Being your selves: identity R&D on the pseudonymous internet
This post was originally published on Ribbonfarm.
I grew up in cyber spaces where legal names were few and far between: RuneScape, AIM, Club Penguin, Neopets, and the like. But when I turned 13, Facebook opened up its floodgates to teenagers across America and washed away our playful screen names. My online social life slowly migrated to Facebook’s News Feed and, before long, I stopped thinking about all the alter-egos I had during my childhood. My digital identity became finite, consistent, persistent, unified. I was Aaron Lewis — nothing more, nothing less.
In 2018, I started feeling nostalgic for the pseudonymous internet of my youth. I decided on a whim to create a “fake” Twitter account, a digital mask to temporarily shield my First Name Last Name from the strange spotlight of social media. What started as mindless entertainment slowly morphed into a therapeutic exercise in identity experimentation. I always thought that masks were for hiding, but I’ve learned that they often reveal as much as they obscure. They allow you to explore a new identity even as you retreat from an old one.
By default, social media platforms collapse you into a single profile that makes your interests legible to advertisers. Many tech critics argue that this approach to digital identity has become emotionally exhausting and psychologically unsustainable. They’re nostalgic for a time before everyone “IPO’d”, and they’re convinced we’ve entered a toxic era of non-stop performance that’s made us depressed and hopelessly self-absorbed. Culture critic Jia Tolentino captures the big mood: “Where we had once been free to be ourselves online, we were now chained to ourselves online, and this made us self-conscious … Online, your audience can hypothetically keep expanding forever, and the performance never has to end.”
But users are already beginning to challenge this norm. From alt Twitter accounts to finstas to private Snap stories, Very Online people are incubating new models of identity and selfhood. I think it’s a mistake to write off these experiments as trivial or unimportant. We live in an era of unraveling scripts — old institutions are quickly losing credibility and old ideas about identity are becoming untenable. It no longer makes much sense to tie your sense of self to a job or an employer or even a specific skillset. Life in the Great Weirding is a state of constant flux. If we’re lucky, new ideas about identity will leak out from the pseudonymous internet into mainstream culture. And we’ll begin to think anew about what it means to have a self in the information age.
What the mask reveals
It took a few months for me to learn my way around alt Twitter. It’s full of porous selves and blurry borders — a never-ending costume party in a world beyond commodified personal brands. Usernames are constantly changing, it’s not always easy to tell who knows who, and there’s no FAQ to get you started. Like most things in life, you learn your way around by experimenting and imitating.
For now, I plan to keep my alt’s username on the DL, but I would like to share some things it’s taught me about my selves.
Alt Twitter is a domestic cozy lab for identity R&D — the sort of thing that happens all the time in high schools, where kids are constantly showing up in weird wardrobes and playing with new aesthetics. Wearing a digital mask gives you the freedom to explore grief, emotional blockages, and cognitive dissonances that feel too personal to make public.
It’s not a coincidence that I fully embraced my alt account soon after I left my job last year. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next or who I wanted to be next, and I liked the idea of creating a new digital mask for a new chapter in my life. The Twitter account that I made back in 2011 felt too stale, too professional. My alt enabled me to talk about a bunch of topics that, at the time, felt a little too controversial to touch on my “real” account: culture wars, cult psychology, coming out of the closet, and religion — to name just a few.
At first, I didn’t identify at all with my new digital mask. It didn’t feel like me. It had no memory, no history, no friends to speak of. But as I wrote this character into existence and interacted with new people, I started to think of it as part of who I am. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, first you shape your mask(s) and thereafter, your mask(s) shape you. Just as an IRL costume or mask changes the way you carry yourself, a digital garment can transform your thought processes and habits of mind. In her essay on social media consciousness, Sarah Perry describes how this works:
Online identities can help people grow into better versions of themselves. I have one pseudonymous friend, for example, who changes his username, bio, profile picture, and cover photo every few months. He tracks the evolution of his account in a Google doc. Sometimes, the changes he makes are an expression of an internal shift that’s already happened. Other times, they’re an aspirational aesthetic that he wants to move towards. His identity doc tells the story of his personal development through the characters he’s played on social media. Nicole Williams is doing something similar. She uses a pseudonymous account to work through her thoughts about family trauma. It’s a way for her to “tweet about difficult stuff w/o forcing it on you all” and create a more intimate space on a very public platform.
