Couples Sharing Email Addresses

Doing tech support for an elementary school, I’ve recently discovered something I’d never seen in my 20 years of technology experience: There are a small percentage of couples/partners who share an email address between them, or even have a single email address for the whole family. When I first encountered this, I was sure there must be some mistake, but when I Googled for more on the phenomenon, I found other mentions of the practice.

In most cases, it seems people do this for one of two reasons:

1) People tend to see an email account like the family telephone land line, or like a shared bank account
2) One person in the couple is “not technology savvy” and it’s just easier for one person to manage the email

I have a few thoughts on this:

First, an email address is a unique identity in the modern world, not a shared bucket. Email is not like a telephone line or a shared bank account. You might receive a few calls a day on your family phone, but individuals often receive 100+ emails per day. The volume of email we all have to manage would seem to make sharing an account non-viable from a simple housekeeping perspective.

Secondly, when people write an email, they have a reasonable expectation of reaching an individual on the other end. I’m going to write an email very differently to a couple sharing an address than I would to an individual. If I don’t know in advance that it’s a shared account, that’s not fair to the writer, who naturally assumes that one email equals one person.

Thirdly, to share an email account makes it seem like two people talk with the same mouth. When I’m reading a message, I don’t have any clue who’s actually talking unless it’s personally signed at the end (and emails are often not). Again, this is frustrating for the recipient.

More importantly, we all have dozens if not hundreds of accounts on systems all over the web today. From Facebook to our online banking to stores to school intranets to reading clubs, many if not most of these systems tie accounts to email addresses. If two people share an email account, then many systems cannot manage their individual identities. Let’s take the example of a school intranet that tracks things like contact information, family jobs, individual board positions, photographs, etc. It may also be the case that that system sends email to individuals that have certain responsibilities in the school. The school can reasonably expect that people who are privileged to see that mail are not sharing those private messages with others. It’s reasonable to expect that each parent in that school has their own email address.

Finally, there’s basic privacy / politeness. I’m curious – if you share an email account, do you also open one another’s paper mail?

How To Create Individual Email Accounts

It’s trivially easy for each member of a family to have their own email account, and the basic expectations of privacy that go along with it.

The best/easiest way is simply to create free accounts at webmail providers like gmail.com or mail.yahoo.com or similar. Then all you have to do is log the browser into one account or the other.

If you prefer to use email on your ISP’s domain (such as comcast.net or pacbell.net), be aware that almost all ISPs let you create lots of email accounts for no additional charge. Just log in to their site and find their Mail Help center. However, you’ll have a much better experience on GMail than you will on your ISP’s mail system – there really is no good reason to use an email address attached to your ISP. What happens when you switch to another ISP? You don’t want your email to have to change along with it!

If you prefer to use a desktop email client on Mac or Windows like Apple Mail, Entourage, Outlook, Thunderbird etc., you’ll want to have multiple logins on that desktop computer. That way each family member has their own desktop, their own documents, their own bookmarks, their own email, etc. If you’re not doing that already, take the time to give every family member their own login, then set up your desktop mail accounts from within those respective logins.

Digital Literacy

Managing an email account is the cornerstone of basic digital literacy in the modern world. Not to be brusque, but that partner who is “not technologically savvy” needs to at least rise to the level of being able to send and receive email. An adult not being able to do email in 2011 is excluding themselves from the modern world in a way that just doesn’t / can’t work any more. If you want to go all the way off the grid, OK, but if you’re going to live in modern society, you need to be able to do your email, period.

19 Replies to “Couples Sharing Email Addresses”

  1. Two thoughts.

    First, I think the combined account is an artifact of single user operating systems. The entire family shares one login, and that login probably autologs in. Email clients like Outlook aren’t very easy to configure for multiple email accounts for the average non-power user.

    Web accounts have fixed this somewhat, but adoption lags in many families. Particularly families that have always been doing it this way. Waaaaaay back in the day a selling point of the online services (AOL, Prodigy, CompuServe, etc) was family accounts; a different email for every member of your family! Somehow, the translation to the freedom of the internets has people lost.

