Our Pseudonymous Selves
The Past, Present, and Future of Online Identity
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At the last company I worked for, there was one team member no one had ever met or spoken with face-to-face. They use a pseudonym that may or may not derive from their real name. All anyone knows of their appearance comes from a single profile picture, which may or may not be of them.
Despite this, they’ve worked at the company for over a decade as one of the longest tenured staff. They communicate solely through writing and are well-regarded for their contributions. My former colleague shared their perspective on the matter with me over direct messages, and is surprisingly nonchalant about their decision to remain unknown:
“Pseudonymity is just another layer of privacy. If you won’t tell me your age we call it ‘privacy,’ but if you won’t tell me your name, then that could be called ‘pseudonymity,’ but it’s just another data point you want to keep yourself private.”
Across art, activism, music, science, and literature, many historical and contemporary figures have made the same choice. Employing a pseudonym can be a choice to garner more credibility, an attempt to avoid persecution while challenging orthodoxy, or an opportunity to embrace artistic freedom without trepidation. Ibn Warraq, an author critical of Islam, allegedly adopted a pseudonym to avoid the fate of Salman Rushdie, whose novel The Satanic Verses led to an official call for his assassination in Iran. Despite widespread speculation about her identity, Elena Ferrante, the famed Italian novelist behind the Neapolitan Novels, remains pseudonymous and suggests “removing the author...creates a space that wasn’t there before.” Banksy is one of the most well-known artists in the world, yet the world knows little about him at all.
Mary Ann Evans wrote under the pseudonym George Eliot, becoming one of the most celebrated authors of the Victorian era. Her biography, Life and Letters, explains her choice to maintain dual artistic and personal identities:
“Whatever may be the success of my stories, I shall be resolute in preserving my incognito—having observed that a nom de plume secures all the advantages without the disagreeables of reputation.”
Today, in many senses and places, society is more politically and socially free than at any time in history. Yet, obligations to live life on social media platforms—cultivating a profile page and growing your followers—means our offline and online identities are increasingly intertwined, often requiring us to contort our irl selves into prescribed internet shapes. It’s an exercise that some feel less and less inclined to partake in. Interest in online pseudonymity is accelerating, not just among artists and authors, but everyday people who more and more exist as “public figures” in an increasingly hostile, heavily scrutinized social media age.
The use of pseudonyms by historical and contemporary figures was often borne out of caution of ostracization, or worse. Arguably, the far reach of the internet makes caution more valuable for more people. The online world and its algorithms have made fame and infamy not only possible, but increasingly likely; 15 minutes shrank to 15 seconds and it’s coming for us all. As Mary Anne Evans alluded in constructing an identity as George Elliot, even a good personal reputation comes with its own set of discontents.
These tensions are igniting an increasingly common desire to explore pseudonymity, shedding irl identity to move across the internet more freely. Importantly, pseudonymity is distinct from anonymity. Platforms like 4chan, where you cannot create a username, are anonymous. Platforms like Reddit, where you post under a consistent moniker, are pseudonymous. A pseudonym can garner history and reputation, but is distinct and separate from the “real” person behind it. Pseudonymous accounts often post consistently to public-facing platforms, like Twitter or Substack, and may use the same handle across platforms. This subjects them to some level of accountability and community policing, while leaving their “real” identity unattached. Dr. Alfred Moore, a senior lecturer and researcher at the University of York, provided a description of this in a 2017 research paper on pseudonymity:
“Pseudonymity can enable the creation of spaces in which people are not bound by demands for consistency across different domains of their life, but only by the more limited demand for consistency within the forum itself. Durability within the context of the forum enables others to challenge, question, and criticize the claims made in the course of debate.”
Online pseudonymity might appear niche and nascent, an opt-out reserved for identity-concealing artists and over-cautious internet citizens. But there’s a possibility that this is only the beginning of a more pseudonymous landscape, where average individuals have multiple fully-formed online personas that let them explore different facets of identity and move across the internet more freely. Teens already create finstas on Instagram and individuals explore identity through alts. The idea of a pseudonymous economy explores earning a living online while obscuring real identity, a model that may increasingly be realized through technology advancements like developments in VR and AI that allow for the use of life-like avatars, which may or may not resemble their creators. Pseudonymous work arrangements, like the one with my former colleague, could become more commonplace. Our primary identities may shift from the ones we assume in the real world, to the pseudonymous identities we inhabit on the internet, with consequences for how we all live and work.