Publicizing one alt for the first time:— nicole (@nwilliams030) November 5, 2019
If you're interested in my tweets about music, family trauma, stupid memes, photos I take, u may request to follow @NicNoctem but no guarantees :)
I've been thinking a about how i can tweet about difficult stuff w/o forcing it on you all https://t.co/PNIIGV6l7C
Much like our IRL social selves, an alt truly comes alive when it’s seen by others. Twitter is a type of echolocation — you learn about who you’re becoming from the followers and replies that bounce back to you. I often see alt accounts asking some version of the question “what’s my brand/vibe?” Without any strategy or forethought, you end up with an indescribable sense of “where you are” in cyberspace by paying attention to who and what shows up in your notifications. There’s a mysterious quality to it all. The algorithm seems to route tweets to the very people who will understand what the hell you’re talking about. You think you’re typing inside jokes to yourself, but it almost always turns out that there are others out there who get you.
The more I shared my unfiltered ideas, the more ideas I started having. My random posts sparked thoughtful responses that sent me down months-long research rabbit holes and inspired several substantial writing projects. As @chaosprime — a popular alt — once said, “Cognition is not a discrete process taking place inside your head. It isn’t even a discrete process taking place inside your body. It’s a web extending everywhere, with dense nodes pulling it this way and that, synchronizing and desynchronizing, making models of each other.” My alt account quickly became part of my cognitive ecology, my extended mind.
A digital mask helps you understand and play with the boundary between your private and public selves. When you have more than one account, you’re constantly making decisions about which thoughts go where. Do I feel comfortable saying this under my real name, or would I rather vent into the void? There’s no playbook, no pre-cooked algorithm for sorting your inner monologue into clearly defined buckets. I let my gut be my guide, and eventually I started to notice some interesting emergent patterns.
When I compared my two accounts to each other, it was easy to see how their tones and textures differed. One was free-wheeling and conversational and weird and fun. The other, mostly silent and sterile. My cyber mask made me comfortable replying to people I looked up to. It emboldened me to ask stupid questions and share weird(er) ideas. Thanks to the mask, I slowly transformed from a lurker to a participant.
The main Twitter account, the alt your friends know about, the alt no one knows about. Production, staging, and development. Continuous deployment for identity and aesthetic.— John Backus (@backus) December 2, 2018
In time, I got over my “stage fright” and switched a lot of my alt activity to my main account. But just when I thought I’d outgrown my pseudonymous profile, something surprising happened. The act of taking my private thoughts public generated a whole new set of thoughts that I wanted to incubate behind my mask.
Alt Twitter is a type of AR — it adds a whole new layer of information on top of your existing social world. It changes the way you interact with internet friends when you finally meet them in the flesh. Alt accounts don’t always stay confined to cyberspace forever. Earlier this year, I told my small crew of followers that I’d be in Detroit for a conference. Turns out a few of them were planning to go as well. Suddenly, I realized I was going to have to introduce myself as [redacted], the silly cartoon avatar from the internet. My digital mask was about to fully merge with my legal identity, at least for a few days.
Meeting pseudonymous friends in real life is a transhuman experience. It’s all too easy to forget that there are living breathing people behind all those circular profile pictures — watching my semi-public diary float by in their stream. When you finally match the face of a “stranger” to their pseudonymous Twitter persona, their empty shell of an identity gets filled with your vague memory of their hot takes and vulnerable confessions. You feel a little voyeuristic, a little embarrassed that you’ve spent so much time reading their mind from afar. Then you remember that it’s not your fault because they’ve given you implicit permission to explore their inner monologue. But that doesn’t make it any less weird. Your mind doesn’t know how to integrate the cartoon character you’ve been talking to with the human who’s standing in front of you.
