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.
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.