A global shift is happening in the way people “exist”, and just like every global shift- it’s useful to be on the frontier as it happens and not be on the sidelines watching. In this essay, I hope to take you off the sidelines, and into one of the most interesting phenomenons of the online world, which, when harnessed, is nothing short of a superpower.
Like every superpower, it is important to remember that with great power, comes great responsibility. The power that I’m going to talk about today, has arguably allowed one of the biggest inventions of the 21st century to thrive(Bitcoin), and I’m sure that if it is used well by the right people- this will make more such revolutionary innovations possible.
This is the superpower of pseudonymity.
Pseudonymity is the superpower of creating new identities. Think of it like Bruce Wayne going out as Batman to save the city of Gotham, doing things that he couldn’t do without a mask. But Bruce Wayne is a billionaire, and probably has thousands of nameless people working on his batcave to maintain and make everything possible. That, in itself, is a privilege that we non-billionaires don’t have.
Or, do we?
Before social media existed in the form that it does now, internet message boards didn’t really require our real “names” and location. We could be anyone, anonymous like they are at 4chan, and post anything we wanted. Or we could be pseudonymous and have a reputation built up over time.
Most of Reddit, Tumblr, and to some extent, twitter, also exhibit this latter philosophy.
Facebook, despite its recent metaverse push, has been the worst at facilitating this and they do ban people if they fail to provide identification once something goes wrong. Ironically, Facebook still has over 200 million “fake” accounts.
There is a difference, though, between “fake” accounts and pseudonymous identities. Those operating fake accounts are usually impersonating someone else, and it’s usually for a malicious purpose. Those with pseudonymous accounts may just want a different audience, more privacy or just to keep their interest circles separate.
Many believe that when you allow people to wear a mask, it brings out the worst in people. They cite examples from 4chan where legions of anonymous “trolls” carry out pranks which may be considered distasteful, but I believe there is more to this scenario and it’s one of the best features of the internet that we have today.
To be fair, we must distinguish between anonymity and pseudonymity first.
Anonymity is just when a person reveals nothing about themselves ever, doesn’t necessarily have a name, and doesn’t have a long term reputation in anything. Anonymity is fickle by nature and fades away as quickly as it emerges, but then again, anonymity has it’s place and legitimate use-cases.
Whistleblowers are known to use anonymity to reveal things of utmost human importance while shielding themselves from oppressive governments, while at other places, anonymity can be the only way we defy pluralistic ignorance.
Because pseudonymous identities still have a reputation attached to them, you perhaps don’t want to upset your existing audience or interest circle with a hot take, that might be justified. However, if you have a pseudonymous account just for hot takes, then that might fit this purpose. You can spot such accounts in political and cultural discourse already, and while I personally think that is a huge waste of time, if someone finds meaning doing that, who am I to judge?
Pseudonymity is different from anonymity. It is where you actually have a reputation and build it up over time. Pseudonymity has been widely used by authors since ages, and is still used by authors to this day. Successful authors like Stephen King and JK Rowling have had and used pseudonyms to publish multiple books, and these are only the famous ones that we know of.
As someone who has used pseudonyms to publish multiple books in different genres, I can tell you from experience that there are a lot of indie writers who embrace the idea of pseudonyms and actively create different pseudonyms when they are venturing out to write in different genres.
While business-wise it makes sense to keep your audiences separate, there could be a myriad of reasons why some people would choose to have pseudonyms, and many of those reasons could be personal. But in this day and age, I’m starting to think that one or two pseudonymous identities might become a necessity in the online world.
It is not human nature to do one thing throughout one’s whole life without at least exploring what other things feel like. These days, the world and society are keen on pushing us to specialize in one field while ignoring everything else. While that can be useful for many, there are those who would rather not restraint their creativity to one specific domain. Some of the greatest creators, thinkers and builders in the world have been polymaths, intrinsically interested in different things rather than restricting themselves to one domain.
Starting a pseudonym for something else like a different hobby or interest can be an effective way of capturing and building an audience, making friends, finding lovers or just finding like-minded people there. The possibilities are endless, and it’s unlikely you won’t find someone else who likes the same things as you do.
A pseudonym also makes sure your real name isn’t tied up to all your thoughts and writing online. Authors have always known this, and specially authors who write romance novels or erotica, or anything that they wouldn’t necessarily want their co-workers to know about. YouTubers too, have started creating videos where their face isn’t visible.