The Early Pseudonymous Internet
Not long ago, across the late 90s and early 2000’s, this advice was ubiquitous: do not share your real name on the internet. The web was an unwritten frontier with dangers lurking behind every link. Prior to this period, when the internet was largely used by researchers, academics, and institutions, individuals did use their real names as they collaborated with colleagues and peers. But this convention shifted as more people came online. Across old-school forums and internet hideaways, people largely spoke to one another and interacted pseudonymously: a survey of my fellow writers at Every yielded former aliases like quicksilvergirl17, dragonpenx23, beatleschick0, and yoyogirl35. The username and avatar was how you interfaced.
From theatre to gameplay, the human desire to inhabit different identities has always existed, but the internet provided new avenues. You could choose a username and chat with other usernames on Internet Relay Chat (IRC), an internet protocol that lets users create online channels for real-time conversations. Usage peaked at 10M simultaneous users in 2003. Some have suggested that the earlier days of the internet were more fluid due to most online spaces lacking the rich multimedia we see today; it was easy to “construct an identity through text.” Not every online space adopted the pseudonymous convention; you can find people today who lament the real name policy on the early chat server UseNet and the forever archived stories that exist under those real names.
However, in many online spaces, including games and virtual worlds like ActiveWorlds, launched in 1995, and Second Life, released in 2003, players and participants created versions of themselves, or entirely new identities. Others chose pseudonymity as a way to access spaces that might be closed off to their IRL selves. This worked, to an extent—a 2006 study assessing online attack threats on IRC servers by creating a series of bots found that female-coded usernames received more malicious messages than usernames with ambiguous or male-coded names.
But many who recall the earlier pseudonymous days of the internet describe them fondly. Online, you could tear down the constraints of the small town you grew up in or your social status in the highschool you attended. In Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen: Identity In The Age of The Internet, released in 1995, she highlights the story of a young man provided with “a sense of living the American Dream” through hanging out online in multi-user domains (MUDS):
“In contrast to his life in RL, which he sees as boring and without prospects, Josh’s life inside MUDs seems rich and filled with promise. It has friends, safety, and space. ‘I live in a terrible part of town. I see a rat hole of an apartment, I see a dead-end job, I see AIDS. Down here [in the MUD] I see friends, I have something to offer…’”.
For people on the periphery of society, young people particularly, exploring the internet pseudonymously meant participation in community, access to support, and exposure to stories and information that helped curb isolation and loneliness. Online you could recreate yourself anew, or be the true self you couldn’t at home or in your community, hanging out on message boards with fellow strangers on a similar quest. The emergence of the Named Internet changed this.
The Great Unmasking and the Modern Named Internet
The introduction of modern-day social networks was a Great Unmasking. Linkedin and Facebook prompted us for our full names instead of usernames; online spaces asked us to upload profile pictures instead of constructing avatars. These changes were ushered online en masse alongside language about “community” and “authenticity” with the implicit and explicit suggestion that true connection required “real” (or government-issued) identity; Mark Zuckerberg once suggested “having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”
LinkedIn, launched in 2003, required full names and job histories to connect users with other professionals. Facebook launched in 2004 with a “Real Name” policy that obligated users to sign-up with their legal names, removing users with pseudonymous names, adopted names, as well as users whose legal first names had multiple capital letters, multiple words, or were single initials. In 2011 Google+, now defunct, launched with their own real-name policy. Throughout the 2010s, Facebook saw sustained criticism and calls for action from privacy advocates, social activists, and security specialists on the potential for this policy to stifle free speech and limit the safety of the platforms for some LGBTQ people, domestic abuse survivors, and journalists. The company defended the stance in mid-2015 before a modest change later that year that still rejected the use of pseudonyms. Google+ eventually reversed its own “real name” policy due to criticism from privacy advocates. Though Twitter always allowed pseudonymous accounts, the company values “real” identities highly, offering profile verification and authenticating identity by blue checkmark for certain high-profile people.
