reach out and touch someone

I just love the communication tools we have at our disposal in this day and age. Earlier tonight I received a rather unpleasant email from an apparently frustrated individual (let’s call him Joe) in reply to a message I sent to a mailing list. He quite insistently requested to be taken off said mailing list, tossing in a few colloquial phrases and threats of legal action. Since his reply came only to me and not the entire list, I alone had been chosen by Fate to rescue this distraught soul from the tyranny of unsolicited no-longer-desired constant emails message about once a month.

Rather than just reply with a big fat arrow pointing to the unsubscribe link at the bottom of every list message, I decided to try a more personal touch. First I googled Joe’s name which he provided in the email along with the company name shown in the From header just to make sure this was a legitimate person (those spammers and phishers are getting pretty crafty these days). I found that his company indeed existed in Australia and had a couple of domains that pointed to his website. Now I could have tried the contact number on the website itself, but I decided to dig a little deeper. Checking the whois entries on two of the domains, I found one registered to Joe with the same PO Box and phone number as the website, but the other had a Tasmanian residential address (thanks Google Maps), a different phone number, and was registered in a female’s name. A little more googling and I found someone by that name listed as a 2006 graduate of a Tasmanian high school not 9 km from the listed residence. Figuring this must be the right one, I decided to try the number.

I was down to $0.04 from my Skype trial, so I added some time to my account and dialed the number. The gentleman who answered had an obvious Australian accent, as did the voices on the television I could hear in the background. I asked for Joe but was told he wasn’t at this number. I asked if he knew who Joe was, and he confirmed that he was Joe’s father-in-law. I explained that I was calling from Los Angeles and asked if he had a number where I could reach Joe. He provided me the number, but before hanging up inquired as to how I had gotten his name. When I explained to him that a website domain was registered to this number, I learned that the female name listed was his granddaughter (presumably Joe’s daughter). Having to learn a little about Australian phone numbers (replace the leading zero with +61 when calling internationally), I discovered that this new number was most likely a cell phone. I dialed the number, waited some time for the call to connect, and then finally, I had reached Joe.

Not surprisingly, he sounded a little confused at first. The colorful epithets had been replaced by embarrassment and repeated apologies. I told him it was quite alright and that I understood he wasn’t really angry with me, but rather was frustrated with the fact that his continual requests to be unsubscribed proved fruitless. I then directed his attention back to my email and the the auto-attached footer which contained the link for unsubscribing. A couple more apologies and “it’s okay, I understand”’s and we were bidding each other “Cheerio!” (that’s England isn’t it, not Australia… nevermind, then).

So first, it’s kinda cool that I was able to find this guy and call him within just a few minutes to help solve his problem. All the tools are right there to do the research, and technology like Skype makes international calling affordable (if not free). Depending on how you want to look at it though, you could also say it’s rather scary that I was able to find this guy and call him within just a few minutes. Not only that, I discovered his (presumed) daughter’s name, approximate age, and high school, as well as his father-in-law’s phone number and home address (along with a nice satellite photo courtesy of Google Earth). Were I not the nice guy that I am, I might have taken offense to his reply and sought to do unkindly things to him and his family. But then again, I put myself right out there on the web, so I guess the same could be done to me. (Although for me, it kinda comes with the territory.)

You know, I learned something today. I learned that people on the Internet… they’re just people, like you and me. They may say hurtful things in an email, but it may just be that they’re frustrated with technology. I’ve learned that sometimes they just need a helping hand to get off that email list, and that they really didn’t mean for those hurtful words to be directed at you personally. But I’ve also learned that if they did, it’s really easy to find their family and cause them some real grief! (Just kidding, Joe) :)

Comments and responses

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Great story, Will. That reminds me of a time that I received a message on Twitter because I track the name of my home town (i.e, send "track Omaha" to Twitter, and you'll get all public tweets containing that word.). It mentioned the recent ice storm we had in our area. The author said that he stayed in a Red Cross shelter at a local church. I recognized the church as the one where my son attends pre-school 2 days a week. I checked the church's web site and found the IT guy's contact information. We have now corresponded a couple of times, and he was touched to read about someone positively effected by his employer, the church.

All this technology tends to make our lives less personal. Sometimes it takes a little work to make sure we remain human.