When I was 21, the cool thing to be was famous on Instagram. Now the cooler thing to be is a mystery. Anonymity is in.
The youngest adult generation and the most online generation is frustrated with being surveilled and embarrassed by attention-seeking behaviors. This has instigated a retreat into smaller internet spaces and secret-sharing apps, as well as a mini-renaissance for Tumblr, where users rarely use their full names. (The majority of new users are Gen Z, according to Chenda Ngak, a spokesperson for Tumblr’s parent company.) The voice- and text-chat app Discord, known for a culture of anonymous and pseudonymous discussion, now has 150 million users; anonymously run hyper-niche meme accounts are suddenly the coolest, most exciting follows on Instagram. The group-therapy app Chill Pill offers a “world of future friends and better days” but does not permit the sharing of any personally identifying information. (I downloaded the app but can’t make a real account—I’m over the age limit, which is 24.)
Something has shifted online: We’ve arrived at a new era of anonymity, in which it feels natural to be inscrutable and confusing—forget the burden of crafting a coherent, persistent personal brand. There just isn’t any good reason to use your real name anymore. “In the mid 2010s, ambiguity died online—not of natural causes, it was hunted and killed,” the writer and podcast host Biz Sherbert observed recently. Now young people are trying to bring it back. I find this sort of exciting, but also unnerving. What are they going to do with their newfound freedom?
In part, the trend is a response to security concerns. During the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, young people downloaded the encrypted messaging app Signal by the millions to avoid the surveillance they considered possible or probable on other platforms. The anonymous hacker group Anonymous made a buzzy return and was embraced by K-pop fans, many of them anonymous, while engaging in pranks that doubled as acts of civil disobedience. Other activists disseminated tools for blurring protesters’ faces in Instagram Stories, and tried to steer one another off mainstream apps and onto smaller, decentralized ones where users have more control of the data they create and share.
Anonymity can also be ideological. Crypto culture, now known as Web3 culture, was founded on the idea that transactions can be made online without the exchange of personally identifying information. It also has a newer norm of replacing one’s human face with a cartoon. In crypto circles, mentioning a very rich and successful person’s real name can amount to “doxxing,” and even those who aren’t well known are cautious about sharing the barest personal details. At a recent party sponsored by a new Web3 platform, a guest with about 5,000 Twitter followers explained to me that people online do know what he looks like—he “shows face,” as he put it—but that he has never shared a single photo of his girlfriend. Too dangerous.
But in the end, a return to anonymity is just a return to form. Hiding your identity has always been important for getting through the horror of being a person under the age of 24 on the internet. The gradual reveal of personal information, even building up to a “face reveal,” was once a give-and-take among people who shared the same online space for a long time, fostering trust. When Instagram and TikTok arrived and made it possible to make a lot of money from your face, personality, thoughts, beliefs, and personal trauma, young people forgot how good it felt to be no one in particular, or to try on various identities. In the past few years, they have been coming back around.
“It seems like Gen Z is getting really tired of presentation culture, as you might call it,” Zeke, a 21-year-old biologist and frequent Discord chatter, told me. “The idea that everything you do has to be a representation of your personal identity.” Obviously, he did not want me to publish his full name—he’s applying to lab-tech jobs right now, he said, and though nothing he was going to say to me would be scandalous or might put off a potential employer, he did not want to “risk it.”
Zeke does not have any active social-media accounts with his full name attached to them, but he is in many Discord servers pertaining to his interests, including art, writing, and science. He spends a lot of time there sharing interesting or funny photos of animals, and he met his longtime boyfriend while Discord-chatting under a pseudonym that is a play on Kermit the Frog. The site is “chill,” he told me. The servers that he likes best have 100 to 200 users, so the conversation is always lively, but it doesn’t get out of control or competitive. Sometimes people anonymously say disgusting things—the worst things he has ever read! (That well-established tendency has contributed to the collapse of anonymous social platforms in the past.) But mostly they just drop cool pictures and funny memes, and discuss or riff on them. “There’s an understanding that, like, you’re not going to kick each other, you’re not going to judge each other,” he said. “You’re not here to represent your identity; you’re just here to chill.”
The surprising recent popularity of Discord suggests a nostalgia among members of Gen Z for IRC and forum cultures that existed mostly before they were born. The return to Tumblr reflects a longing for the more recent past—just before the age of the influencer. “I’ve been on Tumblr for about 11 years because I was 11 when I got it,” Maya, an aspiring artist and photographer, told me. She asked to go by her first name only, as she does on Instagram. On Tumblr, where she feels most comfortable, she goes by the username coldstonedreamery—a reference to an episode of This American Life that she heard long ago in her mom’s car. She remains anonymous partly for artistic reasons: Being an enigma is good for world building and creating a mystique around her work, she said. She wants to be known for her point of view, not for her face or even her personality. “I mean, there are embarrassing YouTube videos of me playing guitar when I was 12 under my real name,” she added.
Being an enigma can produce strange results: Teenage girls on Instagram sometimes borrow selfies of Maya that don’t have her face in them and present them as their own. Most of the time, though, Maya sees her anonymity as being cozy. “I probably get 20 anonymous messages and questions a day, and I feel fine answering them and exposing all these intimate details of my life,” she said. “The people asking the questions probably don’t know what I look like, probably don’t know where I am or how old I am. I feel safer. There’s like a cloak over me.”
Even on Instagram, classic influencer culture is falling out of style. Among the well-known, generally beautiful faces who go by their real names, there are now thousands of niche meme accounts run by anonymous proprietors. Members of this latter group sometimes reveal their true identities when it becomes financially appealing to do so—if they’re offered a book deal, for example, they have to reveal themselves to someone. If they land a profile in The New York Times’ Style section, then everyone is in on the secret. But many more of them just post away from behind a curtain. (The more niche the content gets, the less likely it is that financial incentives will be in play, and the more likely the anonymity will last.)
The 24-year-old meme-maker behind an Instagram account called @neoliberalheaven makes pop-culture-inflected collages overlaid with parodies of online political discourse. (His profile picture is of the meme-literate musician Phoebe Bridgers.) He asked to remain anonymous for this story because he doesn’t want to limit future job opportunities and because being anonymous is part of his whole deal. The people who come across his feed can appreciate his work for its own sake, he told me, and they don’t care who he is. He also observed that anonymous accounts, by foreclosing on the possibility of becoming a personal brand, come off to some viewers as more “authentic,” or as “a new source of genuineness” online because they aren’t selling anything or trying to become stars. The internet’s prizing of authenticity has gone through the looking glass.
As a person who loves the internet, this all makes sense to me. Why should everyone have to live and write and think publicly at all times? Why should they be limited in that way? As a journalist who reports about the internet, I’ve found it frustrating too. In the past few years, more and more sources have been asking for anonymity on principle—not because they are afraid of specific or likely consequences, but because being named just doesn’t seem worth it. I can’t help but see this as unwillingness to say something and really mean it—and the portent of a sort of sad, slightly paranoid near future, in which everyone is cool, very cool, and impossible to pin down.