In college, I signed up for an online account for a messaging service called Internet Relay Chat (IRC). It pre-dated AOL instant messenger, texting, and even cell phones. Signing up meant you needed a name, and you could find me on IRC under the handle 'RedSuit007'. The early internet wasn't much: channels to chat with your friends, email, and eventually pirated MP3s shared on University local area networks (LANs), so the chat name you chose wasn't used for much. But this was my name. So what's in a name?
I was fresh off a summer of lifeguarding, and 'RedSuit' seemed like as good of a moniker as any. Why 7? Simply because 001, 002...etc. were taken, and I was feeling lucky about #7. Friends knew RedSuit007 = Matt, but 'online friends' solely knew me through this name.
We didn't realize it at the time, but the early web was an experiment in identity. For some, anonymous accounts quickly became part of your identity. For others, they went just as quickly as they came. IRC was followed by ICQ, by AOL, and then by several others. Adopting handles and identities was as fluid as adopting the newest technologies.
In the early '00s, Facebook ushered in a new era of "real name" policies. Nudging you at first, to log in with your school email address, and then ultimately adopting real names as a standard. No one seemed to notice, as the simplicity of finding your friends and logging in across the internet with your credentials outweighed any privacy concerns.
But a stark shift followed when college graduates began to realize that their entire history of 'extracurricular' activities was posted online for any future employer to see — likes and all. To circumvent this, last names were dropped in favor of a letter only; first names were changed to nicknames or middle names; accounts were deleted and fresh accounts were made. Meanwhile, Finsta (Fake Instagram) or other burner accounts were made for young people to post without fear of consequence, retribution, or judgment. The pendulum that swung from anonymous to real began to swing back.
"The internet has an identity crisis", writes Kei Kreutler of the Gnosis Guild, describing the clumsy shifts between anonymous, real, and back. But an individual's desire to balance public and private information is intentional. Ideally, sharing professionally is different that sharing socially is different than sharing privately. But in practicality, this separation might be like the separation between Church and State: great on paper, but difficult in practice.
In the 2019 talk The Pseudonymous Economy, Balaji S. Srinivasan makes the case that rather than a binary identity, pseudonymity sits on a public and private spectrum. But why Pseudonyms? Balaji argues,
“The pseudonymous economy is the foundation for muscular classical liberalism that is capable of standing up in today’s information environment. Rather than make naive appeals to people to look past gender or race, or to not cancel or to not discriminate online, instead we make it impossible to do that by taking away that information entirely with realistic avatars and fully functional pseudonyms.”
That's a strong position. He goes on to lay out some important features of pseudonymity:
- It’s not anonymity: A pseudonym can have a reputation and metadata that follows throughout different interactions, whereas anonyms are not persistent at all.
- It’s already mainstream: The basic idea is already pervasive both online (usernames) and offline (nicknames and changed names).
- It’s essential to decentralization: It is an identity that is chosen rather than given and cannot be leveraged against any one individual. He explains, is that it allows for freedom after speech, defending you against disruptions to your social networks in the age of online mobs, he argues. Just as your bank account is your stored wealth, your real name is your stored reputation. Pseudonymity insures against unjustified debit to that reputation.
- It’s where society is already going: In many realms, from the increasingly remote nature of our economy to crypto to even hiring practices, society has already implemented many of these concepts as common practice.
I recently set up a pseudonymous Twitter account. In the typical ethos of learning, I experimented with a few identities. I thought hard (too hard) to choose which core attributes of myself I wanted to reflect. But naturally, we reverse-engineer narratives better than producing them a priori, and so my pseudonymous Twitter account fits me perfectly. Even down to my PFP.
I've learned a few lessons using this alt account so far. First, growing a Twitter following from scratch is hard. You need to say interesting things, provide value, and develop a reputation. But this is also true for a real-name account. Relationships take time, regardless of anonymity. Second, people are just as likely to 'like' or 'retweet' something interesting you share from a real-name vs. pseudonymous account. Value is value. Third, I can already see the allure of an alt account. I think less about what I post there — perhaps because it has 10x fewer followers than my main account, but also perhaps because there are fewer consequences. Just as Balaji argued.
Part of the excitement around Web3 is to recapture the experimental ethos of the internet. New tools that will allow people to connect and transact without ever knowing who they are. Creating an account on the blockchain does not require any identifying data. Creating a pseudonymous account on Twitter required me to validate with my telephone number...they know it's me. But to the rest of the world, it's just another pseudonymous account. And perhaps with enough time and effort, it'll be a pseudonymous account with proof of value.
But the question remains: would you trust or transact with a pseudonymous account? On one hand, we already do. Brands are experiments in pseudonymous identities: they are not a person — they are an idea. Yes, a person underlies the picture, logo, or tweet, but it's not the person we buy from or the person we hire, it's the brand we associate with it, and the proof of value they might provide. The conceptual leap to do business with a brand name is a small one. Brands become trusted names.
But would you do business with RedSuit007? Would you hire a well-qualified person behind a pseudonymous CryptoPunk avatar? This leap is becoming shorter. Today, credentials and degrees matter less than what a person has done and what they can do for you. If a name has proof — proof of work, proof of knowledge, proof of influence, or proof of future value — does it matter their 'real' name? The internet is quickly moving back towards privacy, anonymity, and proof. So if you need to reach me, you can find me under RedSuit007, Matthew Hirschey, or ◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️◼️.