Exploring the future of identity
The internet is a battleground.
Online spaces have ushered in a time in which individuals, groups, organizations and nations alike are at war both narratively and ideologically, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Social, financial and information-based networks are just new territory to fight over and the internet has no spacial constraint.
It’s never been easier to fight for what you believe in and the results of this have turned the great online game into a great online war. Open information has birthed open identity, and now our online selves are on display for the world to see. As the fray rages on, all parties continue fighting for ideological and economic dominance. At least for now, social media tools are platforms, not networks, so discrimination, cancellation, de-platforming and censorship are increasingly common tools in an arsenal on all sides.
Social media has made celebrities of us all. Opaque algorithms have made fame and infamy not just possible, but more likely, limiting the scope of our own identities in the process. Our 15 minutes of fame became 15 seconds and it’s easier than ever to get, but fame comes with its consequences, and we probably shouldn’t want it in the first place. Tim Ferriss shines some light:
“During my college years, one of my dorm mate’s dads was a famous Hollywood producer. He once said to me, “You want everyone to know your name and no one to know your face.”
Taking it a step further, we could quote Bill Murray:
I always want to say to people who want to be rich and famous: ‘try being rich first.’ See if that doesn’t cover most of it. There’s not much downside to being rich, other than paying taxes and having your relatives ask you for money. But when you become famous, you end up with a 24-hour job. . . . The only good thing about fame is that I’ve gotten out of a couple of speeding tickets. I’ve gotten into a restaurant when I didn’t have a suit and tie on. That’s really about it.”
You don’t even have to take part in the battle to be vulnerable. Massive data breaches are becoming more common by the year and simply being involved can spell trouble. Digital assets add another layer of complexity: In 2020, Ledger, a crypto hardware wallet manufacturer, had 270,000 personal account details exposed, effectively making public a list of people with significant sums of self-custodied digital assets. In an environment like this, individual identity is more susceptible than ever.
The solution here might lie in pseudonyms: identity armor for the information age.
Before diving deeper it’s important to clarify what a pseudonym is not.
Real names, or modern-day state names, have been around in one form or another for as long as humans have, though their function has varied widely over time. At a basic level, state names arose with the needs of states, including their need to conscript men into war (see Seeing Like a State). Names’ function as a unique identifier is powerful— religious, medieval and native cultures saw knowledge of someone’s true name as a position of power over them.
Today, real names have been commoditized, and that quality of power is gone. Facebook has long employed an infamously stringent real name policy, and a simple Google search reveals more information about you than you could ever imagine— occupation, address, birthday, friends, relatives— dig deeper and you’ll find more. If information is power, we’ve given it all away.
Anonyms are, in effect, the opposite. While real names stay with us our whole lives, an anonymous (without a name in latin) identity is non-persistent, lasting only as long as a single interaction. These single-use identifiers have drawn intense scrutiny for the enablement of fringe ideologies and violent radicals, but prove to be functionally useless when trying to build up individual reputation or sustainably exit the great online war.
Pseudonyms sit in a kind of in-between space. They are persistent names, but usually reveal nothing about an individual’s “real” identity, trading headshots for cartoonish profiles and real names for aliases. This means a pseudonymous (false name in latin) identity can hold more weight than a real one. The reason for this is that a pseudonym’s value is inherently derived from its reputation, built up over long periods of time and stripped totally of signals like elite colleges and prestigious companies. Instead, pseudonyms are judged entirely for the value of their work.
The utility of a pseudonym is non-trivial. Ibn Warraq adopted their pseudonym to avoid state-sponsored assassination. Ben Franklin became Mrs. Silence Dogood to circumvent censorship. JK Rowling became Robert Galbraith to publish work without the weight of expectations. Banksy uses one to put out politically charged work that speaks for itself, and Satoshi Nakamoto used one to hide their identity while creating Bitcoin. For many, a pseudonym is a clean slate.
It’s also important to realize that pseudonymity is a spectrum. It takes only 33 independent bits of information to identify anyone in the world, and each bit of information you give up— the times you post, your use of language, a passing slip— moves you a step further from complete obscurity, as in an anonym, and one step closer to total verifiability, as in a real name. Balaji Srinivasan points out that this serves as a unique method of quantifying one’s degree of pseudonymity. Give up too many bits, and your potential identity is narrowed from billions of people, to millions, then only thousands or hundreds. This is how we know Stephen King is Richard Bachman, Eric Blair is George Orwell, Charles Dodgson is Lewis Carroll, and Samuel Clemens is Mark Twain.
Pseudonyms aren’t just for authors, either. Mitt Romney is Pierre Delecto. James Comey is Reinhold Niebuhr. Over 400 million Reddit users are pseudonymous and a non-trivial number of users on Twitter have followed suit. What was once a tool reserved for shielding the creators of larger bodies of work is now a vehicle of expression for a countless number of people.
