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Masked rapper MF DOOM occasionally sent imposters to perform his concerts. DOOM explained: "I liken it to this: I'm a director as well as a writer; I choose different characters, I choose their direction and where I want to put them”. Thanks to pseudonyms, private keys, and interchangeable avatars, identity1 may become more directed than written.
Through the Facebook era2 , mappings between private and internet identities were (almost) isomorphisms. “Self” was restricted to one mind/body (pink dot) and one associated online persona (cream dot, consistent across platforms, sometimes pseudonymous).
Then people added more identities online. Teens developed secondary “finsta” accounts to dress down, your Aunt launched a page for her cat, and social media professionals split their personalities across anonymized brand profiles. Pink nodes gained outgoing edges.
Conversely, online identities added more people. Virtual influencers like Lil Miquela have personalities, minds, and bodies curated by large teams. Anonymous meme pages house multiple curators under one umbrella. Identity graphs today look more like3:
Balaji Srinivasan describes a future in which computer generated voices, deepfake videos, and crypto combine to make identity fluid. There are various corollaries: Balaji focuses on a pseudonymous economy in which workers can write code and take meetings under persistent fake identities. He explains how we might transfer reputation between profiles, establishing credibility with zero knowledge proofs.
If we can swap public identities for a private person, will we eventually transfer public and private identities between people, or between artificially intelligent agents? The rise in popularity of avatar NFTs makes for an instructive lens. Consider @punk4156, a prominent curator on Twitter, the inspiration behind the cover art for this article (created by @finnmrtn), and owner of the best digital art collection on the internet. 4156 has observed that other profile pictures engender much less engagement than his ape. Has the identity become the avatar? People describe NFTs as similar to fancy watches, but you can’t become a Rolex.
What if 4156 transferred their avatar, gave their account to a friend, and discretely ceded ownership of this identity? Ethical quandaries aside, is the account still 4156? The human curator is gone, but the art loving ape remains. Humans today place heavy emphasis on the relationship between mind and identity; what if next century, we treat identities more like sports teams? Just as your cousin Dmitri became a Miami Heat fan to support Lebron but remains a Heat fan today, will we separate mind/bodies from their associated online identities? Imagine a group of friends writing, speaking, socializing, and being as one public self under a 3d avatar. Will we pass down Cryptopunks to our grandkids in lieu of landscaping businesses?
Markets for identity are spawning. Digital tokens and data structures can already encode visual appearance, speech patterns, and lifetimes of creative output. Today, Lamborghini owner Tai Lopez builds eCommerce businesses using old brands like Pier1 Imports. One level higher, media focused venture capitalists might buy the rights to Lopez’s identity and market portfolio companies on his Youtube channel. Would influencers really sell their identities and start anew? Who would they be in the meantime? If this seems far fetched, note that there are huge markets for avatars, domains, and usernames today.
Going further, will our private sense of self also be impacted? A 2019 John Seabrook New Yorker piece eloquently describes the uncanny valley of augmented intelligence:
Typing an e-mail to my son, I began “I am p—” and was about to write “pleased” when predictive text suggested “proud of you.” I am proud of you. Wow, I don’t say that enough. And clearly Smart Compose thinks that’s what most fathers in my state say to their sons in e-mails. I hit Tab …The creepy thing was that the machine was more thoughtful than I was.
A customized predictive text assistant is part of you. Your incoming brain chip is part of you. Your phone’s operating system is part of you. And they’re all getting smarter and more pronounced. Some pink nodes on the graph will not be human.
Identity transience and anonymity are fun to play with until governments get involved; anonymousplanet.org provides a hitchhiker’s guide to internet anonymity. tldr: it’s much tougher than Orwell imagined. Even with burner phones, face masks to hide from cameras, customized linux distributions, cash-only transactions, VPNs with Tor, and randomized keystroke tools, it is hard to remain anonymous even from motivated 4chan trolls. To evade governments, the task is exponentially harder and requires magical amulets. Thus, identity swappers may be pretenders (in the unintended sense) for now. But if networks continue to supersede states, provisions for anonymity and identity swaps may disrupt the permanence of self.
This piece discusses identity as our private sense of self combined with our public information distribution engine. It does so for the purpose of exploring how this identity is changing, not to argue this is the best way to define identity, which is a deep and complex question.
This shift in graphs also represents a change in peer to peer communication. Here, imagine the pink and beige nodes as identities and the edges as information. Snapchat has discretely synthesized senders and receivers of messages. Grushenka can send a Snap in parallel to Fyodor and Dmitri; Dmitri can forward the same vague response to Grushenka and Katerina separately.