On a Monday morning a couple of months ago, I got an email from someone whose name I didn't recognize with the subject line, " I am your doppelgänger :)."
Attached was this photo:
My first reaction was, "Whoa. This is creepy." When I showed it to colleagues and friends, they had the same reaction. Not only did she look a lot like me, but she had obviously gone to some trouble to stage a photo in the same pose as my Google Plus profile photo.
She explained in the email that she and her two young sons had been eating at a "Smashburger" in her hometown of Phoenix when three "well-dressed gentlemen" approached her and one said, "I hope this doesn't sound too weird but does your name happen to be Kashmir?" When she said no, he showed her a photo of me that he'd pulled up on his smartphone; she was shocked by the likeness. They told her I was a big name in what sounded like "bit con" to her. When she got home, she tried to find me by Googling variations of "Cashmere" and "bit con" with no success. Then she asked Facebook for help. A friend of hers who knew people interested in Bitcoin quickly figured out who I was and posted a photo of me that Leigh was convinced was her, until she realized she had never owned the shirt I was wearing. "Mind blown," one of her Facebook friends commented. "It's like the twins separated at birth from a soap opera," said another.
After deciding that this person probably wasn't planning to murder me and take over my life, I emailed back about the uncanny likeness, and asked if she wanted to meet or videochat to see if we looked as much alike when our faces were moving. So we arranged a FaceTime meeting to compare faces. We both felt like looking alike meant we had to meet for some reason.
We're not the first to feel that way. In 2011, a journalist in the U.K. named Sophie Robehmed became obsessed with meeting her look-alike after writing a story about facial recognition start-ups so she turned to the Internet to try to crowdsource the search. When she found her years later — through a mutual Facebook friend — they made a movie about it. "We're not as original as we might think," said Robehmed. Robehmed's story inspired another Facebook Likes-seeking group of three friends to try to find their doppelgängers in April; they made a "Twin Strangers" Facebook page to get help in a race to find their lookalikes in just 28 days, and included on it a specious claim that every person has 7 people who look like them in the world. One of the friends, a woman named Niamh Geaney, found a stranger who looked exactly like her; a video about their meeting went viral with over 7 million views.
For some reason, we're obsessed with the idea of finding people in the world who look like us and the wondrousness of looking into a flesh-and-blood mirror. It's fascinating enough that Canadian photographer Francois Brunelle has spent the last 14 years finding doppelgängers and taking their portraits. He told CBS News he loves capturing the shock that happens when they meet, and that he endlessly gets emails from people who want him to help them find their look-alike. I asked him why he finds face-twins so compelling. "I don't really know," he responded by email. "The fascination of seeing two same-looking people side by side."
With the rise of facial recognition, having a doppelgänger can sometimes be problematic. In 2011, a Massachusetts man had his license revoked because an anti-fraud system that scanned people's photos decided he looked too much like another driver. He got his license back, but still sued the DMV over it (to no avail). “We are not the beautiful and unique snowflakes we think we are. There are many people who look like us,” facial recognition scientist Alessandro Acquisti told me years ago.
So I shouldn't have been so amazed to have a doppelgänger, yet I found it a little thrilling. There's still some scientific mystery to how we turn out the way we turn out, why we get some features and not others. What about the making of this person resulted in her looking so much like me and vice versa? She felt the same way. "I wondered if we had a similar life or other similarities," she told me. "I wanted to hear your voice and see who you were."
When you’re going to meet your doppelgänger, there’s a weird pressure to look good. On the day I met mine, I was working from home, so I’d basically rolled out of bed straight to my computer. When I fired up FaceTime to call her at the appointed time, I saw a preview of myself and I looked terrible. “Looking for my headphones,” I lied in a text, as I scrambled to put on some mascara and lipstick. There was nothing I could do about my bed head.
When my doppelgänger appeared before me, I felt even more ashamed. Leigh was gorgeous, hair blowing in a gentle breeze, clear skin, perfect make-up. When she later complimented my terrible hair, I admitted I had hurriedly thrown on make-up before the call. “I spent an hour getting ready for you,” she replied. “I felt like this was a first date.”
There was something similar about us in the eyes and in our smiles, and we shared certain facial expressions.A celebrity we'd both been told we looked like was "a young Diane Lane." (Maybe we can loop her in on the next call.) We were both born in the Midwest, and went into somewhat similar fields (journalism for me and internal corporate communications for her), but our lives were otherwise quite different. She is a little older than me, and is now a stay-at-home mom with a house full of kids, one of whom grabbed the phone at one point and remarked, "She looks like you, Mommy." My only baby is my writing, and I am almost never at home due to work travel. But one thing became clear quickly: we liked each other. A lot. It was super fun talking.
That may be in part because we are programmed to. Scientists have found that we're friendlier to people who look like us. University of Washington scholar Ryan Calo thinks that will lead advertisers to morph the faces of spokesmodels in personalized, targeted ads to look like us so we're more likely to buy their products. Scientists have also found we are more attracted to doppelgängers. That research led an entrepreneur to start a facial recognition-enabled dating site a few years back called "Find Your FaceMate" that embraced narcissism as the secret to true love. Though it claimed in 2012 to have attracted 50,000 customers, it shut down after its founder died at the end of 2013. FindYourFaceMate.com now contains tips for "smart motor mechanics."
Leigh and I tried to figure out why we might look alike. We are both European mutts. Having done 23andMe, I know my exact ancestry. I'm a lot of British and Irish (47.5%), with some Italian thrown in (7.8%). Leigh said she was Scottish and British, as far as she knew. While we have a somewhat similar general genetic background, we were fairly certain our family trees did not have any touching branches.
It wasn't a revelatory meeting. Our physical similarity is just a quirk. We are two unrelated people who happen to look alike. But we live in a world in which we are far more likely to find one another, thanks to a proliferation of public digital photos and the ease of connecting with strangers through the Internet. With the rapid development in the field of facial recognition, it will soon be even easier for doppelgängers to meet one another. Rather than chance encounters in fast food restaurants and queries to Facebook friends to crowdsource the hunt, at some point — if privacy advocates lose their battle — you'll be able to do a Google Search for people who look like you and get a list of the closest matches and where they live. When technology takes away the thrill of the happenstance encounter, the idea of doppelgängers may lose its whimsical charm, leaving you instead clicking through different versions of yourself, speculating on which one turned out best. Technology will make these kinds of searches easier, but will it help us with the deeper existential ones about who we are?
After our call, Leigh updated her Facebook friends. "For those of you who were following my doppleganger saga: We had a FaceTime date today! We hope to connect again soon," she wrote. "The internet is a wild and wondrous thing."
It is, as long as it doesn't mix you up with a bad doppelgänger.