A More Pseudonymous Internet

From ephemeral publishing apps to the abandoned Google+ “real names” policy, a push to revive relative namelessness online.

Peter Macdiarmid/Reuters

“Some chick asked me what I’d do with 10 million bucks. I told her I’d wonder where the rest of my money went.”

That’s from the epically ridiculous Twitter account, @GSElevator. Since 2011, it has satirized Wall Street simply by tweeting things “overheard in the Goldman Sachs elevator.” The man who curates @GSElevator kept his identity secret for years. From his pseudonymous perch, he brilliantly mocked Wall Street culture and earned hundreds of thousands of followers.

I first chatted with Mr. Elevator in 2013, when I emailed him asking for an interview. As I was writing the email, I accidentally discovered his identity. His birth name, John LeFevre, popped up in one of my data-gathering Gmail tools. I didn’t want to expose him, so I gave him tips for fixing the tool. Less than a year later, he was outed in The New York Times. When I heard the news, I was sad—partly for LeFevre and partly for a “lost Internet.” A lot of people have been writing lately about how the web used to be—but for me, the most disappointing loss is that of our default pseudonymity.

* * *

I still remember the screaming fights with my mother when I started spending all my free time on the Internet. (I love you, Mom!) It was the late 1990s. It really freaked her out: What was this Internet, anyway? What was I doing? Who was I talking to?

I would get home, finish my homework right away, then log into online fantasy games and stay there until midnight. I hung out in enchanted glades and slew exotic monsters—and more importantly, I began to understand the benefits of all kinds of communities. But unlike in “real life,” I had a lot of online friends. On the Internet, guys actually flirted with me. In one or two games, I built in-game businesses from digital items and currency; some other players respected my savvy.

This is not difficult to grasp today, but it was quasi-unthinkable 20 years ago. My mom was furious and scared because of media hype about “Internet slayings”—and because no one online used their real names. In fact, making a real name username was considered slightly odd. I knew that it mattered that I could be a snarky merchant in one world and a compassionate healer in another. But at age 12, I didn’t have the vocabulary to defend that space against a stressed-out adult.

As the Internet evolved, the ecosystem of chat rooms, simple games, and clunky flashing headers soon birthed algorithmic matchmakers, blogging software, and serene blue social networks. It also gave rise to anthropologists with more vocabulary, like Tricia Wang, who has documented what she calls “the elastic self.” Wang wrote her dissertation about the elastic self among Chinese youth, but I see myself in the way she describes them:

Chinese youth are developing new forms of engagement that they can iterate in their social circles with people they know. Before doing that, however, they search for safe spaces where they can safely and anonymously practice new ways of thinking and being. These interactions offer them freedom and distance from their existing relationships. They eventually use the experiences, relationships, and practices cultivated through their Elastic Self in other areas of their life.

I was finding myself on the Internet, but I was also learning skills that would be useful both as a professional and a human offline. My ability to be an effective creator was hugely shaped by writing popular fan fiction and running side-project businesses in virtual worlds. Researchers have also found pseudonymous games to be great environments for training leadership skills. “Individuals you’d never expect to identify—and who’d never expect to be identified—as ‘high potentials’ for real-world management training end up taking on significant leadership roles in games,” wrote a trio of professors in the Harvard Business Review.

Nowadays, we’re often told that The Future lies in entrepreneurship. I believe that elastic selfhood is crucial for people’s personal development, but it’s important for broader innovation, too. We need space to experiment and risk-tolerant environments where people can learn.

Despite our fights, my mom started feeling better about the Internet when I was offered my first internship. The CEO of a small Internet game company discovered my fan fiction when I was 15. When he asked me what I did in real life, I told him I was “a sophomore.” Assuming I was in college, he invited me to help him out. In my twenties, I shifted focus from game networks toward other media networks like blogs. I have some pseudonyms, and one of those names is widely published on the topic of sexuality and culture. I’ve written books and spoken at major universities about stigmatized, underground identities. My goal has never been to merely explore boundaries, but to help people find acceptance and tolerance. I might never have been so creative and outspoken without the pseudonyms that got me started.

Yet over time, it became impossible to ignore how things were changing.

* * *

Frustration tore through my peer group as people started getting fired for sins like publishing Facebook photographs that showed them drinking a beer in college. Major forums soon tried forcing people to use their real names, on pain of removal from the platform. Commentators began suggesting real-name usage would make the Internet a clean and civil place. (These theories are contradicted by evidence.) Unsurprisingly, some people who have advocated for real-name usage are affiliated with data-gathering social platforms.

