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Our Fluid, Multi-Faceted, Pseudonymous Digital Identities
How Identity Evolves As We Become a Digital Species
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Our Fluid, Multi-Faceted, Pseudonymous Digital Identities
Last spring, I wrote a three-part series on digital identity. Part I covered synthetic media and the rise of digital creators, using examples like The Technician and her personification of Miko.
(I later had the chance to interview The Technician for the Index Creator Summit, which was one of the highlights of my year.)
Part II covered how we express ourselves through avatars, whether in virtual realms like Roblox, Rec Room, or Gather, or with enablers of digital expression like Genies or RTFKT (since bought by Nike). I also dove into the Proteus Effect, the phenomenon that our behaviors are influenced by the characteristics of our avatars. For instance, people with more attractive avatars are proven to be more intimate and open with others; people with taller avatars behave more confidently and assertively.
In Part III, I wrote about the rise of vTubers and about how some people feel more comfortable in digital form. The vTuber Ironmouse, for instance, has an autoimmune disorder that limits her ability to socialize offline. So Ironmouse forged a digital persona, taking the form of a pink-haired anime girl, and now says: “I have never felt more myself than I have in this digital body.”
I finished that piece by examining NoPixel, a role-play server within Grand Theft Auto in which you occupy a fully-formed digital identity. Players apply to NoPixel in character and then must never break character. You might be a kindergarten teacher by day, but a drug lord in NoPixel by night. Or you might be a drug lord in your day job, but teach kindergarten in NoPixel. (It takes all kinds 🤷♂️ .)
Since writing those pieces, I’ve continued to be fascinated by digital identity. We’re spending more and more of our time online (American adults spend over 11 hours interacting with digital media every day), and the vision of the metaverse is hurtling toward us. The pandemic accelerated our progression to a digital species. How we express ourselves online—or the new identities we assume—becomes more crucial and more complex.
But those pieces focused primarily on our digital identities as they relate to leisure—the personas we turn to in our free time, when gaming or socializing. I focused less on how we’re assuming new identities for our work, or on how we might each assume multiple identities altogether.
“Over the next year(s), I’ll likely transform from a career professional into a pseudonymous agent across a variety of projects.”
That’s a powerful statement, and it captures a fascinating aspect of web3.
Miko, Ironmouse, and other vTubers are examples of pseudonymity (though with The Technician, Miko offers us a glimpse behind the scenes). Whereas being anonymous means being unknown or unidentifiable, being pseudonymous means you do have a consistent identity—it’s just untethered from your “real” identity.
Pseudonymity is a core pillar of web3. Many of the highest-profile builders and developers and thinkers in web3 are pseudonymous—Gmoney, Punk 6529, 4156. I like how Jackson Dahl recently put it: “Pseudonymity allows identity to become contextual rather than fixed. In that regard, pseudonymity, unlike anonymity, is a spectrum and a vast design space.”
In many ways, we’re returning to the origins of the social internet—back when, before Facebook mandated use of your real name, you were soccergirl07 on AOL Instant Messenger or legolas32 on MySpace. The difference is that now, your pseudonymous identity might also be your professional identity.
In web3 today, your digital identity lives inside your wallet. This graphic from Jay Drain Jr. sums it up:
Early wallets, like MetaMask, were built to process transactions. But emerging wallets—Genesis, for instance—evolve the concept of a wallet into an extension of online identity. It’s become a “flex” to show off what’s in your web3 wallet, and it’s easy to imagine wallets broadening to encompass more facets of our identity. Today, parts of my identity live in the photos I curate on my Instagram feed, in the tweets I write, in the long-form writing I share on Substack. In a web3 world, those aspects might live inside my wallet. My work experience might live inside my wallet—a digital, on-chain version of my resume or LinkedIn profile, with immutable records of my contributions to organizations and projects that capture my unique skills. My college degree might live in my wallet as an NFT.
