THERE CAN ONLY BE ONE

I Met My Digital Doppelgänger

For those of us who share uncommon names, a kinship (and competition) is born online.

The Daily Beast

By my count, there are six Kevin Zawackis in this world. Myself, the reporter; a heart doctor; a snowboarder somewhere near the Rocky Mountains; and one each in Maryland and Wisconsin. The sixth, according to a recent Google alert I received, is a precocious student who made his middle school’s honor roll.

In life, our names may be the only trait we share. Hobbies, occupations, haircuts, and temperament all distinguish us. But online and in search engine results, we’re monolithic: one Kevin Zawacki can easily be confused for the next. It’s a familiar hardship for those of us bestowed with uncommon names. We can’t disappear into a sea of like-named people, but aren’t unique enough to stand out completely. If one Kevin Zawacki makes the local news for setting off fireworks in a public bathroom, all our reputations suffer.

There’s also a fierce, unspoken competition at work: the battle for the best Gmail address, the optimal Facebook vanity URL, the top Google result. I may have snagged a superlative LinkedIn URL, but I lost the fight for choice email addresses. It’s like Highlander: There can be only one.

This struggle might belie something positive, however: a kinship. “Names are critical to identity,” Sid Horton, an associate professor at Northwestern University researching the psychology of language, told me. “Name similarity can help increase feelings of liking or even compliance to minor requests.”

That kinship even extends to those with similar-sounding names, Horton added. And so does the confusion. Another K. Zawacki has the coveted first-initial, last-name email address, but has paid dearly —he regularly receives missives from my relatives and friends. Most recently, he opened an invitation from my great uncle to a Christmas dinner. He notified my uncle of the error, politely declined, and missed out on chicken marsala. (My email address, with a middle initial unceremoniously wedged in, is far less obvious and far lonelier. The occasional wrong message might brighten up a bad day, I imagine.)

On a recent evening, I corresponded with the Rocky Mountain’s Kevin Zawacki. For years, as I vainly searched my own name, I’d come to know him. He skateboards. He films videos. And he has a cheeky Twitter account.

“This is the first time I’ve ever ‘met’ another Kevin Zawacki or communicated with one,” he noted. Zawacki has the better of our two email addresses, but promises there are plenty of other Kevin Zawacki screen names available across the Internet.

“According to namechk.com, we’re all slacking off,” he said. “About 75 percent of the sites… are still up for grabs.” If either of us feel compelled to join the Belgian social networking site Netlog, the “Kevin Zawacki” handle is available.

Despite Horton’s promise of friendliness and small favors, my quest to connect with the world’s four other Kevin Zawackis—perhaps undertaken with naivety—ended dismally. It was a mess of unreturned emails and hurried phone conversations. They were too busy with cardiology and spelling bees, presumably. Should a friend of mine have better luck crossing paths with these Kevin Zawackis, the results could be fascinating, according to Dov Cohen, a professor of psychology at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Cohen says those who know me might project my personality onto the other Kevins.

“Everything we know about psychology tells us that we have a network of associations in our minds,” Cohen said. (Has Dov Cohen ever met another Dov Cohen? Not here in the U.S., he says, where Dovs are exceptionally infrequent. He’d have better luck in Israel.)

Still, sharing “Kevin Zawacki” with five other humans isn’t the worst. Woe is David Cross, the 31-year-old New Yorker who shares a name with the Arrested Development comedian. “It’s made it nearly impossible to Google myself,” he bemoaned. “Unless I do [a] very specific search, I won’t show up online.”

Equally miffed is Courtney Cox, the 24-year-old public relations coordinator in Massachusetts. True, the Friends actress has an extra “e” in her name, but it does little for her younger, less famous digital doppelganger. “It’s not nearly impossible [to find myself online],” Cox said. “It is 100 percent impossible.” But she admits to, on occasion, using her name to make reservations at popular restaurants.