Sometimes, when he’s having a particularly bad day, Phillip Harter answers his phone with a 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, Gallup pollsters, and members of the White House staff.
Why is Harter, a 47-year-old assistant professor of surgery at the Stanford University School of Medicine, so popular with so many? 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 we could shrink the earth’s population to a village of precisely 100 people,” it begins, then 57 would be Asian, 11 would be homosexual, 1 (yes, only 1) would have a college education, and so on. The statistics are striking, 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 create the original message. He is an accidental celebrity — the victim (or beneficiary) of the “forward” button on our email programs and our eagerness to make contact with people whose messages get us to stop and think. “I’m waiting for our new president to contact me,” Harter says dryly.
It all started one morning almost four years ago. Harter received a message (he can’t remember from whom) that made him take notice. So he decided to forward it — coupled with his usual automatic signature listing him as a professor at Stanford — to his colleagues, friends, and family members. Harter forgot about the message as soon as he sent 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? Did he have backup sources?
But that was just a hint of things to come. After a collection of magazines, newspapers, and columnists received 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 were under way. 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 discussion boards for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Antonio, as well as in a pagan resource guide on the Web and a Brazilian project advocating an increased use of Esperanto. A population course at Michigan State University listed the email as suggested reading. 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 it wasn’t me,” he admits.
For a while, during the height of the storm, Harter 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 gets about three inquiries a day. The range is remarkable, from long-lost college pals to outraged right-wing religious groups upset with “his” claim that only 30 people in the 100-person global village would be Christian.
But what really put Harter on edge was when former Stanford president Gerhard Casper used some strikingly similar statistics in his outgoing 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 had verified the statistics that they used. And top demographers, including William Frey, of California’s Milken Institute, say that many of the assertions listed in the email do in fact check out. “This is the kind of email I’d like to get more of,” Frey says.
You’ll forgive Phillip Harter if he has a different opinion.
A version of this story originally appeared on fastcompany.com.
Sidebar: What’s the Message?
Stanford professor Phillip Harter didn’t write this email, but he found it so compelling that he sent it along to his friends. The trouble is, Harter never stopped to verify the data. So we did. To check out our annotated version, go to www.fastcompany.com/keyword/email45 Here’s the original.
“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:
21 Europeans; 14 from the Western Hemisphere, both north and south
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.”