    Second, I see this kind of user ignorance (and a lot more) on a daily basis as a consultant. What comes as common sense to you and I is just completely alien to non-computer people. In an unscientific survey I suspect fully 50% of my clients don’t understand the concept of the address bar in a web browser; instead, they type cnn.com (or similiar) into the Google start page. When I point out that they don’t need to do this they don’t seem to care all that much. They’re happy with how they’ve been doing it and don’t feel they need to change it. I think that applies to many habits they’ve formed over the years. I live a happier life by remembering that I can’t change other’s habits for them.

    …on bad days they ask me why they even need a password in the first place.

  2. Man, I hear you on the “search vs. known address in the URL bar” – I have this conversation with my mother on every single visit, but never seem to get anywhere. I think that was a key realization that Google had when they collapsed the two fields into the unified Omnibar. And it was a good move – turns out geeks like the unified bar as much as newbies do.

    But yes, there’s this attitude among many users that “the way I’ve always done it” or “it works for me” somehow prevents them from ever stepping off the starting block.

    The “why do we need passwords” question is interesting, and the only answer is “Because there are bad people in the world.” In our utopia vision, our doors need no locks and our accounts need no passwords. Wouldn’t it be lovely!

  3. Fresh field report. A friend just reported his first encounter with another common problem I see apropo of this discussion: using Microsoft Word as the sole tool to browse/open files within the filesystem, which results in:

    * Never being able to find certain files, thinking files have been deleted/lost, and always asking coworkers where files are located.
    * Frustration over file “corruption” because they can’t open that PDF (or other) file via Word.

    I’m amazed at the disconnect. They don’t realize the difference between the Windows Explorer for file system navigation and the File->Open dialogue in Word. Microsoft, in many ways, has the same monopoly in computer file access as Google does to the Internet.

    It makes a grown geek want to cry for humanity.

  4. And that, my friend, is why you never see a File menu in an iPhone/iPad app. There is no file system as we know it, and no way to navigate it. There are just apps and their data, and the user never has to think about it. Just like you don’t need to manage MP3 files or photos any more – iTunes and iPhoto abstract them behind a visual database. Apple knows that many users will never even be able to learn the concept of a folder, or be able to keep track of where they put stuff. Solution? Make them all go away.

    And yes, Virginia, Lion will borrow this from iOS. Apps will run full-screen like they do on iOS, and will lose the ability to navigate the file system.

    Vast simplification for the win… the question is whether they can do it in such a way as to not piss off the rest of us who want to keep that level of control.

  5. Agreed. The same applies to the Mac App store. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen running Mac apps from disk images because they didn’t understand dragging and dropping the file to their Applications folder, and then get upset when the computer restarts and they’ve lost all their applications…

  6. I cringe at the ‘user is wrong to share an email address’ tone to this post. Users can do whatever they want and they should. As soon as you blame user error or ignorance, you relegate yourself to the server room. This behavior should be considered a standard use case and thus the post reveals more about the poster, than it does about the world at large.

    As IT becomes consumerized, expect less literacy, not more (eg. the fastest growing segment of smartphone users are non-HS graduate minorities without computers at home). You’re on the wrong side of this one Scott, and I must add (good naturedly of course!) the post is a bit more shrill and old-manish than I would expect from your vast experience. The creative challenge is providing good, safe services to this vast new group of users entering the digital world without forcing the problem on them.

    Many technological areas can help with this. Think:
    UID: email address –> NFCish smartphone hardware address
    Password: text entry –> thumbprint / voiceprint
    etc

    Achieve the same ends, but use technology and intelligence to ‘design out’ the user FAIL. That’s the future. To users it will ‘just work’ and seem like magic.

  7. I wonder (do not know) if there may be something else at play with couples…. avoiding secrets and temptation (negative)… or really… just being trusted partners as they are in the rest of their lives (positive.) I know several couples who have very long and strong relationships, who both could easily manage individual accounts, yet share so much of their lives, sharing an email account is natural like a mailbox, home phone, calendar, etc. If it was one partner trying to control another, I’d be against it, but that is not what I see here. I’ve seen this with shared Facebook accounts, too.

  8. P.S.
    My wife and I share a “group” email address (thanks to google apps mail manager) that goes to our personal accounts. We use it a lot for schools, banking, and other shared notifications.

