The Subjective Side of Pseudonymity

Making pseudonymity work when you are a high "cancel risk" person.

The Subjective Side of Pseudonymity

Making pseudonymity work when you are a high "cancel risk" person.

Pseudonymity, as an alternative to complete anonymity and completely real identity, has been hypothesized to solve the problems of the “cancel culture” and financial losses due to others’ disagreements with what you say in your social media/ media persona.

For anyone who is just starting out, or who is “rebooting” after being “cancelled,” this is probably a nice way of reinventing your social identity, as explained by Dr Srinivasan here.

The bigger challenge, in my opinion, is for those who are already tied to a social identity/reputation. Will pseudonymity work for them? Or will they get cancelled or face serious consequences for their freedom of speech for abandoning pseudonymity & sticking to their real identity?

There are many pros and cons to both the arguments, and I have attempted to outline a few of those here:

People Who Follow You for Being YOU

A lot of your reputation is built over a period of time, based on some strong, consistent patterns of response, values, attitudes, methodology etc. Although reputation can be seen as one parameter in the scale between anonymity and real identity, it is, in subjective terms, made up of many subtle bis and parts. For example, people trust someone because they have seen that person’s integrity over a period of time, or their struggle to bring a vision to life, or they have been inspired by their life, as opposed to just what they say. For example, Edward Snowden. These often carry a lot of weight in our decisions about who we back, who we follow, who we listen to, who we support and who we castigate on social media.

The biggest, and an extreme example of this is people following Donald Trump to Parler app, when he started to get censored by Twitter and Facebook. He has a tribe. His personality is everything (whether you like it or dislike it). Au contraire, someone who hasn’t a strong personality, is an echo of everyone else, can get suspended on some social media platform and find it difficult to restart with the same identity. In the latter case, pseudonymity could help refashion yourself and make a new come back. And for someone like Satoshi Nakamoto (assuming it is one person), who doesn’t actually have an active social media life, loud personality or definable character, living with pseudonymity may be the simplest and only option to guarantee him his human rights.

The subjective scale of utility of pseudonymity

Although we can come up with an algorithm to port the quantifiable aspects of your social image/identity (like number of followers, blue check, identity of followers on twitter), it is a bit more challenging to port the non-quantifiable aspects of your social identity, without loss of anonymity. Although there will always be a percentage of people who will be influenced by the quantifiable aspects of your social presence, and will follow you to a new decentralized media platform, there will also be many who follow people “on principle.” They follow you simply for being you. This crowd is a bit more tough to tap into without losing anonymity.

A new platform could attempt to solve this problem by "suggesting" accounts to follow to the hitherto followers (after importing the followers), without giving away the real identity of the person. The real identity would be known only to the platform back end, not to the users, and not displayed publicly anywhere. If the platform makes the users automatically follow the new account, it could possibly compromise on user data privacy rights (?) or the identity of the influencer.

Writing Style Is Everything — It is Your Brand

Another important aspect of your digital presence is your writing style — like your digital signature. Not everyone has a writing style, but then some do. This is true for both — pseudonymous accounts as well as real name accounts. For eg, for a long time many people did not know who the authors/creators of xkcd comics or Dinosaur comics are. But most people could tell the distinctive creative style anywhere. They knew the “brand.” They could tell the distinctive creative style anywhere.

There are stylometric analysis, sentiment analysis and other ways to analyze content using machine learning to identify someone’s writing style, as shown by an MIT study, or to transfer the visual style of one body of work to another. A real life example is the social media accounts of many leaders, which are maintained by several people, yet they never sound disparate. So creative style can be copied or replicated with ease, but should it be?

Porting the Creative Style

So the question arises, what if your writing/ creative style is so distinct, that once it has taken hold in the minds of people, migrating or transmogrifying to a pseudonymous account becomes a somewhat less rewarding experience for everyone? Sure, you can rewrite the content in the style of J K Rowling or Churchill or any other style you like, but the brand which already has a foothold and "market value" gets demolished.

When you are getting cancelled, there is dearth of options, so it becomes a moot point. But for those still alive and kicking, the question of migrating to a new identity hinges on the question of style. Do you refashion a style for yourself? Do you whizz out your content in some other known style? Or do you just randomize the style to purposely confuse mapping algorithms?

This part has less to do with algorithms, and more to do with gaming the algorithms, so as to not get "doxed." The influencer could undertake a few creative exercises to create a new style, which is neither the same as the old one, nor completely different from it. In mathematical terms, perhaps a 40% match with the old style. For example, a new cartoon series on space ships or intergalactic and time travel à la xkcd. To the reader, it could be by the creator of xkcd, or it could not be. There is a non zero probability, which would vary based on the creative elements.

Combined with the methodology of "suggesting by the platform" discussed earlier, the new comic could possibly be appealing to old followers. It would be similar to how Amazon suggests you a book based on your reading history or likes and dislikes to the onlooker.

Although there is no linear solution to solving the subjective problems of a new identity, a few iterations on this methodology can start a process of creating a pseudonymous identity for yourself which is not at complete dissonance with your previous avatar.

Cover image: Photo by Loïc Fürhoff on Unsplash


Arti Agarwal

Economist, data science, marketer, ex-SLB. Alum IIT Roorkee, MIT.

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