The Pseudonymous Internet
This isn’t a new phenomenon by any means. The early days of internet chatrooms were a place anyone could express themselves, free of the constraints of their offline lives. Many people not much older than myself look back on these days fondly.
Soon though, this all changed. The introduction of social networks was, as Fadeke Adegbuyi puts it, “a great unmasking.” Suddenly, we were expected to share our lives with everyone, and if we didn’t, we simply couldn’t operate in the new digital age. In line with Facebook’s real name policy, in 2010, Mark Zuckerberg infamously suggested “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Facebook still has over 200 million fake accounts.
As it happens, the internet wasn’t built with real names in mind, and we’re likely seeing a return to the pseudonymous fundamentals of the early web. The resultant effect might be what Sarah Guo calls “identity dispersion”:
“I believe we are going to see the opposite of the context collapse of the internet today. I call it identity dispersion, where individuals control the creation, separation and unification of their multiple online selves.”
We already inhabit many identities in the real world. We are friends, siblings, parents, children, employees, creators, and artists. With this in mind, a structured dispersion of identity online seems totally normal.
What enables this is already commonplace across tooling in modern day communication apps. Multiple account support on services like Gmail or social media platforms like Twitter were once intended to separate one’s work and personal lives, but have since been retrofitted to enable easy pseudonymity for many.
The reason for this is simple: today, we’ve all become media companies of one. Simply participating makes everyone a public figure, which means everyone’s at the mercy of their audience. This is especially true for anyone with a lot of eyeballs on them. Parasocial relationships have become pervasive, and pseudonymity especially shields anyone with a following.
Practically speaking, this is already being normalized at higher and higher levels of work. Square funded a pseudonymous developer almost 3 years ago, and we’re now seeing a noticeable flux of pseudonymous founders building some of the most disruptive projects around today. It’s becoming so common, that guides for founding companies pseudonymously are suddenly typical.
At the core of this is the concept of reputation. For most of us today, every facet of our lives and the reputation we carry in each of them is mapped to our legal name. In the future, it might become commonplace to use a number of different pseudonyms for many parts of our lives. Dr. Alfred Moore continues in a 2017 paper:
“Pseudonymity can enable the creation of spaces in which people are not bound by demands for consistency across different domains of their life, but only by the more limited demand for consistency within the forum itself. Durability within the context of the forum enables others to challenge, question, and criticize the claims made in the course of debate.”
In the future, we might see better tools for us to make this a reality at scale. Photorealistic avatars are very quickly improving, and human-seeming audio and video filters might add a greater range of freedom for people to operate pseudonymously.
Discrimination, Cancellation and Theft
In applying pseudonymity at scale, we’re effectively decoupling ideas from people.
A primary advantage is the combatting of discrimination. As the world becomes more and more interconnected, the darker side of our human tendency toward tribalism often creates in and out group dynamics that hinder progress on a larger scale. By employing pseudonyms, we make discrimination not only unlikely, but outright impossible. Balaji Srinivasan sums it up well:
“Rather than make naive appeals to people to look past gender, or look past race, or look past this or look past that, or to not cancel or to not discriminate online, instead we make it impossible for people to do that by taking away that kind of information entirely with realistic avatars and with fully functional pseudonyms.”
By removing signals of race, color and creed, ideas are judged independently and equally. In forcing ourselves to look past the qualities of their authors, we advance ourselves through what can only be described as an idea meritocracy.
Another advantage of pseudonymity is resistance to cancellation. When a mob doesn’t know the person they’re targeting, an individual is shielded from the threat to their reputation they’d otherwise face. Though edge cases of more radical speech can be an issue in removing a speaker’s identity, removal of fear from cancellation on net leads to freer thoughts and more honest expression. Carmela Ciuraru provides some commentary in her book, Nom de Plume:
“Assume an alias, and the depth of the mind can be plumbed at last, without fear of retribution, mockery or—worst of all— irrelevance. The erasure of a primary name can reveal what appears to be a truer, better more authentic self. Or it can attain the opposite, by allowing a writer to take flight from a self that is “true” yet shameful or despised.”
One final advantage of employing a pseudonym is a resistance to theft. As our data and identities become more susceptible and the rise of self-custodied assets allows us to take our resources into our own hands, the threat of theft becomes more real. If you had a bank vault full of cash in your home, you wouldn’t want everyone in the world to know about it. By masking one’s true identity, self-custody can work at scale.
As with any tool, pseudonymity comes with its own set of caveats, problems and disadvantages.
To start, we might consider when not to use a pseudonym. Firstly, we’re social creatures who evolved to interact in a face-to-face format. Brands, avatars and opaque identities simply don’t identify with people as well as other people do.
