From the ever-uncannier valley of lifelike AI to catfishing to memorialized Facebook pages, in the digital era, there are plenty of heebie-jeebies to go around. So as more and more of our lives are lived on the internet, it’s only natural that our relationship with technology — and each other — has gotten progressively weirder.
Perhaps the most universal of those experiences: the digital doppelgänger.
“Digital doppelgängers,” simply put, are two or more people using the internet who share the same name, and, by extension, run into one another when it comes to digital real estate (namely, email and social media handles).
There are a few rules to this phenomenon, though they’re not hard and fast:
- The doppelganger with the more basic handle will know more about their counterpart than the counterpart knows about them, for the simple reason that it’s a lot more likely friends and family will assume the simpler handle belongs to the person they know. We’ll call this dominant person “the Prime.”
- There can be more than one Prime; it just depends on what platform you’re talking about. That is, there will be a Gmail Prime, a Facebook Prime, a Twitter Prime, etc., since each of those platforms requires a separate username be created.
- The Prime will also likely hold the highest place in Google search results for their name, but this isn’t always the case: if one is a public figure, for instance, but the non-public person is the one who got to the simpler handle first, the Prime will likely be subjected to an unusual amount of misdirected correspondence.
Take Laura Hudson, for example. As a Portland-based contributor to publications like Wired, Slate and Boing Boing, Hudson leads a relatively public life on the internet, even more so since the topics she covers regularly — video games, comics and online harassment among them — are inherently subject to an unusual degree of online engagement. (Disclaimer: Hudson used to be my editor.) She is also a Prime — in that her email handle is just her name (although important to note that another Laura Hudson got to the simplest Twitter handle first).
As a result of this and the fact that hers is a fairly common name, she has gotten to know many other Laura Hudsons simply by accidentally receiving their mail, getting a lot of correspondence intended for the person she calls “Other Laura Hudson” (OLH)— who in reality is several Laura Hudsons scattered throughout the country. “It occasionally presents me with opportunities for great evil,” she adds, saying she’s received emails from a wedding planner for another Laura Hudson’s wedding; a form asking her to sign the children of an OLH up for winter sports; an email asking for a personal recommendation for a Christian Ministry School; a $200 gift card to celebrate the birth of an OLH’s child from “her Prima Bistro family”; a sexy message that made it seem like an OLH was cheating on her partner; and a email confirming OLH’s subscription to PlentyOfFish.com, a popular dating site.
With this many doppelgängers, she says, it’s hard not to wonder about them: do they receive messages meant for her? Do they find her presence at the top of search engines frustrating? Are they ever harassed for things she’s published?
So we decided to find out.
Choosing the OLH for whom Hudson has received the most correspondence/intel—27-year-old Laura Hudson from Sarasota, who married recently and now goes by Laura Solar — we reached out via email with hopes of learning a little more about what it’s like to be on the non-Prime end of a doppelgänger pair.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. When did you start going by Laura Solar? Do you still go by Hudson in any circumstances?
I went to college in Rome, Georgia, and moved to Orlando after I graduated. I work at Walt Disney World, performing in shows and parades. I got married in 2012 and have gone by Laura Solar since then. I think I have a couple credit cards I never use, so I haven’t changed my name on those, and I still have my email account, just in case.
When you’ve created your internet accounts (Gmail, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) over the years, had you ever tried to get just “laurahudson,” and why/why not? If so, did you ever succeed?
I know I definitely tried to get firstname.lastname@example.org, but couldn’t so I threw my middle initial in there. I think not being able to use “laurahudson” as an email kind of deterred me from trying to use it other places. I like to keep everything the same, so I don’t think I ever tried to make that my username anywhere else.
Have you ever come across/do you know of other Laura Hudsons, online or otherwise? If so, how? If not, why do you think that is?
I never have, but I have never really tried to look either. I know I have googled Laura Hudson before and I think I only found a model, but it was a long time ago.
Have you ever had people you know (or maybe don’t know, like a store or a doctor or something) tell you they sent something to the wrong address and/or had people tell you they tried to send you something important and you didn’t receive it?
My husband’s parents have to be constantly reminded of the ‘R’ in my email address. They have told me on several occasions that they sent me an email and I never got it because they sent it to the wrong address. No one else I can remember offhand. I’m sure it has happened though.
The Laura I’ve referenced has told me she’s received these misdirected emails — which of them, to your knowledge, were definitely or probably meant for you?
Okay, I do remember now my wedding planner having trouble with this, too. I definitely remember she kept sending stuff to the wrong address and having to correct her. The tanning salon and Sea World were definitely meant to go to me. Sarasota GOP is probably the weirdest one of this list, because that is where I’m from and was registered to vote for about eight years; however, I’ve always been a registered Democrat, so that’s pretty odd to me.
No idea about Guinea pigs, though. Never had any or wanted to get any.
How do you feel about the fact that another person (this other Laura, maybe others) have received email meant for you?
I think it’s more of an inconvenience than anything else, but really I probably should have thought about it a little more before I made my email address. Adding a number at the end or a period between first and last name would probably be a better choice, because the R gets lost in there. I’m not really worried about personal security — maybe I should be though! I also feel bad she has to sift through all this email.
Devon Maloney is a culture journalist whose work has appeared in Wired, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The Cut, and Vice. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Oscar.