to become a published, decorated poet. He found and bought one of her books on Amazon.

“There was something [about her] that reminded me of my grandmother,” he says. “I liked the idea that I might learn something from corresponding with her — someone from another generation, who probably wouldn’t normally be using email.”

Nowadays, 86-year-old Joyce lives in a small village in Cornwall with her husband, a retired British Naval officer, and spends her time gardening, playing the organ at church and visiting with her grandchildren. She and Williams discuss their families, but also current events like the presidential election; he says he also often turns to her for life advice. When Williams’ daughter Ruby was born, he and Lauren sent Joyce a picture of the new baby from the hospital.

“I remember e-mailing her during our first few months with Ruby, when I was totally sleep-deprived [and] nervous about fatherhood and what that would be like,” he says, “and she’d always respond with advice that took into account just how short-lived and temporary all those things really are. Having someone in their eighties weighing in on your day-to-day issues definitely helps to give you perspective.”

When I ask now if he would be willing to introduce me to Joyce for the story, though, he hesitates. She’s mentioned a few times that her children are worried about her emailing with a strange American man, he explains, so he’ll have to think about it.

“And good for them for being so savvy and aware,” he adds. “I mean, think about it: at any time, I could be like, ‘Times are tough, I really could use a couple thousand dollars, is there anything you can do?’ Nine times out of ten, that’s probably what would be happening. [Editor’s note: It totally would.] So I’ve had to figure out how to navigate that part of this friendship, to overcompensate a little when I’m writing her, in case her kids or grandchildren read it.”

And sharing her contact information with a journalist, for example, wouldn’t exactly be the smartest decision for a guy already attempting to balance an unusual friendship with a respect for the legitimate concerns of his friend’s family.

“It’s become this cool, special thing,” he explained later in an email, eventually declining my request after a few days’ consideration. “I don’t want to potentially ruin that by making her family think I’m exploiting anything, so I’d prefer to protect that [trust].”

As for the original British Phil, Williams did ask Joyce once whether she’d ever figured out how to get in touch with him.

“She was kind of vague about it — she made a comment like, ‘He hasn’t gotten back to me; I guess maybe he’s not who I thought he was,’” he says. “I’m not confident she ever reached him.”

Devon Maloney is a culture writer living in Los Angeles whose work has appeared in Wired, Vanity Fair, Grantland, Vulture, and The Los Angeles Times, among others.

Interviewing Your Digital Doppelgänger