A recent Ethicist question at the New York Times wonders how to have privacy in a relationship with someone who uses a shared email or social media account with their significant other. But perhaps the better questions are as follows: Who actually does this? Are they old, weird, or codependent? And what other tech habits are relics that older generations will take with them to the grave? Or are we all just one true romance away from a shared Facebook page?
The advice-seeker writes:
My brother and his wife live across the country from me. Mostly, we communicate by email. I send messages individually and jointly. But my sister-in-law reads and often answers emails I send to my brother. This doesn’t bother him, but it upsets me. I have no privacy in my relationship with him. How can I handle this?
We all know couples who tell each other everything—but that’s a world apart from couples wherein there is no filter, where every digital communication goes straight to both of them. I only know one couple like this. They share email, but they also live on a farm and reject nearly all technology on principle. In other words, they’re weird.
But other couples who share email accounts aren’t Luddite or old. They’re branded couples like American Idol husband-and-wife musical duo Jordan and Alex Sasser, who share a Twitter account to pimp their music. In 2013, Mashable explored the emerging trend of more and more couples sharing social media accounts like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. They mention Caroline and Josh Eaton, who quit their jobs to travel the world together and use all those accounts to tell their story. Or bloggers Dave Bouskill and Deb Corbeil, who told Mashable they operate all their social accounts together, because “other couples might want to keep their singular voice, but our identity has always been about being together.”
Maybe it makes sense if you’re partnering up to run a business together, but it could reflect a lack of what couple’s therapist Dr. Suzana Flores calls a “healthy autonomy.”
“It more likely than not is a sign of codependency or insecurity,” she told Mashable. “Someone feels the need to monitor.”
A reaction piece to the concept at the Telegraph called such practices “digital suicide,” and issues a strong warning against “merging into a single cyberblob with your partner.” Holly Baxter’s theory is that it reveals way too much to potential employers and the world about your personal life, but that it’s also the digital relationship equivalent of matching outfits. Given the choice between Brand Me and Brand Us, she writes, “guard that singular cyber entity at all costs.”
Another take at The Guardian is less harsh, but no less admonishing, arguing that such practices are pure codependency: “I get it! You’re a couple! You share everything! Til death do you part! In sickness and in health!” Megan Carpentier writes. But “what if your mom really wants to get into details about what you can expect from menopause without letting your husband in on that aspect of her life?”
Which is why it’s funny that back at the Ethicist, Philip Galanes advises the letter writer to simply “pick up the phone” and call the brother with the shared email account. Get that? The only solution is to regress to use the very technology email allegedly replaced.
And one wonders if that’s what most people are doing to deal with email account sharers, who comprise a not insignificant minority of couples, but one that will shrink as the years go by. A Pew report from 2014 found that, while 67 percent of American couples (married or committed) had shared at least one online account password with their partner, 27 percent of couples have a shared email. As you could guess, this group was tilted towards couples who were older, or who had been together longer than 10 years.
So, while the branding aspect of coupledom may keep shared Twitter and Instagram accounts alive for the foreseeable future, we are likely to see shared email trickle and die exactly on schedule. It was already increasingly uncool to use email all that much in 2010 when comScore market research found that while everyone was using email less on their computer (because of smart phones). Only older folks’s usage (55 to 64) was up, by 10 percent; it was up 17 percent for the over-65 set.
On the other hand, teenagers (12 to 17) use of Yahoo and Hotmail had dropped by 48 percent. Even 18 to 24-year-olds were using it 10 percent less. It’s funny that there seems to be a recent proliferation of emailed teen newsletters like Clover, which think they can snag a teen’s loyalty in an inbox they never check.
In other words, research bears out the fact that it’s only people over 40 who use email a lot, including for work purposes. Annalee Newitz at Gizmodo called this “the first digital generation gap” in a survey they conducted in 2015. Newitz wrote:
Still, it’s clear that people over 40 are part of an email-centric generation. There’s a big generational dropoff in email use among friends: from 74% of over-40s using email to talk with friends, to 52% of under-40s using it. Plus, over-40s say they use email more than in-person meetings at work.
That last statistic is rather poignant. This is a generation of people whose days are ruled by a slow, annoying, spam-ridden app. No wonder this generation has churned out thousands of books, movies, and other stories about how technology is eroding relationships and mangling our minds.
Other technology divides us further. The Gizmodo survey also found that the biggest gap between 30-somethings and 20-somethings was the use of Snapchat. 32 percent of 20-somethings use it for communication with friends, but only 12 percent of 30-somethings do. And if you split that generation in half, 43 percent of people up to age 25 used Snapchat, whereas from 26 on, it declined to only a quarter of twentysomethings.
This makes intuitive sense: Around the mid-twenties is right around the time most of us get that big serious office job and can’t sit on our phone all day long anymore. Now beholden to your office computer, you can still chat with friends, but the stealth requires that you do so on either employer-issued instant messaging like Slack, or covertly on Gchat, or via a hidden tab with Facebook open.
We get stuck in our technological ways depending on something as simple as our cohort. But nonetheless, the shared account seems like it’ll be effectively gone within a generation. It’s telling that people up to age 44 still use technology more like twentysomethings than fiftysomethings—maybe that’s to keep up with their kids, or maybe it’s about the fact that a certain comfort level begets greater comfort even as tech changes.
One of the only guaranteed things is that, across generations, everyone still texts. We will all still be on our phones for the foreseeable future, which for most people ensures the last vanguard of privacy—as well as avoidance. The Ethicist recommended the right solution: just call the person with the shared account if the information is sensitive. But in a way, it’s the wrong answer. The whole point of sending an email is avoiding having to talk.
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