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January 12, 2022

When we design our identities from scratch

how avatars might help us all use the internet better

The great online game is working fine for me, so it’s easy to keep playing. Granted, we play the game at the cost of our brains being soft-boiled by the constant, warm barrage of internet points we are rewarded with – but hey, who pays attention these days anyway? Go ahead and burn those dopamine pathways to the ground. And yet, I am drawn to pseudonymity, to an escape hatch. It is one of the greatest hopes I have for the internet. 

Why hide your real identity if you have nothing to hide? I’m a social integrator (vs. a segmenter),  and I generally love to introduce people to one another from different walks of my life. I group-travel with the founders I work with, investors I co-invest with, and my college friends, all in one often initially awkward mix. I lack hidden heretical beliefs that the superwoke crowd would cancel me for. My weird opinions mostly just stop at weird, not “unacceptable.”

Perhaps it’s just nostalgia, but despite having “little to hide,” I recall a better way to use the internet. My interest in the internet as a kid was entirely exploratory, rather than performative. Bored out of my suburban small-town mind, I wanted to play Starcraft and learn random things and chat on IRC with new people around the world who shared my interests. The content-clout-access-alpha treadmill that Packy McCormick smartly observes did not yet exist.

Why was that pseudonymous presence on the internet better? Social media platforms have made all of us minor celebrities, and celebrity is an unpleasant thing. Celebrity psychology is fundamentally anxious, burdening us with constant performance, self-consciousness and self-censorship. We all become shades of Princess Diana, looking over her shoulder for the paparazzi. It limits our sense of self, and our self-expression.

There may be a light at the end of the tunnel for anyone that seeks an escape. 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.

How will our sense of identity change when we can fully and safely create it, not just curate it? It’s worth exploring some coming changes to internet identity:

  1. We can be pseudonymous
  2. We can be more than our physical selves
  3. We can be part of many, and more powerful communities
  4. We can have online identities with increasing value
  5. We will reflect our online identities into the real world

1. We can be pseudonymous

In a presentation first given in 2019, Balaji described the potential for a pseudonymous economy – populated by persistent, non-real names that can accrue reputation, or as he terms it, “social wealth.” Fundamentally, he argues that pseudonymity will give individuals the ability to protect their social wealth, which is today vulnerable to canceling or negative press attacks. The optimistic extension of this is that if people are protected from these attacks, we would move closer to an idea meritocracy, where people can speak their minds and the best ideas win. Entire classes of identity based discrimination would disappear, such as “she just thinks that because she’s a [identity label].”

2. We can be more than our physical selves

Just as Instagram’s rise amplified the world’s obsession with physical aesthetics, avatars that abstract our physical selves can decrease it. A focus on our physical appearances is arbitrary: does it matter that I am attractive? That you are? Why? How is the conversation we have different if I mask my gender, age, ethnicity, shape?

Where photos still represent most of us on social media today, they don’t have to. Kids are already happy to run around in Roblox as a boxy pumpkin with a rabbit as a hat, or in Fortnite in their Moisty Merman skin. Millions of adults have replaced their twitter profile pics with NFTs denoting an appreciation for pixel art or membership in cyberpunk or hypebeast culture. 

Individuals will be able to perform valuable knowledge work, even collaborative knowledge work, without exposing our physical appearances, as we increasingly work through multiplayer, web-based productivity and creative tools. Deepfake technology, allowing you to synthetically generate human-seeming video or audio, is increasingly commoditized. I already generously apply Zoom’s “touch up my appearance” function until my skin is buttery-smooth.

Intuitively, given the freedom to be whatever they want in both social and productive settings, many people imagine and reimagine themselves creatively. I expect what we choose, if given a clean sheet of paper, to be quite a bit more colorful than the handful of flavors of influencers and Kardashian clones that populate my timeline today. I personally plan to be, most of the time, a seven foot tall androgynous cyborg in a squid mask.

3. We can be part of many, and more powerful communities

We will not choose single pseudonyms, but experiment with them and with many communities. Importantly, those marginalized in real life can find communities like themselves. The internet has long been a refuge for the only [fill-in-the-blank] kid of every type in school.

In 2000, Robert Putnam wrote an influential, chart-filled book called Bowling Alone about the dramatic decrease in social capital in the US from ~1970-2000. He distinguishes “bonding” (exclusive) social capital and “bridging” (inclusive) social capital. Multiple pseudonyms will allow us to be part of different communities that don’t seem consistent. They could let us be our full, multifaceted selves, exposing more ties that bridge seemingly siloed communities today.

A new book should be written about the experimentation in internet community organization happening these days, but suffice it to say that communities formed of anons are trying to build software, fund startups, collect art, compose art, buy the constitution, create golf memberships and much more.

4. We can have online identities with increasing value

Already, accounts have built economic value in the distribution they have with their audiences – not just supporting the celebrity of a person, but on their own – think of a meme, comedy, or curation account. Loved and hated pseudonymous Twitch streamer Dream and the artist formerly known as @Punk4156 have undeniable reach and influence.

As pseudonyms become more verifiable, they become more valuable. Increasingly, pseudonyms in web3 can verify inventory (money, digital goods) and history (proof of attendance, transactions, content creation). As we do work for organizations and communities under our pseudonyms, they become more valuable.

5. We will reflect our online identities into the real world

By providing us freedom to experiment and accruing value, pseudonyms serve as R&D for our core identities. Some of the more controversial opinions we express in lower-stakes arenas will get reflected back into the real world, especially as we find communities of like-minded people. For example, a surprising number of people raised their real-name hands as supporters of @PsychedelicsAnonymous, which is then not-so-anonymous. Some of the wealth (social, financial) we build will get absorbed back into our core identities.

What of accountability?

One of the weirder tech experiences I had last year was my BrightID account setup, which involved a group zoom call where I proved I was a human being, but I was cheered by this idea. Technology platforms without real name requirements will need to create other protections against abuse. While pseudonymity removes the ability to censure real individuals for abhorrent opinions and behavior, does being pseudonymous encourage people to behave badly?

A red herring argument against pseudonymity is often, “do you want the whole internet to be a 4chan full of trolls?” No, I do not – indeed, after a single experience, I never intend to go on 4chan again. But that feels like more fundamentally a community issue than a transparency issue. Pseudonyms remain subject to community norms and policing, or lack thereof. Research and practice remains inconclusive on this topic.  It is perhaps obscurity from others rather than anonymity that encourages bad behavior. My own guess is yes, pseudonymity somewhat enables the trolls, and this is one of the more important criticisms of a pseudonymous future. I can also imagine communities that more robustly reject abuse from pseudonyms.

Raise a mask to freedom

Net, I think these changes to online identity represent a more exploratory and less self-conscious use of the internet for expression. 300M Snapchat users choose to communicate ephemerally with less fear of judgment. Far from being niche, I think at least as many of us want to experiment and express ourselves more freely across multiple channels. Multiple personas will be work to construct and manage, but worth it, and their rise may represent opportunities for new tools (what is my social and financial wealth across my wallets?). Speculating on the consequences of this identity dispersion, I don’t know what the future holds, but I think it will be wild and weird, and I hope we will find more bridging connections and more about ourselves. Some of the side effects I think will be even weirder – including fully constructed characters we interact with, from Hatsune Miku to LilMiquela.

I hope to see you on our respective avatar-masked identity quests. Don’t doxx me.

Thanks to Packy McCormick and Balaji Srinivasan for their thoughts and feedback.