    P.S.S.
    Don’t tell my wife I’m reading your blog. :-)

  9. Lee, I admit that I thought twice before posting this, because I don’t want to come off the wrong way, but I raised serious and legitimate issues with the practice which, I think, make it a legitimate area for user education. I don’t buy the “Whatever the user does is OK” argument when those practices affect others or make it impossible to work with those users in standard systems. And I don’t think it makes sense to call it “standard behavior” when probably 1 or 2% of users are doing it. It’s definitely a non-standard practice, and it doesn’t jibe with all the systems already in existence that assume 1 email = 1 person.

    Jeb, I’m sure you’re referring to an *additional* shared account for shared purposes – you don’t *only* share an email account, right? It makes sense to me use a separate shared account for bank statements or whatever, but not to completely merge identities!

  10. Yes, we have a group address that goes to our individual email accounts, so we are not operating as those I described in my first comment.

  11. I sometimes send emails for my wife and we share snail and email as well as facebook. It’s part of our relationship, but we do also have multiple individual emails. Privacy is important to us as is transparency. Neither of us snoop on each other to my knowledge.

    I would not assume such a small number of people sharing emails and even if so then you need to take a number and multiply it by the number of people using a shared address to get a true picture of the scope of it. But again my point is – expect that users will practice complete freedom in how they use digital services and that your concept of ‘correct behavior’ will not be followed by all – and it (in my view) should not be enforced as a standard of behavior.

    In addition I see that all the growth trend in use is toward interactions which carry ‘lower cognitive load’ (in usability speak) – eg. less complex and simpler. Requiring a cognitive burden for users is a bad plan for adoption in general. And as I’m sure you are aware, email as a communication mechanism is actually declining as a share of digital communication as easier to use technologies become generally used (SMS, IM, FB status, etc). So I think the whole weight of the future is to see email go the way of GOPHER – eventually.

  12. We’ve been hearing reports about the demise of email for a long time, but I’m not seeing it. In fact it’s the secret sauce behind the success of most social networks – people returning again and agan to check for emailed updates about Facebook and Twitter conversation threads. As many of us have dropped our newspaper subscriptions, we’ve replaced them with daily digests from news sites. I just don’t see it going away. It’s the one non-proprietary, cross-service glue we can count on.

    But that’s an aside – I’d like to return to the original point: Let’s say a school has an executive committee and a membership board. For good reasons, those two groups *need to have* private communications without overlap. Separate mailing lists for each group enforces that privacy. When two people at the school share an email address, that privacy goes down the tubes. No one belonging to either group has the assurance that the wrong people aren’t seeing their messages (for example the executive committee might be having a frank discussion about the salaries of people in the membership).

    I appreciate that you want to give the user the latitude to do what they want to do, but I don’t see how that latitude squares with the reality of privacy – not just the end user’s expectation of privacy, but the expectation of others that recipients aren’t sharing private messages around.

  13. The assumption that one email equals one person is incorrect. That the rest of the world doesn’t do things The Right Way™ (usually defined as “my way”) doesn’t mean they’re doing it wrong.

    Right here is your basic disconnect: “an email address is a unique identity in the modern world”. Email is not identity. Never, ever, assume that an email address corresponds to a person. An email address “john.doe@gmail.com” is very likely not going to be read by a person named “John” whose family name is “Doe”. It might be a spam trap account. It might be a forgotten mailbox. It could be a corporate messaging centre.

    Here are some trivial examples to break your assumption about email being identity, and email being delivered and read by one person: “support@example.com”, “sales@example.com”, “ceo@example.com”, “steve@apple.com”. No, you’re not going to be sending that message to a single person. It might be a mailing list, it might be a shared mailbox, it might be something else entirely. Why should ‘m.j.partridge@gmail.com’ be subject to different rules?

    The only assumption you are allowed to make when you send an email is that it will be delivered. Not delivered *to* someone, something or anywhere. Just *delivered*, whatever that means in the context of the mail host receiving the message.

    From that basic misstep you made (email is magically a unique identifier), your second misstep naturally follows – “when people write an email, they have a reasonable expectation of reaching an individual on the other end”. This is only the case because “people” have made the assumption that email addresses correspond to individuals.

    Having taken those two missteps, the rest of your argument has no hope.

    The first assumption that one must make when sending an email to e.g.: parents of a student, is that the parents are going to share that email anyway. What difference does it make to you if the parents share the one email account or not?