The creators behind these social networks overall wanted a correction to the pseudonymous wilderness of Internet Past—to build an Internet Future where you really were who you said you were: “When people use the names they are known by, their actions and words carry more weight because they are more accountable for what they say,” states Facebook’s 2015 announcement on modifying their real name policy. But the connection between the use of real names in online spaces and civility is dubious, while there’s some evidence that “stable pseudonyms” lead to better discussions and more civil environments.
Despite pushback on these policies, the average person embraced the idea of bringing their real self online. The internet moved from infancy to adolescence, and we ported markers of our real identities to the internet—our names, photos, professions, personalities, and connections. Instead of hanging out on the edges of the internet among strangers, you congregate with your friends. Rather than exploring what lies beyond your social circle, you connect with industry peers. The utility of real identities on the internet became a trade-off most of us were willing to make despite the oft-spoken about dangers of the early internet, like identity fraud and cybercrime, being actualized and proliferated. Ubiquitous pseudonymity switched to ubiquitous real identity—we can learn on the internet, find people to date online, make purchases, converse across time zones, and all the rest. We can upload our real selves to the web to literally live, laugh, and love.
But with the internet imitating real life, in-person social norms crept in while online social freedoms crept out; after all, everyone you know is here. Professionalism entered the domain of play. A connection between your online and real world identities has utility: attention accrued, opportunities extended, and money made. But the reverse is true too. A connection between your online and real world identities has consequences: open ostracization, jobs jeopardized, and status ceded. It’s hard to imagine this doesn’t have chilling effects on speech, creativity, and the exploration of identity. On Twitter, it’s increasingly common for people to auto-delete their tweets and have bios declaring their viewpoints are exclusive to them, not their employer. The internet is forever, documented by default and infinitely searchable, making proceeding with caution warranted. To the extent that this creates respectful environments, where people feel accountable for their words, this is good. To the extent that it creates stifling environments where people fear speaking their minds, this is bad.
But individuals have little to no control over what happens to their speech online, regardless of intent. The ability to go viral and have your name and identity shared out to millions of people is governed by social media platforms presiding over opaque algorithms. Often, these forces feel indiscriminate, launching people into fame, like the Thanksgiving Grandmother and her surrogate grandson, or infamy, like the TikTok couch guy, whose innocuous reaction in a TikTok video led to a digital pile-on and invasions of privacy at the hands of internet sleuths. The same social platforms that invited us to come online with our jobs and reputations can tear it all down in the event we’re propelled you to the top of Twitter’s trending topics or surfaced to hundreds of millions of people on TikTok’s “For You” page.
This level of visibility, and the creeping feeling of being visible to thousands or millions of fellow users, has its own impacts on how we express ourselves while being watched. It’s perhaps these factors—a nostalgia for the feeling of early internet pseudonymity, a concern with self-expression in front of an attack-ready audience, and a desire to move across the internet less encumbered—that’s getting people to explore online pseudonymity anew.
A Return to Pseudonymity
Online pseudonymity lingered across the internet beyond the Great Unmasking: from Reddit accounts to faceless forums. However, we’re seeing a shift towards being even less visible online. Pseudonymity is a spectrum, and it’s not uncommon to see people obscure some data points from their identity despite being “known”; NFTs serve as stand-ins for profile pictures and users swap their full name for initials or ENS domains. But some are embracing the more hidden end of pseudonymity.
Across Twitter, there are prominent pseudonymous accounts that have garnered cult followings. @ParikPatelCFA tweets ironic finance advice and commentary on the tech industry to 380K followers. @nycsouthpaw joined Twitter in 2009, tweeting pseudonymously about the law; they revealed their real identity in 2018 but continues to share commentary without a real name attached to his profile to over 242K followers. @punk4156, an NFT collector, tweets about cryptocurrency pseudonymously to over 2K followers and appeared on a podcast using voice modification.