Digital masks broaden your range of expression beyond what’s possible with your physical body. With a mask, you can reveal parts of yourself that would otherwise remain hidden on the inside. Your alt account brings these hidden selves to the surface and allows other people to interact with them — even in the so-called offline world. When you talk to a formerly pseudonymous friend face-to-face, you remember how they present themselves online and you feel like you have access to another layer of their psyche. It’s like a Snapchat filter for your social life.
Never before has it been easier to transcend the meatspace constraint of having to present a single, coherent self. You can really experiment with multiple identities and social graphs simultaneously. “Who are you” can be disintermediated. I am, truly, multiple people— Visa ✈️ NYC! 🗽 (Apr23-May12) (@visakanv) February 25, 2019
Alt Twitter accounts, to quote Sherry Turkle, “stand betwixt and between, both in and not in real life … Their boundaries are more fuzzy; the routine of playing them become part of their players’ real lives. The virtual reality becomes not so much an alternative as a parallel life.”
We grow closer to each other by learning about each other’s parallel lives. Following someone’s pseudonymous account(s) gives you a very multi-dimensional sense of who they are and how they see themselves. Many alts are more like masquerade half-masks than fully anonymous face masks. They’re loosely tied to a person’s main account, which helps to create the “layered identity” effect. Some especially active users even manage a collection of alts that respond to one another. It’s like the social media version of watching a film with the director’s commentary on. These alt collectives bring the back stage to the front stage and offer an intimate portrait of a person’s inner life. Their thought processes and internal conflicts are laid bare — transformed into content for the masses.
The infinite game of identity
As weird as it looks from the outside, the characters of pseudonymous Twitter are developing new conceptions of selfhood that are sorely needed in a time when old scripts are unraveling. In order to understand how identity might evolve in the future, we first need to investigate its past.
Medieval society had a fairly uncomplicated view of the self. Your identity depended heavily on circumstances of birth — family ties, social rank, etc. According to sociologist and historian Roy Baumeister, “There was little sense of self-doubt, self-awareness, inner processes, or identity crisis.” Even scribes did not regard themselves as individual “authors” who deserved any sort of credit for their work. In The Gutenberg Galaxy, Marshall McLuhan says:
We are guilty of an anachronism if we imagine that the Medieval student regarded the contents of the books he read as the expression of another man’s personality and opinion. He looked upon them as part of that great and total body of knowledge … which had once been the property of the ancient sages.
Medieval scholars were basically indifferent to the precise identity of the authors whose books they studied. And they didn’t even care about signing their own works. Authors were more like conduits than generators — empty vessels through which the messages of the past flowed into the future. Writing was not a form of self-expression from within, but a way of channeling divine ideals that came from without.
The invention of printing did away with many of the technical causes of anonymity, and the Renaissance created new ideas of literary fame and intellectual property. In the modern era, individual identity and authorship became important and the self became a source of immense value and meaning, a vast inner space filled with private feelings, hidden thoughts, intentions, personality traits, sources of creativity, ingredients of personal fulfillment, and identity dilemmas. The press was seen as an engine of immortality — a technology by which the self could live forever. Gerolamo Cardano, a 16th century Italian polymath, captured the general excitement about the possibility of living forever though the printing press:
I can find nothing that may be equall or compare to the wonderfull invention, utility, and dignitie of printing … knowing that it conserveth and keepeth all the conceptions of our soules, it is the treasure that doth immortaliez the monument of our spirits, and eternizeth world without end and also bringeth to light the fruits of our labours.
