Balaji, Tim Ferriss, and The Pseudonymous Economy

I am halfway through the epic 3 and a half hour Tim Ferriss podcast with Balaji Srinivasan, the content du jour throughout my twitter feed. And sure enough, it’s a really interesting podcast!

One of the takes that caught my attention was the idea of the pseudonymous economy – the notion that in the near-future internet economy we won’t want to share our real names and instead we will live public lives under a pseudonym. In the internet age our real name is a personal identifier that can unlock a whole host of other intimate personal information for someone intent on uncovering it, which presents a very real risk. With the public pseudonym persona we can develop a reputation and earn a living based on the strength of our ideas and our contributions, all while living free from fear of being “cancelled” or having our work be judged through some form of bias (racial, geographic, income level etc…). 

Balaji used Reddit handles as an example, with users generating Reddit Karma for their contributions to the platform. In my own world, I have witnessed the possibilities of such a pseudonymous economy via Twitter, in which some of the most influential accounts I follow and learn from in the FinTwit world (@modestproposal, @rampcapital, @masasoncap, @post_market) and Crypto World (@peruggia_v, obviously Satoshi Nakamoto) use pseudonyms instead of real names to great effect – they can be brash, crude, contrarian, outspoken and full of personality in a way that I doubt would work if they used their real names. They are judged and gain a reputation based entirely on the strength and virality of their work and ideas. There are also famous gamers and YouTubers who are only known by their online handles.

But I wanted to pause and note the irony of a couple of internet celebrities, very much known by their real names, discussing the potential for a pseudonymous economy to be an upgrade from today’s world in which we know each other’s first and last names. Balaji and Tim Ferriss have been the beneficiaries of the internet economy in which individuals can thrive as individuals, with their own personalities, outside of a larger organization. Tim Ferriss literally named his podcast eponymously, and Balaji has reached a Cher level of acclaim whereby he is a first-name-only celebrity. There are downside risks to having your name known to the public-at-large in the internet world, but both Balaji and Tim Ferriss are living proof that the internet provides nearly unlimited upside possibilities for those individuals who can make a name for themselves online. Maybe once they reached a level of acclaim they wish that they had done so pseudonymously, but the reality is that having one’s name known in one sphere may open up a world of possibilities in others that would not have otherwise occurred.

If Tim Ferriss had launched “The Four Hour Work Week” under a pseudonym, would he now have one of the biggest podcast audiences in the world? If Balaji had sold his businesses under a pseudonym, would he have the cult Silicon Valley following he has that vigorously debates and elevates each prediction Balaji makes? 

The final note about pseudonymity  is that you have to start from scratch. You can’t leverage existing audiences, relationships, or positions of privelege. People who already have those assets will almost certainly leverage them rather than starting from nothing – the chances of success are much greater when leveraging pre-existing advantages and the benefits of being pseudonymous won’t matter if they don’t get off the ground. 

I don’t disagree that there is space for growth of a pseudonymous economy. It offers opportunities for gaining the benefits of fame and reputation without the costs, Hannah Montana-style. But human nature leads me to believe that many of us would rather gain reputation and acclaim under our own names (like Balaji and Tim) than a pseudonym, like me, publishing this blog on!

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