Social Networks of Tomorrow

Essay by Sarah Friend

Being the Hydra: Mental Models for Identity in Software

The prisoner's dilemma presents a challenge for all hopeful worldbuilders. It is a scenario where two participants, despite behaving "rationally", arrive at a globally sub-optimal (worse overall) outcome. This points to an anxiety very deeply at the core of economics and system design. As put by Elinor Ostrom in the foundational Governing the Commons, “The prisoner’s dilemma game fascinates scholars. The paradox that individually rational strategies lead to collectively irrational outcomes seems to challenge a fundamental faith that rational human beings can achieve rational results. (Page 5) ” It’s destabilizing: can the mode of rationality fully assess what is rational? How can the problem be remodeled so that the prisoners cooperate more?

One answer is identity. Identity is everywhere - not only in government-issued documents like passports and driver’s licenses, but all the places humans encounter each other - including online communities and social media platforms. Typically, the prisoner's dilemma is described in a way that assumes it is a one off scenario: The prisoners encounter each other once and never again. But in many real encounters, there is at least some possibility the prisoners will encounter each other again - including the context of digital communications. When the prisoner’s dilemma is iterated, or played in such a way that the prisoners know they will encounter each other again, a much different pattern of behaviour is able to emerge. Suddenly, the long term benefits of cooperation can outweigh the penalty of defection. Instead of a one dimensional payoff matrix, the iterated prisoner’s dilemma can be thought of more like a sum of interactions with a discount rate proportional to the likelihood of re-encountering the opponent. Or, as Robert Axelrod explains, "The future can therefore cast a shadow back upon the present and thereby affect the current strategic situation" (Page 12).

This way of approaching identity, walking at it backwards through game theory, gets at something important about it: it is integral to trust and entangled with reputation. It is also fundamentally relational. Identity is the thing that is recognized. This is the operational logic of calls to enforce real names on the internet. The reason we harass each other, the logic goes, is mostly because we believe we won't be recognized by anyone who could punish our bad behavior or proactively defect on our next encounter. It is how the prisoner you betrayed knows they have seen you before - and “the thing that is recognized” requires the recognizer. I have previously written about how different ontologies of trust create different topologies in social networks. Identity depends on and emerges from these kinds of trust networks. Moreover, they may be the same thing - what is identity, if anything, besides or outside of the thing that is recognized and therefore trusted?

Philosophically, the question of whether the self exists is very old. When the Buddha was asked, “is there a self?”, he famously refused to answer. When asked, "Then is there no self?” he stayed silent again. It is comparable to Bartleby the Scrivener’s “I would prefer not to” in its fundamental refusal of the terms of the question. And the question is by no means answered by contemporary science. Instead, we discover the Proteus effect, where the appearance of a person's digital avatar changes their behavior. Most popular personality tests demonstrate poor repeatability. Emerging thinking suggests that the human brain may be able to neuroplasticly adapt to or inhabit an avatar very unlike a human body - for example, with much longer or extra appendages. Even purely in terms of the physical body, the population of the microbiota, or the number of organisms inhabiting the body that are distinct from it and arguably not-self, is comparable to the number of human cells.

A deep look at the existence or nature of the self is far outside the scope of a short text, which is an attempt to look more closely at identity in the context of designing software. But when Mark Zuckerberg says, “You have one identity…The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly…Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity, (quote)” it is worth making explicit that he is not speaking to scientific consensus, observable behaviour, or the history of human thought. Instead, Zuckerberg has translated the model of identity pioneered by the state to the domain of the internet.

In his book Seeing like a State, James C Scott discussed the many processes by which a state needs to make its resources “legible”:

I set out to understand why the state has always seemed to be the enemy of "people who move around,” ... The more I examined these efforts at sedentarization, the more I came to see them as a state's attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion ... The premodern state was, in many crucial respects, partially blind; it knew precious little about its subjects, their wealth, their landholdings and yields, their location, their very identity (Page 2)

Indeed more broadly, Scott’s work speaks to the extent the state has always been incentive-aligned with surveillance. These same forces are operating in the construction of today’s internet and digital identity. Fundamentally, Zuckerberg identity is skeuomorphic - it is mapping a pre-internet system onto the digital, one that is perhaps irretrievably entangled with larger oppressive systems. But there is no necessary or inbuilt reason to assume these models for identity should be translated to the internet. In Soulbinding like a State, Gordon Brander asks, "Is acceptably non-dystopian digital identity even possible?” - but as we have seen, the beneficial effects of minimum viable identity only require a basic ability to be recognized. What is not required is permanence of identity, its integration into a singular system, or a one-to-one mapping onto human beings.