Unlike the authors of centuries past, modern social media users often prefer ephemerality over immortality. They’re afraid of being cancelled, and they’re exhausted by the treadmill of never-ending identity performance. They want to tone down the grandiose self-seriousness and retreat to the cozy confines of a pseudonymous mask. Keith Johnstone, a pioneer of improv theatre, helps us understand why these types of masks are so attractive. In his IRL workshops, Johnstone uses bizarre-looking masks to induce a light trance state in improvisers. This helps them learn how to let go of their everyday personalities and fully embody a new character. “I like the Mask state very much,” said one of his students. “I guess you could say it acts on me the same way drugs would affect other people — an escape perhaps? A childlike sense of discovery.” If social media is a kind of performance of your identity, maybe it’s not too surprising that wearing a digital mask can provoke similar feelings of lightness, release, and emotional freedom.
Digital masks are making the static and immortal soul of the Renaissance seem increasingly out of touch. In an environment of info overload, it’s easy to lose track of where “my” ideas come from. My brain is filled with free-floating thoughts that are totally untethered from the humans who came up with them. I speak and think in memes — a language that’s more like the anonymous manuscript culture of medieval times than the individualist Renaissance era. Everything is a remix, including our identities. We wear our brains outside of our skulls and our nerves outside our skin. We walk around with other people’s voices in our heads. The self is in the network rather than a node.
The ability to play multiple characters online means that the project of crafting your identity now extends far beyond your physical body. In his later years, McLuhan predicted that this newfound ability would lead to a society-wide identity crisis:
The instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence — violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.
As I survey the cultural landscape of 2020, it seems that McLuhan’s predictions have unfortunately come true. More than ever before, people are exposed to a daily onslaught of world views and belief systems that threaten their identities. Social media has become the battlefield for a modern-day Hobbesian war of all-against-all. And this conflict has leaked into the allegedly “offline” world.
The default setting on social media platforms — a consistent, persistent, unified profile — enables and exacerbates this conflict. The singular profile incentivizes you to develop a coherent “brand”. In search of internet points and better algorithmic placement, you post only what your audience wants to hear. You become a caricature of yourself as you spiral deeper and deeper into performative self-parody. The algorithm pushes you towards performance and away from spontaneous interpersonal discovery. Before you know it, says @danlistensto, you’re “complaining and being outraged about the same things day after day. Criticizing those who confront you with perspectives that are hard to integrate into your performance. Shutting down authentic relating in favor of crude brand management.”
the greatest lure to self-delusion that this site (and many similar social platforms) produce is the positive reinforcement cycle of being rewarded with imaginary internet points, and better "algorithmic placement", for posting what your audience wants to hear.— Dan listens to the colors of the future (@danlistensto) September 18, 2019
Pseudonymous internet accounts are an escape hatch from this runaway feedback loop. They give you the ability to explore and embrace your multiplicity. They teach you that your legal identity is also a kind of mask — an ever-evolving “montage of loosely assembled parts.” You can experiment with multiple identities and social graphs simultaneously. You can be multi-faceted without being disingenuous. You learn to hold on to your sense of self a little more loosely and experiment with new ways of being. You can “explore all the personalities that any human being may develop into” — all the shapes and feelings that could’ve been you, but aren’t (yet). As usual, Gen Z is leading the way. They run fake Instagram accounts that don’t optimize for reach, scale, or brand recognition. Kids cycle through digital identities like they cycle through clothes. And their experiments are trickling up to the rest of us.
Identity R&D is an infinite game of differentiation and integration. My alt account is like a satellite that orbits my current identity. It does weird research, plays with uncomfortable ideas, asks dumb questions. Eventually, it sends its learnings back to HQ. New learnings are integrated, and the process of exploration begins a new — ad infinitum. Identity R&D is a survival skill for the Great Weirding. As old ideas of selfhood fall to the wayside, those who know how to experiment with their “multitudes” will thrive. Ours is an era of constant re-invention, evolution, and rapid change. We must be willing to play with an ever-evolving collection of masks as we dance across the stages of our lives.