How do you exist on the internet?
In an essay titled, “I don’t want to be an internet person” writer Ginerva Davis chronicles the strange story of Charlie, the founder of the NFT collection Milady Maker, and his unique way of existing on the internet.
It describes his practice of creating online personalities—various twitter accounts, mostly—as art. He created shocking, often uncomfortable content on his main account, then created other accounts to “swarm” around it to boost its posts and create a niche following around a particular topic. These topics were something you’d find on 8chan or in a thread about QAnon, with the goal to shock.
“He says that when he’s online, he treats himself as a digital spirit, a tool for an algorithm which is far more powerful than him,” Davis wrote. “He posts what the algorithm wants him to say, unlike the unenlightened normal people who simply use the internet to mirror their flesh-and-blood selves.”
I’m fascinated by the idea of a digital spirit and an algorithm more powerful than yourself. But I’d push back on the idea that us “normal people” simply “mirror” our flesh-and-blood selves on the internet. I’d say that when we’re on the internet, we create a different self that is smarter, funnier, prettier, and different to the extent that it’s not really us anymore.
If you asked me what my digital self feels like, I’d say it’s like the valedictorian version of me. It’s the version that I put into the world to play-act as me.
Davis describes this as performing your “online schtick.”
“Being online today mostly means constantly performing your personality—or whatever online schtick you develop,” she wrote. “Most of us go on and try to present the best version of ourselves. Because this is the future, whether we like it or not.”
I’ve been shifting my perspective from digital identities as full people. Because they’re not people in the full sense of the word—they’re creations by people. They’re two-dimensional versions with a real person behind the curtain, Wizard of Oz style.
Here’s what we’re like on the internet:
And here’s what we’re like in real life:
So, when we put all those digital identities together, we often get something that looks more like a multi-headed monster from Greek mythology than a functioning community of people:
Behind each of those scary green men is a real human pulling the strings. There might be multiple humans. Or, one human might control multiple green men. Each green man isn’t directly correlated with a person: it’s only a shortcut to a person.
It’s like how wallet addresses are used as shortcuts to people. Airdrops are given to wallet addresses, not people, but it’s done assuming that the wallet address is a good shortcut to a person.
But one person could (and does) control multiple wallet addresses, or they could be completely controlled by bots.
There’s something wrong with these green men, though.
The chronically online; the chronically lonely
Deep down, we know those green men aren’t people. We know something is “off” when we’re online.
With the rise of terms like “the chronically online,” used to describe someone who spends the majority of their waking hours on screens, has also come the concept of the internet as a lonely place.
The internet feels like you’re out there alone, opening another browser tab, scrolling another social media feed…..by yourself.
There are lots of theories as to why the internet feels so lonely. There’s the theory from Gaby Goldberg that we haven’t figured out how to share our digital experiences in a meaningful way, like we have with IRL experiences (posting your vacation pictures on Instagram, writing about your new job on LinkedIn).
There’s the theory from Yancey Strickler that the internet is more like a “dark forest,” with everyone retreating into the “cozy web,” such as non-indexed corners like Telegram and Signal group chats and gated Discord servers where you can be your true self without having to perform. There are billions of people all around you on the internet all the time, you just don’t see them because they’re not putting out any smoke signals to the wider universe.
There’s the suggestion from the project Tiny Internets that the internet is either 0 or 100, with nothing in between. “We’re either invisible or presenting at an auditorium,” wrote Spencer Chang. And, honestly, who wants to present at an auditorium?
I love the concept that Spencer Chang of Tiny Internets describes as “peripheral vision on the internet.” He writes, “We’ve lost gradients of intimacy, a concept from architecture, the ability to loiter and meander through a space, engaging when we want in varying levels of expression. We don’t have any peripheral vision on the internet. We have to be in one place or the other.”
This could explain the loneliness in the swarm of green men: we don’t see the different sides of every person we interact with. We’re reading a forum post and we don’t see the other people around us, reading it and having the same feelings we are. We either throw ourselves onto the stage by commenting and putting our opinion out there, or we passively read it, feeling invisible.
“Everything is too pristine on the internet, and there are no indicators of ambient presence, like the way you can tell in a space if someone has been around,” wrote Chang.
And when we do almost cross paths with someone? It doesn’t fully connect. Matt Webb on the blog Interconnected described “almost social” moments that abound on the internet. Reading a product review or commenting on a twitter thread is “like walking into a room that somebody’s just left: there’s a note on the table, and the door on the far end is closing shut,” he wrote.
Even though we create these identities with the goal of posturing, or showing off, or whatever it is we try to do, we don’t feel connected to the other identities around us. It’s like our digital identities are bumping into each other but never fully connecting, never fully crossing paths.
Seeing and being seen, but online
Humans are social creatures, so we need to see and be seen. And our IRL spaces aren’t cutting it anymore.
Being seen is a big deal for people. Especially in the more distant past, when there were fewer means of connection, being seen was harder to do and thus more important.
Read a Jane Austen novel and you’ll see that the characters rarely go a day without ending up in their neighbor’s drawing room or their cousin’s ballroom.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the correlation between the rise of DAOs and the pandemic. Shut inside, doing jobs or school that didn’t transition to remote very well, we had tons of extra time on our hands. We couldn’t go out and interact with people in real life. There were no drawing rooms or ballrooms to be seen in. And if we did, we had masks on and couldn’t tell what each other’s facial expressions were—a key part of human connection. So we loafed around the internet, looking for a way to see and be seen.