While speaking of the elastic self, Wang has pointed out that “companies and institutions often misinterpret the meaning of people’s social lives, codifying it in a way that forces people into static relationships that don’t reflect the fluid nature of actual relationships.” Some companies are highly motivated to misinterpret. If we, the users, start buying into a platform’s vision of how we should present ourselves, then we will believe that we need that platform more. Plus, our data is more valuable when it can be attached to actual demographic information.

Can pseudonyms and anonymity be used to hurt others? Obviously, yes. As a woman on the Internet, I’ve encountered my share of nastiness. This is a complex problem. Abusers will exploit whatever tensions they can find, in any social context. Abuse of power happens wherever there is power—and anonymity can be powerful. But I believe that almost everyone deserves safe space to figure out who they are and what they want to say. When people abuse that space, there should be consequences for those people. There are many ways of regulating discussion that do not involve silencing gigantic swathes of humanity.

Of course, our ability to control this space is not merely important from a navel-gazey or political perspective. It’s important for reasons of personal, physical safety too. My strongest case study is from 2010, when Google’s extinct service Buzz was unveiled. Several Internet friends texted and tweeted at me that day: “Don’t activate Buzz!” They didn’t email, because Buzz was set to turn itself on as soon as people opened their Gmail accounts. Once activated, Buzz would automatically and publicly display the top people emailed by that account. Some Gmail users were seriously harmed, including people with stalkers and therapists trying to protect their patients’ confidentiality. Buzz suffered in the ensuing scandals.

Conversations about pseudonym danger used to focus on hiding from people who disliked you, or planning ahead to neutralize the human errors that could lead to accidental revelation. In 2010, I realized that I would more likely be outflanked by an amoral aggregator, a thoughtless design—a tool to surface information that had previously been hard to find. On the other hand, humans can help you dodge algorithms: my friends helped me, and I helped the man behind @GSElevator. And it was ultimately a person rather than a data aggregator that outed John LeFevre.

* * *

LeFevre, the man behind @GSElevator, told me he guarded his identity closely at first, then relaxed and gave more clues over time. (“Figuring out my identity did not take any stroke of stellar investigative journalism,” he said.) Although he wouldn’t give details, he made it clear that he was revealed because he let a lot of people know who he was, not because of a data-sniffing tool. (Andrew Ross Sorkin, who broke the @GSElevator New York Times story, declined to comment.) More interesting, to me, is the fact that LeFevre doesn’t appear to associate personal growth with the pseudonym. He seems to see the whole thing as essentially separate from himself.

“@GSElevator is not a person,” he said. “It’s a character, an enigma.” It all began, he said, as “an innocuous joke over drinks in a bar that gradually evolved over time.” In other words: it was a random experiment. A pseudonym can be a space for personal development, and it can also be a trick for cultural commentary brand-building, and it can be a random joke at a bar—and sometimes it stretches and changes from one to the other.

As the Internet is ever more aggressively tracked and policed, the market has demanded services to counteract that trend. Some people fight algorithms with algorithms by developing consumer software to go through your social media presence and seek out “compromising” pictures. This market has also produced ephemeral messaging platforms like Snapchat and anonymous commenting services like Secret. People know that we need this elastic space, and if we can’t get it on the mainstream Internet, we’ll find or build it elsewhere. Incidentally, Secret is rumored to be valued at $100 million—Snapchat at $10 billion.

There’s plenty of chatter about how Secret, Whisper, YikYak, and other anonymous chat apps create an environment ripe for angst and drama—and they certainly do. But people aren’t just using Secret for vicious gossip. They’re posting all the things they’re afraid to say aloud, which includes unquestionably important stuff like abuse victims gathering emotional support in the midst of harassment. (Be careful, though, about whistleblowing on Secret, as the platform can and will identify you if legal controversy arises. If you need higher-quality secrecy, then you might consider using the Tor browserand you should never do anything related to your “normal” life using your hidden accounts.)

Some people play pseudonym games on Secret, and I’ve even seen people build absurdist “personal brands” there. For example, this guy: be sure to read the comments, where he says “This is another secret from Dustin Boyer.” Boyer is a flamboyant San Francisco tech hipster who co-founded TacoCopter.com. He offers free burritos to anyone who accurately identifies one of his secrets. Maybe the next @GSElevator can safely emerge using similar tricks.

Google+ just repealed its much-discussed “real names” policy, and I can’t help wondering whether it was influenced by the popularity of Secret and Snapchat. Twitter, of course, never had such a policy and presumably never will. I’d like to think that most of the Internet is bouncing back from anti-pseudonymity.