Everyone at Northwestern has an email, formatted with that standard first name, last name, graduation year @ u.northwestern.edu. However, Maggie Harden’s email is… different. Specifically, there’s a .3 on the end. In this episode of AskNBN, Jakob Lazzaro and Maggie Harden investigate how she ended up with such a strange email, and if it could happen to you. Transcript below.
[Funky Chunk- Kevin MacLeod]
Jakob Lazzaro: Hey everyone, welcome to Ask NBN. I’m Jakob Lazzaro, and like everyone on this campus, I’ve got a NetID and a student email – that standard first name last name graduation firstname.lastname@example.org. Simple, right? Not for NBN news section editor Maggie Harden. Maggie, can you talk a bit about your email?
Maggie Harden: Sure, so my full name is Margaret Harden, so you’d expect my email to be MargaretHarden2020@u.northwestern.edu. However, there’s actually a random .3 at the end of my email. So, that made me wonder: does that mean I’m the third Margaret Harden in my class, or is my email just weird?
Jakob: Yeah, so we actually discovered this in, I think it was an editors meeting if I’m right.
Maggie: Yeah, absolutely. I had to put my email down on a big list and everyone thought it was super weird that I had a .3 at the end of my email.
Jakob: So this is the mystery of Maggie Harden’s email – how it ended up with that strange .3 on the end and what you can do if it happens to you.
[Bit Quest- Kevin MacLeod]
Jakob: Northwestern IT’s identity services team manager Phil Tracy is the man who can answer these sorts of questions. In fact, he actually helped implement the student Google accounts about 10 years ago.
Phil Tracy: Google had a free offering that not only provided some really decent features as far as GUI and editing and attachments and very modern things that we didn't have in the current system. But also, it was free and it let the students keep the email after graduation.
Jakob: Since your Northwestern email address is attached to a Google account, you can actually keep it after you graduate for as long as you like. Interestingly, getting a NetID and student email used to be optional up until the mid 1990s.
Phil: At the old computer center building, you had to show up physically and fill out a paper form saying yes, please give me a NetID and an email account, and people would process that by hand – a few days or a week or two later there were these lines around the block. But one of the things you could do was write in “I’d like a NetID of ‘Bob’” if your first name was Bob or something like that. But when we built the system to automate that, it wasn’t really practical anymore.
Jakob: But let’s move on to Maggie’s specific case. How could a student end up with that type of unusual email address – that .3 on the end? Well, if it’s a common name, there simply could be other students on campus graduating the same year.
Phil: Undergraduates are projected to graduate in four years. Some programs take longer, and a couple of programs have asked that we issue email addresses for their entering year, not their expected year of graduation. So there is some fuzziness, if there’s not two John Smiths graduating in 2020, maybe there’s one graduating in 2020 and one that started in 2020.
Maggie: However, Margaret Harden isn’t exactly a common name.
Jakob: In that case, according to Phil, it’s most likely a technical glitch.
Phil: There’s a variety of things that could happen. Sometimes people get impatient and hit refresh on the web browser, they click the submit button over and over, sometimes the network traffic is heavy, sometimes someone’s on spotty Wi-Fi and the connection cuts out momentarily. There’s a lot of things that can cause it.
Jakob: And because NUIT doesn’t delete these email accounts unless people ask, there’s theoretically a Margaret Harden 2020, a 2020.1, a 2020.2 and et cetera, et cetera. all on the server right now.
Maggie: That explains why when we emailed those accounts, we got no responses.
Phil: They would still be there, they would still be there, and as we’re hypothesizing in this case if that’s what happened, these would just be sitting there unused. And the same person that comes by next year with that same name will get .4 and .5 and .6.
Jakob: So, what are the remedies to this problem? There’s the option of setting an alias, for one. Anyone can do that with their Northwestern email account at anytime by going online and picking any name as long as it’s available. This basically creates two deliverable addresses.
Phil: It’s like having two doors to your house. You go in the back door, the front door, it’s the same house.
Jakob: But what if you are dead set on changing your email address, period, not just creating an alias? Phil says NUIT can help with that as well.
Phil: People have name changes, gender identity changes, they have health and safety situations where it wouldn’t be good for someone to have their email address with their name and they didn’t pick that anonymous option at the beginning.
Jakob: And that anonymous option is just a random…
Phil: Yeah, you get X1Y2Z4 or something unrelated to your name. So we’ve definitely accommodated cases like that in the past where it’s causing hardship or disruption to the student. In a case like this, I don’t know. The person could certainly come in and we’ll talk to them and figure out what the best course is.
Jakob: Phil did some background digging, but he could not tell me what happened in Maggie’s case due to Northwestern’s privacy rules. So, Maggie gave him a call. Did he solve the mystery of your email?
Maggie: Yeah, he did based on the logs Phil could see, he said there were 3 failed attempts to create my email address before the successful one, so that’s why the .3 was on the end of it. And when he said that it made me remember that when I was initially creating my email account, I had to step away in the middle of the process, and when I came back I wasn’t able to resume it without starting all over. So he thinks that, and maybe a combination of refreshing the page, resulted in the multiple failed attempts.
Jakob: So, it was basically a glitch.
Jakob: Technology can be pretty complicated, and Northwestern’s running not one, not two, but three separate email systems.
Phil: We have Microsoft’s exchange environment for faculty and staff, we have the Google @u accounts for undergraduates, for the law school, and most graduate students, and then we have Office 365, which is Microsoft’s email offering in the cloud, that Kellogg students are starting to use, so just juggling those can be a challenge sometimes.
Jakob: Phil says there are security and privacy reasons for having different systems. For example, the university has direct control over the traffic on it’s Microsoft Exchange accounts, which the Medill Justice Project has requested in the past for students. If conversations were subpoenaed, the university would know about it as opposed to the Google Accounts where they might not even be notified.
Phil: The same goes for intellectual property. People doing research on the next Lyrica drug, which netted billions for the university, that’s the kind of information you’d want to hold pretty secure.
Jakob: So Maggie, how do you feel about your email now?
Maggie: I definitely feel much better knowing exactly what happened, because before it was pretty annoying whenever I’d tell someone my email and they’d say “Why do you have a .3 at the end of it?” and I didn’t know. Now it’s actually kind of funny that I have a unique email, so I definitely feel better now that we know what happened?
Jakob: So do you think you’re gonna try and change it, or just leave it as-is?
Maggie: I think I’ll probably leave it as-is because it sounded pretty complicated to change it and it’s honestly not that much of an obstacle in my life right now.
[Bit Quest- Kevin MacLeod]
Jakob: Thanks for listening to this episode of Ask NBN. Our music was Funky Chunk and Bit Quest, by Kevin MacLeod at incompetech.com. You can now hear this and any North by Northwestern podcast on iTunes, so make sure to hit subscribe in your Apple Podcasts app so you get a notification every time we post a new episode. I’m Jakob Lazzaro.
Maggie: I’m Margaret Harden.
Jakob: And this is NBN Audio.
[Funky Chunk- Kevin MacLeod]