Our equivalent of seeing and being seen was through online communities and social media, so we took it in stride, building our green men versions of ourselves as we went. We went on Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and TikTok to see others, and posted our sourdough starters and at-home workout routines to “be seen.” We cruised around the Discord and Telegram channels to hear from people (“Gm”), like we might at a college party or neighborhood potluck.
We cultivated our digital identities to stay mentally sane during the pandemic, to the point where we sometimes feel more like our digital selves than our self selves.
But even in a (mostly) post-pandemic world, we haven’t gone back. The cat isn’t going back in the bag, and the man isn’t coming out from behind the curtain.
Part of the reason the internet is still our default place to see and be seen even post-pandemic is because our IRL spaces have gotten unfriendlier. The rise of gun violence and mass murder in American grocery stores and schools. The general weird behavior of people in public spaces, like on airplanes and in subways. The eerily empty office parks and out-of-business midweek lunch spots. The stark division in political parties that has led to a distrust of your neighbor. The feeling that something is inherently wrong with our public IRL spaces, even our society at large, and that it will never be the same again.
And, on top of all that, now we have the consumer AI renaissance. In a recent Ribbonfarm essay, Venkatesh Rao argues that “text is all you need to produce personhood.” The quirky, endearingly fallible text-based AIs feel like people we know on the internet today. Have we gotten to the point where all you need to know about a person is what they type on a screen to you?
Well—if that’s not a reason to further cultivate my online personhood to stand out from Sydney or Siri or whoever is coming next, I don’t know what is.
I believe this has all built up to the chronically online, chronically lonely, digital-identity-filled internet we inhabit today.
More precisely, like this:
Once AI identities start intermixing with human ones, it will be even more apparent that the digital versions of people might not be people after all.
DAOs are drawing rooms for digital identities with different motivations
DAOs offer yet another place to see and be seen, to mix around our digital identities in a town square of sorts…..for better or for worse.
We wonder why DAOs are difficult to run and online communities are hard to “manage,” but we need to realize that in the digital realm, we’re not interacting with people in the fullest sense—we’re interacting with the digital identities people create. We’re interacting with what people want us to see about them through their digital identity, not what they truly are. Pretty soon, we’ll be interacting with independent AI actors.
Even though that identity you see posturing in a DAO forum might be tied to a real person doing real things, it’s not their whole person. We don’t see them from every angle. We just see the “online schtick” they’ve developed.
This will be even more relevant with the dawn of independent AI agents.
Like Spencer Chang from tiny internet said, we don’t have peripheral vision to see the whole picture. Everything is in 2D, flat, just text on a screen.
Is this bearish for DAOs? No, not necessarily. It’s more of a realization that we need to reorient how we look at actors in DAOs and identities floating around the internet.
Once we acknowledge that we and the future AI actors are all playing a game to create the best version of our own precious digital identities possible, then the virtue signaling and the arguments aren’t about one’s character—they’re about that digital identity, which can be shed and repurposed and reapplied in new ways.
Our digital identities can change, but our “real” identities cannot. When we want to become someone completely new, we create a new identity online.
The motivations of digital identities create the direction for the DAO
The text, “The motivations of digital identities create the direction for the DAO” might sound obvious. But I don’t think we’ve fully grasped that digital identities don’t join a DAO on a random whim—they join it to achieve a goal.
Digital identities have motives, and they don’t do things just for the fun of it, whether subconscious or not. There’s always a motivation somewhere, and if that motivation is ill-placed, it can be detrimental for the DAO as a whole.
Recognizing that the little green men we create are acting for a reason—even if that reason is just to be seen—is incredibly important.
This graphic is a crude representation of the digital identities with multifaceted goals that exist in our world today. But it shows that people’s proxies don’t typically join a DAO just because “vibes” (especially in a bear market). They join for clear reasons that need to be designed for and thought through.
When motivations align, beautiful things can happen. Humans with aligned motivations are the reason we have a productive society. But misaligned motivations are the reason we have conflict and pain.
For example, a DAO full of digital identities all seeking money could lead the DAO to introducing profit-making products or services. Or….it could cannibalize itself by minting more of its own token, hoping for price pumps, and diluting the voting power of token holders. A DAO full of digital identities all seeking status could lead to an elite DAO with cool experiments like Nouns….or a ceaseless war of virtue signaling.
Part of the challenge is that motivations online can be harder to parse than motivations in real life. Nuance is just hard to pick up online. It’s easier to get a feel for someone when they’re standing right in front of you, than when they’re a discord handle with an animal pfp. It’s easier to pick up nuance in speech than in text. The lack of facial expressions and body language makes our fellow human almost unrecognizable.
On the internet, we can probably pick up the emotions at the center of this wheel. But everything else is hidden behind the blue light screens.
Maybe being more upfront with motivations is part of the answer. Or, maybe there’s no way to unpack the motivation of a digital identity sitting across from you in the dark rooms of the internet.
So, where do we go from here?
We co-exist, rather than replace ourselves.
Co-existing with my digital self
Instead of looking at my digital identity as me, I look at it as something that co-exists alongside me.
She’s more like a tool to access the digital world, like my crypto wallet is a tool to access the crypto world.
Soon, we will see AIs using both digital identities and crypto wallets to interact with us.
So, I also see other digital identities as tools used by other people. And this helps me step back and look at the bigger picture of the DAO space more easily.
But it also helps me navigate this often scary digital world we live in. It gives me perspective, and makes disconnecting from this digital world and turning to real, human-to-human connection in the IRL world all the more valuable.
Because sometimes I need to only be the man behind the curtain.