AliceFromQueens, a pseudonymous Twitter account largely focused on politics and the culture wars, has documented the origins of their experiment, including the search for the perfect avatar. The alt was originally started to inhabit the mind of a character they were writing in a novel, eventually leading to an account with over 30K followers. I asked Alice what sharing ideas under an alt can offer for individuals that writing under your real name cannot and got an illuminating answer:
“Of course alts can protect your career and social life, but for me the main advantages are psychological. When noodlehead mobs come after Alice on Twitter, I’m angry or sad for an hour, not a week. I have severe OCD, emphasis on the O. Alice protects my sanity. My other big neuroses are shyness and perfectionism, both fears of being humiliated for not measuring up. My birth-name Tumblr and Twitter were disasters. I’d spend a half hour fussing over a post. Or I’d clam up for months. As Alice I just type the way I talk and press send. I don’t even check for typos.”
Nat Eliason, who writes Almanack at Every and is a member of the Crypto Raiders DAO that started as largely pseudonymous. While Eliason is known online by name for his writing and participation in the crypto community, he’s also contemplated creating an alt account on Twitter:
“I think people can get too wrapped up in their offline identity, especially if they're worried about canceling or saying anything heterodox. I don't worry about it too much, but I know for a lot of people that's a barrier. Even for me though there's something tempting about having an online identity that's completely self-contained. I actually think the pseudonyms are the most honest accounts. Influencers are the most dishonest.”
As younger generations exit the named Facebook sphere, internal memos reveal that the platform views underage users creating “finstas”—fake Instagram accounts—as a growth strategy. Facebook, recently renamed Meta, is making an aggressive play for the identity-optional metaverse space; a stark difference from their original ambitions.
Beyond social media and the fame that comes with fleeting tweets, other corners of the web have their own pseudonymous stars. Corpse Husband, allegedly a 24-year old gamer, known for their music and playing Among Us, is often referred to as a “faceless streamer.” Despite amassing fame online, identifiable mostly for his uniquely deep voice, he has never revealed his appearance or name to the audience. Some have attempted to unmask him, something Corpse Husband suggests would be disappointing for fans.
Similarly, Dream, a YouTuber and Twitch streamer known for playing Minecraft, has amassed tens of millions of followers across the web without revealing their appearance or aspects of their personal life. At a time where the online world has made parasocial relationships more widespread, and anyone with a social presence can garner addicted stans or obsessive anti-fans, pseudonymity is a mask of privacy and protection.
The promise of pseudonymity is alluring; it’s a chance to shed an irl identity that may be outdated or overcautious for an opportunity to explore unencumbered. Despite the ability for famous pseudonymous profiles to garner popularity and reputation, they are separate from the person behind the account, a form of self-expression that is accelerating as more people experiment with alts and navigate the web unknown.
On The Possibility of Pseudonymity at Scale
Individual pseudonymity—traversing the internet unknown, alone—is interesting. But it’s perhaps the rise of pseudonymity at scale, particularly at work, that’s the more fascinating phenomenon to follow. In the tradition of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous person or persons who invented bitcoin, developers, traders, and entrepreneurs in cryptocurrency are inclined toward pseudonymity among individuals and groups, as observed in crypto-centered collectives and DAOs.
More broadly, it’s possible that some have an interest in professional work arrangements that obscure identity. An informal Twitter poll of 243 users suggested that 43% would adopt a work arrangement with “no name, face, voice, or other identifying information shared.” It’s a small sample of a group that likely skews towards men interested in Web3, but reveals an interesting thread worth unraveling.
Widespread pseudonymity could change the way we collaborate and work together, in contrast to a concept of waning popularity: “bring your whole self to work.” In concept, the idea intends to foster inclusion and psychological safety. In action, it can encourage people to blur the lines of the already blurry concept of professionalism. The idea of bringing the entirety of your being into the workplace can also mean a greater expectation for work to provide deeper meaning in our lives. This idea has even seen pushback from companies.
In many ways, “bring your whole self to work” is a double entendre, a slogan for companies to capture more and more of an employee’s life, often through long hours and off-hours work for low pay. The pandemic, the rise of remote work, and the Great Resignation have generated more pushback than ever against the idea that employers are owed anything more than is contractually stipulated. Much has been said about our inability to separate ourselves from our jobs; pseudonymity could provide a means of redefining our relationship to work.