All platforms contain an implicit ontology of the self. And if the task at hand is to design software for the world we want, then we can start by asking who we want to be. How might identity be structured? The most common primitive for “a person” in decentralized technology is a private/public keypair. It is relatively easy to map this onto the username/password login many are familiar with from web2. At first glance, this may correlate with Zuckerberg identity. But even in the context of familiar social media like instagram or twitter, there is a large space of possible other frameworks. Some are implicitly acknowledged by the interface, other falls in the undefined space Olia Lialina articulates as that of the Turing Complete User: “users who have the ability to achieve their goals regardless of the primary purpose of an application or device”. In Lialina’s framework, we are all Turing Complete Users, and it is the hubris of interface designers to imagine otherwise. “[Turing Complete Users] can write an article in their email client, layout their business card in Excel and shave in front of a web cam … You can have two Twitter accounts and log in to one in Firefox, and the other in Chrome. This is how I do it and it doesn’t matter why I prefer to manage it this way. Maybe I don’t know that an app for managing multiple accounts exists, maybe I knew but didn’t like it, or maybe I’m too lazy to install it. Whatever, I found a way.” The most fundamental agency over technology is not building it, but using it on your own terms. As Lialina says, “This kind of interaction makes the user visible, most importantly to themselves.”

One example is the group meme page. I was part of one for a long time that has fallen into infrequent posting, but was quite active pre-pandemic. It has one password, known by around 10 people. Three or four of us logged in and posted regularly under the same username. In her summary of approaches to identity in web2 and web3 Inventories not Identities Kei Kreutler offers the multisig, or multi-signature wallet, as a potential architecture for identity, suggesting that claims about identity could become like interoperable assets. The group meme page functions similarly to a multisig - different private/public keypairs can make changes and send transactions on behalf of a single shared wallet, where the shared wallet or shared account becomes its own “identity”.

The alt account, as it’s called on Twitter, or finsta on Instagram, is another rich example. People make alt accounts for all kinds of reasons. The most common reason perhaps is to separate the public from the semi-private, where the public account can embody the personal brand that the workification of the world requires many of us to maintain, while the second alt account (sometimes literally private, sometimes just pseudonymously separated from the main account) is recognizable only to closer friends and allows sharing of off-brand, less professionally palatable or more experimental content. But for the past year or so, having asked many people about their “identities” online - I’ve heard many other reasons. From an account for tweeting about football to not annoy friends who aren’t sports fans, to fully made-up characters taken on as a performance, to a way to curate specific feeds outside the need for the polite follow-back.

When translating the structure of alts/finstas into web3, it evokes the Hierarchical Deterministic key (HD) - a model both ubiquitous and underexplored. It is used in many popular web3 wallets, including Metamask. In this model, a single parent key is used to derive endless child keys that cannot be traced back to the parent by an outside observer. The parent key itself is never used, except to derive children. Unfortunately, in the web3 world, the need for funding all child accounts in order to pay for transactions often creates visible public links between these accounts anyway. Moreover, many interfaces don’t clarify the affordances of the parent/child key structure.

Something like this model exists already in legacy social media platforms in the form of the “switch accounts” feature. Instagram knows that there is a shared owner of my official public account, a meme page I participate in, the online art gallery I co-curate, and maybe some other accounts I prefer not to mention here - and it offers “me” a convenient interface for switching between them. What do we call the unnamed thing that instagram knows connects these accounts - the absent center, the ghost in the shell, the no-self? Everyone’s always talking about the hydra’s heads, who is the body?

Perhaps the most extreme case of hydra identity is found on 4chan, where all posts are listed as from “anonymous”. This affords an interesting community which while comparatively small (22 million unique monthly views vs Facebook’s 2.9 billion monthly actives), 4chan has become the subject of global attention on more than one occasion. First, as the spawning place for the hacktivist movement of the same name, anonymous, who famously stated, “we are legion”, and more recently associated with the alt-right. 4chan can be an unsafe unfriendly place - but it’s not one-dimensional either, as evidenced by the dichotomous political activities that it’s fomented or its weird propensity for rescuing abused animals. Still, it is the exact opposite of the kind of online discourse proselytized by real name advocates. But looking at it here, it is also a limit case for hydra identity, best evidenced in the linguistic patterns used to discuss it, as though it had a unitary identity and agency. I have used them here: “its weird propensity for rescuing abused animals”. Can you imagine ever speaking about Facebook this way?

All that is required for identity to emerge is the ability to be recognizable over time. Despite the prevalence of the Zuckerberg model, there is no reason to believe identity correlates one-to-one with “a person”. Various alternative models for identity exist in web2 and web3, both in the space of what is intended by purveyors of identity platforms and outside, where it is invented by users. These alternative models are as legitimate and as important as the other. Though the relationship of the self that inhabits the physical body/online identity echoes the Cartesian mind/body dualism so criticized in the history of western philosophy - it is a false equivalence. Like you, I play a character online and her name is Sarah Friend but her real self is unknowable. The animal typing this is someone else, only temporarily on your networks, ready to change, change again, and become anyone - more solid but less captured - uncapturable.

This essay has been published as part of Social Networks of Tomorrow: Building the Decentralized Web program. The current open call for the 2023 cohort is open until Monday, March 6.