In the 1981 sci-fi novel “True Names,” Vernor Vinge describes a future in which hackers go to great lengths to keep their real-world identities secret for fear that the U.S. government might enslave or assassinate them. Almost 40 years later, it’s not lives that are at risk, but reputations and careers.
In recent months, we’ve seen multiple media personalities lose their jobs over controversial statements. Tesla CEO Elon Musk is facing Securities and Exchange Commission inquiries for his unchecked Twitter ramblings, and plenty of not-even-famous people have been fired for theirs. Given how efficiently the internet amplifies every indiscretion, it’s a bit reckless to anchor our accounts to a real-name identity.
Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has lamented, “One of the errors that the internet made a long time ago is that there was not an accurate and non-revocable identity-management service.” (Google Plus was originally intended to provide just that service!) Aside from increased convenience for ad trackers, there’s a reasonable case to be made for real names on internet platforms: The possibility of tanking your career serves as pretty good collateral against bad behavior.
It’s also convenient for the user: When I first signed up for Airbnb and Uber, I linked the apps to my Facebook account to prove that I was a real human with real friends. Allowing people to port reputation from one platform to another lets someone else do the hard work of filtering out the derelicts.
This ability for strangers to use our reputations for or against us is still new. For most of human history, identity has been local and labor-intensive. When we give the Starbucks barista our names to write on our to-go cups, we can be relatively sure that the information left behind is isolated by the amount of work it would take to link it to the rest of our lives. While a particularly abhorrent person may be banished from a community, she could theoretically relocate without her reputation preceding her.
Then came the internet and ubiquitous social media, and now a simple Google search will reveal much about anyone’s life. As more activity is linked to our real names, the stakes seem excessively high. There has to be a better way.
Before we invented corporations, business owners were personally liable for any losses the business incurred. This meant that if your company sold a bum product, you could be sued and enslaved by creditors. In the 1800s, we created the idea of limited liability companies that were legally independent of their founders. By separating the corporation from its owners, entrepreneurs could take on new business ventures, or multiple ventures, without liability from one company affecting another.
Digital identity could be approached the same way: as a standalone entity with limited impact on the rest of our lives.
We have credentials that unlock certain privileges, profiles with ratings and relationships, but there is no requirement that a digital identity be associated with an individual, or even an individual human! Mark Zuckerberg, champion of online authenticity, employs an entire team of staffers to maintain his personal Facebook page. Given that Facebook’s Name Policy requires people to use their real names, Zuckerberg’s profile page really ought to be named after his employees.
The ability to adopt multiple pseudonyms doesn’t mean we instantly open the floodgates to bots and trolls any more than bankruptcy laws allow all creditors to instantly escape all debts. Each new pseudonymous account must start from scratch. As an account ages and develops a reputation and following, it accrues quantifiable collateral, much like corporate goodwill.
Reputation can be a valuable asset. Traders on account marketplaces buy and sell established social media accounts, with older users commanding a premium. A verified account created in 2009 (like mine!) currently goes for about $900. I’m effectively putting up a $900 deposit every time I tweet.
True names are a barbarous relic. The government needs some unique identifier for each individual, to allow for civic functions like voting and taxation. But the internet doesn’t need to know your name.