Soon enough, there will be technology to allow for efficient voice-changing software, efficient face-tracking and avatar creation, so that you can hypothetically still film yourself while creating a video but end up changing that to look like whoever you want to look like. Some early versions of such software already exists, and I’ll probably write an essay about those tools soon.
Where there is freedom, there are opportunity costs associated with it. Without going into the costs too much as that is a personal debate for most, let us explore what you can do with this new superpower.
You can also choose to have pseudonyms for separating multiple dimensions of your life like-
1. A pseudonym for work / freelancing / anything related to income
This pseudonym would also ensure that you are not adversely affected when you’re cancelled by a raging mob, as is common in our trigger-happy culture these days where people are assumed to be guilty until they’re proven innocent. Thus, this pseudonym would ensure that whatever happens in the hive-mind culture of ours, you wouldn’t starve because of being fired from a job.
Because cryptocurrencies exist, you can be comfortably paid for the work you do- without worrying about reputation damage. This allows you to do your best work, without worrying about the mob.
2. A pseudonym for hobbies / side projects
This pseudonym can allow you to document your journey in that side-project in public, without annoying the rest of the people who follow you on your main / other pseudonymous account. Documenting your journey will also lead to like-minded people following you and help you make new friends who are on the same path.
It can also allow you to build in decentralized protocols in private, and share that with more like-minded people who are helping out in the same way. Because there are no legal vultures present, you’ll have an ample peace of mind to build something useful.
3. A pseudonym for culture wars and political debate
While I firmly believe that politics is a mind-killer, there can be some instances where you have to be out there voicing an opinion that’s widely considered “dangerous.”
As with all great unconventional ideas, voicing this on a personal account will allow less sophisticated readers to comb through your profile for your personal information, going back years to find some “dirt”, just to show how you are either contradicting yourself and not the person you’re portraying yourself to be. While it’s easy to debunk these, as changing one’s beliefs in the realm of new evidence against them is a sign of rationality and maturity, not everyone thinks that way. It’s far easier to participate in political culture with pseudonyms especially if you have something important to say, than to jeopardize your personal and professional relationships over them.
Along with these, the ideas can be endless and your reasons for starting a pseudonym will be different than mine. But it is important to start one, regardless of your already established levels of followers or reputation on your existing account.
I should also point out that there will be tremendous opportunity costs associated with starting a pseudonym if you’re just trying to increase your follower count in a big niche. Like you, there are entire businesses competing for the same attention. That’s not meant to discourage you. PewDiePie still gets more viewers than your local news channel. But it’s still something to think about, and think carefully about the reasons before you start one.
At the end of the day, pseudonymity is like a shield, and not like a sword. Putting on the mask offers several powers, but it also brings about some important responsibilities.
If you use these powers right- you can harness powers that few people can dream of.
Let’s imagine one scenario.
It is the year 2085. Jacob goes by @jckob2026, follows a couple of his friends and coworkers, and occasionally retweets memes that relate to programming.
One fine day, much to Jacob’s dismay, an online mob starts attacking him for a tweet he shared, calling people who have never held bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency as non-coiners.
Non-coiners is considered a privilege-blind slur by many in 2085, and @jckob2028 starts getting hammered for days. The mob starts tagging his workplace and starts pressuring them to fire him. His friends, especially those who he wasn’t close with, starts tweeting about they are “deeply disappointed” by him.
Just when we see that there’s no recourse, one person stands up for him. It is @JillStanKle who tweets-
The outrage briefly stops. Some parts of the mob disagree with @JillStanKle and start thrashing him. A tiny minority starts seeing Jacob in a new light and forgives him. Many others make it their life’s mission to search for some dirt on @JillStanKle’s account.
As the outrage still continues, @torotorise8 tweets in @Jacob’s favour-
The mob fizzles out after torotorise8’s tweet. Everyone going through the on-chain wallet could verify Jacob’s donation. Jacob’s “friends” who tweeted their “disappointment” quickly deleted their tweet and retweeted torotoise8’s tweet.
Jacob finally felt at peace. He opened his browsers again, and logged out of the @torotorise and @JillStanKyle accounts. Both of these identities are him, different pseudonyms, all with a different reputation and different following. They aren’t the only ones- but thankfully, he didn’t have to use his larger accounts to come at his rescue.