In web3, identity becomes portable and composable. My identity (today, my wallet) becomes my passport to the digital economy. My wallet might unlock access and experiences across the web. There are interesting companies working on this. Spruce ID, for instance, allows users to control their identity across the web. Instead of “Sign in with Google” or “Sign in with Facebook”, as we see today, it might be “Sign in with Ethereum” or “Connect your wallet”. Ceramic Network may better enable decentralized identity (but that’s a topic for another piece). What’s important is that disparate elements of your identity coalesce into one digital location, owned and controlled by you.
In the past, I’ve written about the Dolly Parton challenge as a metaphor for online identity. My partner Georgia first used this framework to announce Index’s investment in Linktree. As Georgia puts it, “[What the Dolly Parton challenge revealed is that] everyone couldn’t wait to show off their multi-faceted glory; the multiple, often conflicting, identities that make us who we are.”
But the messy, disjointed identities we all have, strewn across the internet, are orthogonal to Mark Zuckerberg’s original conception of online identity.
From David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect:
“You have one identity,” [Zuckerberg] says emphatically three times in a single minute during a 2009 interview. He recalls that in Facebook’s early days some argued the service ought to offer adult users both a work profile and a “fun social profile.” Zuckerberg was always opposed to that. “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” he says.
He makes several arguments. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,” Zuckerberg says moralistically. But he also makes a case he sees as pragmatic—that “the level of transparency the world has now won’t support having two identities for a person.” In other words, even if you want to segregate your personal from your professional information you won’t be able to, as information about you proliferates on the Internet and elsewhere.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen identities converge. All social profiles became more “authentic”. TikTok even launched a LinkedIn competitor, after users got jobs by posting video resumes. Web3 more fully realizes Zuckerberg’s vision of a consistent identity. Our disjoined identities coalesce into a single identity that lives in our wallets.
The exception to this is a future in which some of us have multiple pseudonymous identities. I might be Hacker238 at work, universally respected for my expertise in tokenomics, but with my true identity concealed. Maybe in a game like NoPixel, I take on another persona—the mayor of a city or the local police chief. Again, I have my own pseudonymous identity and reputation in that slice of my digital life.
Wallets can tie together elements of our identities—the assets we own; the achievements we’ve had at work; the art we’ve created—without revealing personal data or information, beyond what we’re willing.
Our identities are becoming more multi-faceted at the same time that they’re becoming more important. The rise of digital identity coincides with a shift of trust and power toward the person. This shift has been a frequent topic in Digital Native, but I only just discovered the graphic that captures it best. My friend Ben shared this last week, in response to one of my tweets:
Power is shifting to individuals. We see this in our affinity for creators over movie studios (Charli D’Amelio vs. MGM), for celebrities over traditional brands (Rihanna’s Fenty vs. Coty), for politicians over parties (Trump vs. the GOP).
Within work, we see the shift to more autonomous and flexible work: we place trust in ourselves and in our abilities, rather than in the promises of an institution or corporation.
This sentiment is easy to spot in young people entering the workforce today. In just a few minutes scrolling TikTok, I gathered these comments:
As more of our lives take place online, digital identity becomes paramount. As we enter the era of web3, identity becomes provable and immutable. And, for the first time, many of us are free to adopt many (often pseudonymous) identities at once.
I often think of the character V, from V for Vendetta. He’s pseudonymous, hidden behind a Guy Fawkes mask. But he has a specific set of skills and a dedicated group of followers. In the future, a person might also be pseudonymous—hidden behind the “mask” of a Punk or an Ape or just a username, but contributing fervently to DAOs or acting as a vibrant inhabitant of a virtual town.
Identity used to be rigid; now it’s fluid.
In Ready Player One, the protagonist explains the appeal of the metaverse-like OASIS. He says: “People come to the OASIS for all the things they can do, but they stay for all the things they can be.”
That’s what’s exciting about digital identity—you’re now able to control how much of your life you share, with new ways to express yourself. You can even try on an entirely new identity, known or unknown. In our digital worlds, you stay for all the things you can be.
Sources & Additional Reading
You Are What You Own | David Phelps
The Crypto Wallet | Jay Drain Jr.
What to Watch in Crypto in 2022 (I really enjoyed this curation pulled together by Mario at The Generalist)
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