    Why do you expect email to be used a particular way? Should all men wear beards and peaked caps because that’s what you’re used to in your community? Should everyone drive cars? Wear shoes? Have toilets that you sit on, and then flush with water?

    I have a dozen email addresses – some are pseudonyms for characters I play in MMOs (so I can share the character’s email address with other players in the game, without adding to my personal spam or stalkers). I have throwaway email accounts such as those available from Mailinator. My parents “share” an email address because my mother just doesn’t want to bother with the Internet. She’s happy cooking, knitting, gardening and reading books.

    But fundamentally, an email address is never guaranteed to correspond to one person only, neither is it guaranteed to be private, secure, or unique for the intended recipient.

    The only “guarantee” you have when sending email is that the message will be delivered to the remote mail host. After that, it’s nasal demons. Everything else you think you know about email is an assumption based on your own patterns of use.

  14. Hey Alex – Sorry about the response delay – just back from vacation+biz trip.

    I think I’ve already addressed most of your points in the post and in my comments above, but a few notes:

    One absolutely CAN assume that john.doe@gmail.com goes to an individual. Sure, it’s possible that it might not, but 99% of the time it will. If it were a mailing list or a support address, it almost certainly wouldn’t have that address to begin with. And we all know from context when we’re writing to a mailing list or a support address – it’s not confusing or uncertain.

    The examples you’re pointing to are exceptions to the rule. The reality is that we all do assume that an individual is on the other side of an address. It may not be a hard and fast rule, but it most certainly is a social and technological convention that is so predominant that we can safely assume it. Thus, my rant is about people breaking what is a very firmly entrenched convention.

    But here’s the big one:

    The first assumption that one must make when sending an email to e.g.: parents of a student, is that the parents are going to share that email anyway. What difference does it make to you if the parents share the one email account or not?

    To reiterate the example: Let’s say that one parent in a family is on the Board of Directors, and that group needs the ability to have private, secure discussions. The other parent is a volunteer. Both the volunteers and the Board have separate mailing lists, and everyone on those lists needs the confidence that their private discussions will not be shared. When two people share an address, the trust of everyone on those lists is broken. This is the exact situation that started this whole thread – the situation I’m dealing with right now. Chaos and distrust have been created in our situation because some parents were sharing addresses.

  15. All email clients support multiple email accounts.
    Not all devices have Multi-user OS’s (iOS, Android, WP7), not all Apps work well with Multi-user OS’s when users wish to share creative content. (iPhoto, iTunes).

    For such couples, a single User Account with multiple email accounts is the best solution. iTunes supports multiple AppleID’s so purchased content can be shared in one user account. A solid relationship built on trust means that neither partner read each other’s email (even if they can).

  16. Really good point about shared smartphones and tablets Dan. I honestly hadn’t thought of that. A pretty slim minority affected by this problem, but I get it, yes.

  17. I am not an expert in the use of a computer, but I am an expert in the field of trust and what I care about, as is my husband. We share the same email address and neither of us cares about the other’s email or would use it impolitely. I personally ALWAYS sign my name to an email so the receiver knows who wrote it. Signing what one writes is curtesy and permits the receiver to decipher the nuances of meaning in the sent message. I have many friends who share an email address with a spouse so I am not so believing about your statistic. And the password soup we all have to endure; you know, one for every different evenuality, is a pain. Between couples, this is also where trust comes in. Lastly, I am responsible for the bill , along with my husband, so why shouldn’t I share the address and the password? P.S. My husband opens my snail mail and I open his, unless we don’t want to.

  18. Marlyn, I totally respect your perspective. My point was really about how the concept of couples sharing email accounts is incompatible with pretty much every web based system out there. As a builder of social networks and content management systems, the concept of an email not equalling an identity just does not work.

  19. I just tripped across this and had to add my comments (yes, 6yrs later). My wife and I share an acct. We also have individual accts and i’m in technology. The reason for the shared acct is for anything related to our kids schools or activities, the organization sending the email only needs one address. Those same organizations are often not equipped to send to multiple accts, they only have one field in the student record, or the hockey association, etc, etc. Using a single shared (gmail) acct that we both access from our mobiles or PC’s allows us to both see and either can respond. Notifications, schedule changes, requests for volunteers. It works. Again, we still maintain our own identities with our own emails. Having only one acct would just be wrong for all the reasons you stated :) I shudder at the thought of a single family email.

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