In the celebrity culture that dazzled us for a while, the talented, beautiful, or outrageous among us gathered fame like snowballs rolling downhill. Everybody knew their name, and they trailed that glory everywhere they went.
Now, many of the hottest influencers are avatars online—real people using a pseudonym or virtual avatars that can shift shape and name with a bit of code. We follow an identity, a persona, for what it brings us in digital form. We change our own identities, too, adopting a handle or username that no one will connect to the dork paying taxes on a ranch house in Poughkeepsie.
Balaji Srinivasan sees significance in these pseudonyms. In fact, he sees them as our future. We might pursue political interests online under one pseudonym, surf porn or shop for collectibles under another, work the day job under a third, socialize under a fourth….
This is not altogether new; there have always been skillful con artists and puppeteers; people plagued by voices and delusions; farces that unravel from mistaken identity; bigamists, faded stars who clung to a persona. What is new is that, according to Srinivasan, a pseudonymous life is about to become the gold standard of our economy. “We’re the last generation that will use our real faces on the public internet,” he predicts.
Who is this guy? His Twitter blurb reads “immutable money, infinite frontier, eternal life. #Bitcoin.” Those are clues. Cofounder of a genetic testing company and a Bitcoin currency exchange, Srinivasan is an angel investor (always a suspect term) and a tech thinker. In 2013, he urged Silicon Valley to break free of this country’s clueless federal government, Wall Street, and academe—none of which were keeping pace with its potential. The U.S. was “‘the Microsoft of nations’: outdated and obsolescent.” Tech’s gleaming power should exist outside the country’s borders—metaphorically if not literally.
Since then, he has made the point that “digital currency is part of a fundamental shift in human organization, really a return from sheer geography to shared ideas.” With so much of life online, we will be able to create our own cities, our own countries.
For now, Srinivasan is pushing pseudonyms. He believes a shift to a pseudonymous economy will be (to use a word already exhausted) transformative, supporting a global shift toward decentralization. “Pseudonyms are interesting,” he says, “because they’re not your real name, but they are persistent…and you can build up reputation on them.” You can amass followers for that identity, and if any established institution or Twitter mob dares threaten that version of you, you can easily evade them by simply transferring your followers to a new avatar.
Is this high-tech cloak and dagger necessary for most of us or just a handy trick for the influencers? In the world Srinivasan envisions, we will all have hyperconnected, networked identities—lots of them. Real names will be reserved for the IRS and health care. A rotating cast of avatars will represent us in every other sphere.
I used my maiden name when I reported for an alt newsweekly to avoid the lurid hate mail, so I do see his point. Now, though, I remain myself everywhere I go. It is simpler that way. Split into the multiple identities Srinivasan suggests, I would need the equivalent of a password manager just to remember who I was where. This is why I never went into espionage. It takes far too much mental energy to live an alternate identity. What happened to the idea of integrating our identity? Of being the same person in every setting, clear-eyed and true to oneself? It feels profoundly icky to me, not to mention unhealthy, to fragment the self into multiple selves.
By design, the internet encourages anonymity. Social media offers handles and avatars, as does gaming, as does cryptocurrency, as does every retailer who wants your product review. Profiles are created from scratch, not from reality. As the FBI knows all too well, someone in a chat room is often not who they say they are. Kids set up two social media accounts, one with their real name where Aunt Gladys can poke around, another for their friends. Politicians (even Mitt Romney!) sometimes feel safer with a pseudonym on Twitter. I winced several years ago, when St. Louis Magazine began publishing critical, sharply opinionated feedback signed by winniethepooh97 or LuciferintheHotTub. Not only did the signature undercut the writer’s tone and trivialize the practice, but it erased accountability, granting a free pass to anybody who wanted to blow steam without consequences. In today’s hypervigilant and often capricious cancel culture, though, it is tempting to look for ways to speak freely without repercussions.
Alternate identities fascinate me; I changed my first name every day the summer I turned seven. And I still remember the thrill of finding out the author Benjamin Black was actually John Banville. It is fun to unmask someone, or to know their secret. But if we all have to do that all the time, it could get old.
And socially, societally, there will be a loss.
I love doing background research for a profile. There is a thrill to tracing someone through their various ages, interests, and avocations, finding a video of a theoretical physicist playing pickleball or a judge cracking up when he stumbles through a Dancing with the Stars benefit. Stern experts turn into human beings. People surprise me with interests, traits, talents, and commitments I never would have guessed and they would never have thought to mention. A two-dimensional snapshot acquires some depth—and I gain a bit of perspective.
Srinivasan sees pseudonyms as protection from any centralized institution that means us harm, but I see them as breaking us into bits that are hard for anyone else to assemble. It will be harder to be known. The privacy of multiple identities will make us inscrutable to anyone we have not handpicked to know all our avatars.
Maybe that is how it should be, and anyone outside that trusted circle has no business knowing how a person moves through life. Snooping reporters will be forced to work with only what their subject tells them. Single people will have no way to figure out more about the person they are about to meet.
But why, after years of ethicists, therapists, and clergy urging integrity and authenticity and warning us about serious disorders that fragment personality and dissociate us from a stable self, would we decide to move in that direction?
For decades, we divulged too much—all those intimate, self-indulgent public confessions; all those silly Facebook pics, drunk at a college party, rued when the kid later finds work as a substance abuse counselor. Now we are pulling back. Phone numbers are hard to find; so are email addresses; so, often, is corporate contact information. We are changing from a confessional society to a sneaky one, with digital power opaque and everybody flying below the radar, popping up as somebody different. Srinivasan defends this in Robin Hood terms: We are taking power away from legacy institutions and sharing it with connected individuals. But however nobly you talk about decentralization, power does not shift to the individual simply because they cloak their identity. Form your own digital country, build yourself five different digital selves with five separate careers, and power will still reside with the tech providers, the networks, the keepers of the cloud. I am not sure they are any more trustworthy.
Is it not safer, in the long run, to be known for who you are?
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.