Online identity has always been some wild shit.
From the early days of screen names and /nick to usernames and avatars and anons and on and on we’ve continually struggled with (or perhaps played with, depending on who you ask) how best to represent ourselves online. Hell, how we represent ourselves offline is already difficult enough and forever falls back on who you know, who will vouch for you, and your reputation – all of which is easily manipulated. That’s 1000x more complicated online where in most cases you don’t actually have any idea who you are interacting with. The dismissive cliche leading up to the dot com boom was that anyone you spoke to online was really some overweight, socially inept dude still living in his parents basement, especially if they were representing themselves as an attractive woman. This stereotype was largely driven by people who weren’t online and saw no reason to get online and just wanted to poo-poo anyone else who did. But then “being online” got profitable and that made all these other people get interested and suddenly there was a rush and people who had been mocking anyone spending time on the internet needed a way to be on the internet but make it clear they weren’t like those other people on the internet. Proving who you are, while also allowing you to be who you want, has been a struggle ever since.
In Web 2.0 we started to see the desire to have a “single sign on” and transportable identity, as we were starting to build online reputations and social networks, we realized the problems of having a corporate entity control (and know) who communicated with. Having the same identity everywhere online seemed like a dream, but also could be a nightmare, and it wasn’t long before people started exploring ways to express their different interests online safely. Do people from your 9-5 corporate job really need to know which dance clubs you and your friends like to visit on weekends? Probably not. And that’s not even speaking to the problem of trying to connect all the social contacts you’ve ever had into one place. And those are the bigger structural issues, we also started realizing that we projected someone’s identity onto their avatar and if they changed that avatar they suddenly felt like a different person. Combine that with social networks finding new ways to shove “other content” into feeds we expected to be filled only with friends and it got complicated. Point being, it continued to be a mess.
One of the things that I and others have been thinking and talking about is how Web3 has to some extent freed us from the constraints of the avatar and given us some further flexibility as to how we manage our online identities. Almost exactly a year ago I wrote a lot of words about avatars and identities, largely focusing on community membership and how the ability to own an NFT which becomes your access to and identity within a community, and being able to have wallets with multiple NFTs that you can switch between depending on context was both scary and exciting.
One thing I observed was that being able to prove you owned an NFT which you were using as your avatar allowed for some authenticity and reliability, and while of course anyone else could right-click-save that image and use it themselves (and we’ve seen a lot of scams emerge doing just that) the increasing ability to gate some interactions or prove ownership as verification was quite the revolution. I can use my CryptoPunk while interacting in the private CryptoPunk discord and my Bored Ape while interacting in the private Bored Ape discord and in both cases everyone knows it’s me, just kind of wearing a different outfit to fit the occasion. Of course, we’ve also seen that people gravitate to one of their avatars more than others and begin to use that across platforms and that avatar starts being associated with them. This is super interesting for lots of reasons, not the least of which is what happens when an NFT avatar is deeply associated with someone and then they very publicly get rid of it as we saw with Punk #4156, or it becomes so much of who they are they couldn’t part with it? Are these little images now subject to typecasting? So once again a solution presents new complications.
And this is where things get super fascinating, because what if the image that becomes so associated with you and your online identity, isn’t “the real” thing (whatever that means)? Consider for a moment the case of CryptoPunk #1060 vs CryptoPhunk #1060.
I’ve written about CryptoPhunks before and won’t repeat myself here as it’s a complex discussion, but will just note for anyone unfamiliar that the imagery of the CryptoPhunks collection (released in 2021) is a 1:1 mirror image derivative of the CryptoPunks collection (released in 2017). There’s a lot more to it than that, but in this context that’s the important detail. In the case of #1060, one of these is used regularly as an avatar and the other sits dormant in an unused wallet. As an experiment I recently posted CryptoPunk #1060 on Twitter and asked people who first came to mind:
Obviously this is not scientific and is biased by who follows me and what communities they spend time in but the point I was trying to make was pretty obvious. Chopper is a developer who is very active in web3 building open source software and helping to manage several overlapping communities. Chopper does not own CryptoPunk #1060. He does own CryptoPhunk #1060 and has used it as his avatar everywhere for more than a year to the point that this image, regardless of which way it’s facing, reminds people of him. For all intents and purposes, in the world of web3, it is him. This is aided by the fact that the “original” CryptoPunk is sitting unused in a wallet that hasn’t been active in over 3 years. Is it lost forever? Maybe. Could it suddenly be reactivated and sell tomorrow? Maybe. But what does that matter, because the association between the person and the imagery is already so strong. And this is far from the only example, I could easily do the same experiment with the photographer Ruff Draft. This leads to the question how much does authenticity matter, or does the entire notion of authenticity need to be revised in this context. What happens when the derivative becomes more recognizable than the original? What if someone with ill intent bought CryptoPunk #1060 and started using it as their avatar? What if somehow Chopper came into possession of CryptoPunk #1060, would he change his identity to face the other direction? I somehow doubt it. We know that the value of a CryptoPunk can be increased because of how it’s used, so could the value of one also be decreased because it’s not used, or because of how a derivative is being used?
I don’t think the answers to these questions are as cut and dry as many of us would like to believe, and that complicates the relationship between ownership and identity, as well as how much value (financial and social) words and concepts like “original” or “official” or “authentic” hold. If actions speak louder than words, does that apply to avatars as well? Is this a new example of “use it or lose it?” Earlier this week one of the most iconic and recognizable CrytpoPunks sold for $4.5 Million dollars to an anonymous buyer. The previous owner held it for almost 2 years but didn’t use it as his avatar – will the new owner embrace and put to use this newly acquired identity they just spent so much money on, or will they neglect it and let someone else usurp them?