Secondly, a new pseudonym has a cold start problem. Seeing as built reputation is the only proxy for trust that a pseudonym affords, building reputation without having reputation can be difficult. Zero-knowledge proofs present a potential solution to the reputation problem by verifying one’s identity without disclosing it, but until that tool actually exists, the problem remains.
Thirdly, as pseudonyms and the tools that support them abstract away many defining human characteristics from individuals, proving their humanity becomes that much more difficult. With astounding advancements in AI, machine learning and natural language processing, humans and machines are becoming more and more difficult to discern from one another. Proof-of-humanity is another problem that needs to be solved altogether, but pseudonymity does it no favors.
Fourthly is the question of human interaction and cooperation. While pseudonymity doesn’t necessarily imply a lack of personal connection, it’s not clear how pseudonymity at scale might impact people’s attitudes toward interacting and working together. As it happens, this complete freedom of expression might come at the cost of making us less engaged in our lives.
Lastly, and what some might consider the biggest problem pseudonymity implies is that obscurity from the eyes of the public can bring out the worst in some people. Anonymity on forums like 4chan has been attributed to the enablement of extremist and fringe ideologies and the real-world violence that can arise from it. What’s more is that anonymity can also shield bad actors from facing proper legal consequences for their actions. There’s a good change pseudonymity could come with similar problems, as crypto scams have become more and more common under the mask of a pseudonym.
The climate, implications and tools exposed to us online today make widespread pseudonymity not just possible, but likely for more and more people in the years ahead. We already take on multiple identities offline in our roles as spouses, children, or employees, and in our online lives across accounts on social media and other communication channels.
This implied shift back toward the pseudonymous principles of the early internet come with the benefits of protection from discrimination cancellation and theft. On the other hand though, they might hinder how we identify and interact with one another.
In all, a more toward pseudonymity at scale represents a truer and less burdened use of the internet for individual expression. In segmenting our identities online to the same degree they exist offline, real names might come to be just be one identity in a collection of many.
Thanks for reading,
11 Reasons Not to Become Famous (or “A Few Lessons Learned Since 2007”) by Tim Ferriss
8chan, a nexus of radicalization, explained by Emily Stewart
A Software Engineer Says Google’s Artificial Intelligence Believes It’s Human by NewsOne Staff
Audience, Algorithm And Virality: Why TikTok Will Continue To Shape Culture In 2021 by Michelle Greenwald
Balaji's Vision of the Future: The Pseudonymous Economy by APEX
Data breaches break record in 2021 by Bree Fowler
Deep Learning for Deepfakes Creation and Detection: A Survey. Thanh Thi Nguyen et al.
Equifax Says Cyberattack May Have Affected 143 Million in the U.S. by Tara Siegel Bernard, Tiffany Hsu, Nicole Perlroth and Ron Lieber
From Fernando Pessoa to Pseudonymous Identity by Camellia Yang
How Beijing silences Chinese voices against oppression of Uyghurs by Alice Su
How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life by Jon Ronson
How Pseudonymity Can Foster Innovations in the Modern Age by Pui Ki
I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience by Alice E. Marwick and Danah Boyd
Ledger data leak: A ‘simple mistake’ exposed 270K crypto wallet buyers by Osato Avan-Nomayo
Our Pseudonymous Selves by Fadeke Adegbuyi
Pseudonymity 101 by Abhisek Basu
Pseudonymous Identity: Actualise yourself while maintaining privacy and security By Adithya Rowi
Raising Capital as a Pseudonymous Founder by Soona Amhaz
The Blurred Lines of Parasocial Relationships by Fadeke Adegbuyi
The Great Online Game by Packy McCormack
The Information That Is Needed to Identify You: 33 Bits by WSJ Staff
The Origin of Names by David R. Evans
The Pseudonymous Economy - What Is It & Why Does It Matter? | Satoshis Movement & Balajis Idea by Till Mushoff
The Pseudonymous Economy by Balaji Srinivasan
The Pseudonymous Founder’s Playbook by Bored Elon and Sachin Maini
The importance of pseudonymous identities and how to create one by Aeon
This Sure Looks Like Mitt Romney’s Secret Twitter Account (Update: It Is) by Ashley Feinberg
We Found The Real Names Of Bored Ape Yacht Club’s Pseudonymous Founders by Katie Notopoulos
What Yearn Finance’s ‘Blue Kirby’ Incident Means for Pseudonymity by William Foxley
When we design our identities from scratch by Sarah Guo
Who Is That? The Study of Anonymity and Behavior by Joe Dawson
Why Mark Zuckerberg needs to come clean about his views on privacy by Kim-Mai Cutler
Why did James Comey name his secret Twitter account ‘Reinhold Niebuhr’? Here’s what we know. by Michelle Boorstein