The widespread use of professional pseudonyms on social media could curb rampant credentialism and allow merit to win out.
Pseudonymity will be an inevitable work trend over the next decade.
I realized this while interviewing a popular pseudonymous Twitter account: @BoredElonMusk, whose musings on tech and wild startup ideas that the real Elon Muskmight invent (like a “food truck ferris wheel”) have attracted 1.7 million followers.
The person behind the account also goes by the name “Bored” and started the parody account in 2013.
During our Zoom call, Bored used his real voice but the face I saw was a floating — and expressive — avatar of his Twitter profile picture. The call highlighted for me the key fact that pseudonymity is not anonymity.
Coinbase Global Inc.’s former chief technology officer Balaji Srinivasan coined the term “pseudonymous economy” and explains the difference:
A pseudonym is a persistent name like [a Reddit user]. An anonym is like a [4Chan user] where there is no tracing across interactions. A pseudonym can crucially have reputation and metadata associated with it. An [anonymous user] is not persistent at all.
For Bored, persistence and reputation are very important. He is an active angel investor and just launched a crypto gaming company (Bored Box). If Bored’s Twitter account made outrageously off-brand statements, he could lose nine years of reputation building and hurt his businesses.
“I’m pseudonymous but I’m still accountable for my actions,” Bored says. “The difference is that my ventures are mostly judged for those actions, not for where I live or what degrees I have or what I look like.”
Put another way: Pseudonymity is a potential tonic for rampant credentialism and allows merit to win out. This idea is not new. The young Benjamin Franklin famously wrote under the guise of a middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood. Why? No publisher in Boston wanted to print the work of the real teenage Franklin.
A default to merit has two related benefits. First, individuals have more space to express themselves without the worry of “oh, will someone judge me personally.” Second, creating pseudonymously allows for optionality in life: You can build up expertise in an entirely new industry and use a portfolio of work as an off-ramp into a new career.
Do the prospects for pseudonymity change in light of the (actual) Elon’s $44 billion move to take Twitter private? The deal’s official press release says that one goal is the creation of a system for “authenticating all humans.” To Bored, this doesn’t mean doxxing. It means better verification systems (eg. CAPTCHAs) to prove that you’re an actual person and not a bot.
The pandemic has accelerated two trends that could usher in a pseudonymous future:
- Remote work: The rise of work-from-anywhere has made companies more open to talent-from-anywhere. Deel, a startup that helps companies hire globally, says U.S. tech firms have increased international hiring by 74% over the last six months (based on 100,000 contracts processed).
- Crypto adoption: In February, the number of Ethereum addresses holding at least 0.1 ETH ($310) hit 3.98 million, an increase of 50% over the past two years.
For a lot of knowledge work — like writing, software development, financial analysis or graphic design — human resource departments should focus on the quality of work. Pseudonymity removes the bias often found in the hiring process. If a pseudonymous account has a track record of the best work, pay that person accordingly, regardless of where they live or what school they attended.
This is more than hypothetical for me. I have family members in Vietnam who have been just as qualified as I am for the various jobs I’ve had. But because my parents made it out of Vietnam before the fall of Saigon, I won the geographic lottery and was afforded more opportunities growing up in North America.
Meanwhile, the mainstreaming of crypto has made it easier to monetize an online pseudonymous personality.
“I didn’t sell anything to my audience for the first six or seven years,” says Bored. “If I opened a PayPal or Stripe account, I could have doxxed myself. The rising interest in NFTs and other digital assets gave me a way to offer something to my followers with a payment from one crypto wallet to another.”
The words “pseudonymous” and “crypto” have also been attached to scams over the past year that saw pseudonymous makers of sketchy projects run off with millions.
“It’s definitely a problem,” Bored says of the scams. “But you don’t have to be pseudonymous to be a bad actor. There are a lot of people running scams with their legal names. And just like those people, a pseudonymous person will destroy their reputation if they do shady stuff.”
Bored acknowledges that pseudonymous actors should receive more scrutiny. The crypto arena actually has a straightforward way to do that: Check the chain.
Soona Amhaz, a general partner at Volt Capital, writes that “A [crypto] wallet address is the ultimate source of truth for reputation in the space.” A project’s on-chain history can show you the level of sophistication, potential flight risks and how long someone has been working.
I don’t give investment advice, but here’s some investment advice: Don’t buy a meme coin from a pseudonymous account that was only created in the last 45 minutes.
This due diligence framework will come in handy because building a pseudonymous profile is getting easier and easier. In a blog post for On Deck, Bored lays out the accessible and inexpensive tool kit for pseudonymity:
- ProtonMail account
- Virtual phone numbers
- ENS domain or crypto wallet
- Privacy-enabled browser extensions
- Oasis (the realtime avatar creator for Zoom calls)
One old-school suggestion: Create ironclad non-disclosure agreements for business partners that legally require a real name.
Taking on a new persona isn’t all or nothing, either. As Srinivasan explains, there is a concept called “33 Bits” which measures a person’s pseudonymity: “Because 2^33 is greater than ~7B, you need 33 bits to fully deanonymize someone in a (conceptual) database table of all ~7B people worldwide.”
A “bit” can be gender or location. With the right online tools, you can choose to expose as much or as few bits as you want. As more people go down this path, the pseudonymous economy will grow. Now, we just need someone to make sure that those food truck ferris wheels come too.
Trung Phan is the co-host of the Not Investment Advice podcast and writes the SatPost newsletter. He was formerly the lead writer for the Hustle, a tech newsletter.