Please Don't Forward This Email!

The story of an accidental Web celebrity.

Sometimes when he's having a bad day, Phillip Harter answers his phone with this curt greeting: "I didn't write it!" But most of the time, when he answers his phone or checks his email, he enjoys hearing from some of the world's most famous people and influential organizations, including CNN, the United Nations, Gallup pollsters, and members of the White House staff.

Why is Harter, 46, an associate professor of surgery in Stanford University's emergency-medicine division, so popular with people from so many walks of life? Because they have all received or heard about a poignant email message bearing his name, title, phone number, and email address.

You may have received it, too: "If Earth's population was shrunk to a village of just 100 people," it begins, then 57 would be Asian, 11 would be homosexual, 1 would have a college education, 6 would possess 59% of the world's entire wealth, and so on. The statistics are striking and easy to understand, and they score some moving points about the distribution of wealth, health, and power around the world.

There's just one problem: Harter has no idea where the statistics came from, and he didn't compose the original message. He is an accidental Web celebrity -- the victim (or beneficiary) of the "forward" button in email programs and of our eagerness to make contact with people whose messages actually get us to stop and think. Says Harter dryly, "I'm waiting for our new president to contact me."

It all started on a weekday morning three and a half years ago. Harter received the message (he can't remember from whom), which made him take notice. So he decided to forward it -- coupled with his usual automatic signature listing him as a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine -- to his colleagues, friends, and family members. Harter forgot about the message as soon as he forwarded it, and nothing much happened for about six months. Then strange queries started trickling in -- from professors, schoolteachers, the World Health Organization. Could he verify the data in his email? Could he confirm his backup sources?

But that was just a hint of things to come. After a collection of magazines, newspapers, and columnists got the email and published the statistics (without bothering to check with Harter, of course), his inbox was flooded -- and his 15 minutes of global fame was underway. A Latvian newspaper paid homage to this great communicator (or to a misspelled version of him) in a full-page story. The email was reprinted on a discussion board for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio, a Web-based pagan-resource guide, an Australian newsletter called "Voice and Word," and a Brazilian project advocating Esperanto. A population course at Michigan State University suggested it as homework reading. Recently, a diversity initiative at agriculture giant Cargill Inc. asked permission to use the information. Someone even sent Harter a copy of the statistics done in calligraphy and laminated with pressed flowers. "I didn't have the heart to say that it wasn't me," he admits.

Harter does come clean with most people who contact him. For a while, during the height of the storm, he left an outgoing message on his voice mail instructing curious data hounds to look elsewhere. And he still answers every email he gets -- and he still gets 5 - 10 inquiries a week. "My greatest fear," he quips in his standard email response to his fascinated public, "is that my name will become permanently attached to this and that I'll become rich and famous and have to quit my day job."

The range of Harter's incoming messages is remarkable. As recently as February, he heard from a long-lost college classmate who had just received "his" email. Then again, several right-wing religious groups expressed their outrage to Harter, upset with "his" estimate that only 30 people in the 100-person global village would be Christian.

But what really put Harter on edge was when former Stanford University president Gerhard Casper used some strikingly similar statistics in a commencement address. "The last thing I needed was to lose my job because the president of the university had used inaccurate information," Harter says.

It turned out that Casper's people independently verified the statistics that they used. And top demographers, including Bill Frey, with California's Milken Institute, say that many of the facts listed in the email do in fact check out. "This is the kind of email that I'd like to get more of," Frey says.

You'll forgive Phillip Harter if he has a different opinion.

What's the Message?

If we could shrink the earth's population to a village of precisely 100 people, with all the existing human ratios remaining the same, it would look something like the following. There would be:

57 Asians
21 Europeans; 14 from the Western Hemisphere, both north and south
8 Africans
52 would be female
48 would be male
70 would be non-white
30 would be white
70 would be non-Christian
30 would be Christian
89 would be heterosexual
11 would be homosexual
6 people would possess 59% of the entire world's wealth and all 6 would be from the United States.
80 would live in substandard housing
70 would be unable to read
50 would suffer from malnutrition
1 would be near death; 1 would be near birth
1 (yes, only 1) would have a college education
1 would own a computer

When one considers our world from such a compressed perspective, the need for both acceptance, understanding and education becomes glaringly apparent.

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