This is just one fictional example of how powerful pseudonymous identities can be. You don’t have to create them in the hope that you will someday be able to leverage them for this kind of security, but you can always find a reason to start one today and leverage them in creative ways later. These identities will be the nuclear weapon of the future, preventing bullies and mobs, as no one knows who’s got a 20M YouTube account ready to refute your accusation.
They will enable creativity at scale, allowing the banker to write fiction, the doctor to indulge in poetry, the painter to write code, the pilot to teach foreign languages, and all of these people will build a reputation and audience by doing what they love.
It is unknown what work will look like in the future, but if AI isn’t capable of entertaining us- it is humans who will entertain humanity, by creating things that helps the rest of the world escape briefly into different worlds and find meaning in unconventional places.
Overall, the pseudonymous identity is a frontier that should be embraced now. As technology evolves, we should have similar technology to represent us in the virtual “metaverse”, 3D avatars, and the like.
I once had a pseudonym that was fairly successful in what it was intended to be. But I was also 13 at the time, did the silly mistake of trusting too easily, and thus, I was doxxed and my real identity was revealed by someone I had considered a friend. That is a sad story for another day.
I’ve been wiser since then, and unless you and I are really close pals, you will never be able to find out what my pseudonyms are.
There are 3 important rules you can do to achieve this level of confidence, which are-
1. Do not use a single source of creation.
If you’re starting one pseudonym, it should be with a different email provider than the one you currently use for your main. If you’re starting a different pseudonym, you should use a different email provider for that. If it happens that email providers are not required and wallet addresses are required instead, you should use different wallet address. Your first job here is to confuse the ones with root access, and these are ones who own the platform that you are signing up for.
2. Do not tell anyone who you are.
While Iron Man can be admired by the masses for coming out and preaching “I am Iron Man”, that’s not what we want to do, at least initially. We have to be Batman, and we have to keep out identities secret. It is at the end of life or at the end of our purpose that we can reveal who we are, if we want to do so, but not at the beginning. No matter how much you trust someone online, you should not tell them who you are. Remember that once you do, there’s no going back.
This rule becomes exceedingly difficult to follow if your pseudonym is famous, so it requires quite a bit of discipline to maintain this.
3. Don’t be evil.
If you’re using your pseudonym to do something illegal and malicious, you will be discovered and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Following Rule 1 often fails to be effective if a national government orders every service to collude and figure out who you are. It doesn’t matter what VPN you use, how much you try to protect yourself, you will be discovered.
So don’t be stupid. A pseudonym fulfills a lot of different effective purposes, but doing something malicious is not it’s purpose. The whole purpose of a pseudonym is to build up an alternate reputation that’s detached from your main name. It’s a shield, rather than a sword. It’s supposed to show the light, not join the legions of anons in the darkness.
That is it.
One of my big mistakes in life is that I didn’t start enough pseudonyms earlier. Although the cost of starting one and the opportunity cost of it is higher right now, I know I wouldn’t shy away from pseudonyms if I see a long enough play.
The magic of pseudonyms is that it usually means you’re starting out as a nobody with 0 followers, from day 1. Sure, if you have enough followers on your other alts, you can transfer reputation by cross-sharing your pseudonym’s posts, but that would also increase the chances of someone figuring out who you are- or at least, narrow down the possibilities.
So, if you’re starting from zero, you should have a good enough reason for starting one so that you stick with it for years to come.
As everything becomes more and more digital, physical identities will soon be equally as relevant as digital identities in the long run. In an episode of Black Mirror, a populist pseudonym called Waldo manages to win the elections and become president, which has been compared to Trump winning by several dimwit journalists.
While a pseudonym winning and becoming a leader is shown as “bad”, like everything on that show- at bright mirror, we’re not going to jump to such a conclusion.
Maybe, a pseudonymous president wouldn’t “by-default” be a bad thing, as for a pseudonym to sufficiently convince the entire population of a nation to vote for them over someone physically campaigning is in-itself a feat, and overcoming the inherent biases against something digital over someone physical isn’t something easy. And who knows, maybe you can become one too?
It is really in the later years of a pseudonym’s life that the benefits of having a pseudonym start compounding, and with the tools we’re going to have soon- there’s no better time to start than starting one today.