What might pseudonymity at scale look like? Balaji Srinivasan, an angel investor and entrepreneur, has outlined how a “pseudonymous economy” might function. He suggests that technology has evolved to support widespread pseudonymity allowing for multiple pseudonyms for one person, for instance “an earning name, writing name, and a legal name” that allows people to essentially diversify their identity portfolio, avoiding complete reputational harm in the event of a coordinated social attack. While this might seem daunting and unfamiliar, many of us already move between multiple “identities” in the real world—parent, spouse, child, friend, employee; in this light, a diversified presentation of self online is natural.
Srinivasan has shared one of the reasons he finds this approach compelling:
“Rather than make naive appeals to people to look past gender, or look past race, or look past this or look past that, or to not cancel or to not discriminate online, instead we make it impossible for people to do that by taking away that kind of information entirely with realistic avatars and with fully functional pseudonyms.”
Pseudonymity to avoid discrimination or cancellation is arguably a Bandaid solution to the underlying motivations driving these behaviours (and the algorithms that, in some cases, amplify them). Swapping meaningful aspects of your identity to avoid these risks is also a steep trade that some would be unwilling to make. Moreso, unless avatars were completely removed from resembling real-life physical characteristics and communication evolved to obfuscate identifiers often revealed through writing and speech, a reenactment of real-life conditions online is almost inevitable. As doubtful as the establishment of total pseudonymity might be, its promise for a more inclusive future remains intriguing.
Ideas power the world, yet there are particular identities and archetypes within our society whose ideas confer more attention, authority, and respect. If you’re illegible, it’s harder to be grouped and discriminated against; people from periphery groups can participate in online spaces that might normally be less welcoming. Better ideas might rise to the top if we valued the ideas of people who are younger. The world might be improved if we didn’t ignore the opinions of people without post-secondary education by default. Much might be illuminated by seriously considering viewpoints from those residing in developing countries.
Achieving these aims through social change remains possible, but far off. However, widespread pseudonymity suggests a path, albeit an imperfect one, to have this reality realized sooner when identity labels we devalue fade from the foreground to the background. Not knowing the age, race, gender, nationality, or real name of the people you work with could mean ideas and contributions are weighted against different measures than identity.
The promise of pseudonymity is not without its potential problems. Blue Kirby, a pseudonymous figure in the decentralized finance community could face little consequence after scamming Yearn.Finance, a crypto community. An NFT project headed by a pseudonymous developer, Evil Ape, raised $2.7 million before disappearing with the cash from investors and other pseudonymous community members. Pseudonymity may prevent scammers from facing any legal consequences within a system of courts and law tied to real identity.
And while ubiquitous pseudonymity online and in the digital workplace would still allow for personal connection in person, it’s not obvious just how much connection is optimal. How might collectively obscuring identity impact our attitudes towards work on a larger scale over a longer time period? Discarding our IRL identity baggage has the potential to make us more free online, but could make us less engaged, and less fulfilled as a result. It’s also unclear the hierarchies and tensions that might form with a critical mass of people who are pseudonymous and others who are not. Second-order effects of decentralized professional environments where people show up as pseudonymous remains to be seen, but any paradigm shift has unforeseen downsides for it to be worth thinking through.
Online pseudonymity may never see a critical mass in the workplace—an arrangement like this is feasible for a select group of knowledge workers, who might be uninterested, unwilling, or unable to make the switch. However, if pseudonymity allows for an expression of self and an interaction with work that’s more authentic and fruitful than what we currently see, we may observe individuals making a transition to alts at work and companies increasingly enabling this phenomenon.
Pseudonymity is not an “either or” choice—teenagers have “finstas” alongside their real accounts, while Twitter alts can send personal tweets from a different handle. It’s not a question of whether online pseudonymity will become widespread. My former colleague and the other explorations of obscured identity we’re seeing across the internet show that, in some ways, it already is. Real names might come to be just one in a collection of assumed identities. In some ways, the internet is giving us the tools to formalize what we all already knew: we contain multitudes. Pseudonymity provides an opportunity to express ourselves differently, exploring online spaces and ideas without the weight of maintaining a singular consistent way of being. Pseudonymity may also provide the chance to reshape our lives, separating personal and professional and finding different meanings in these newly separate parts of our lives. It’s possible that by becoming unknown, we become more ourselves.
This piece was edited by Rachel Jepsen with help from Dan Shipper.
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