A little over ten years ago, an anonymous developer known only as Satoshi unleashed an unstoppable new form of money into the world. In the years that followed, that invention spread, grew, and garnered global influence, reserving a space on the balance sheets of major corporations while knocking sternly at the door of printer-happy central banks. It’s this same controversial nature that has led many to acknowledge that Satoshi’s decision to remain anonymous may in fact have been one of the great gifts imparted to his technology.

Removing a central figure as a fulcrum of influence, for better or worse, allowed the technology to function independently as intended.  Increasingly, however, more and more founders, online personalities, educators and others are choosing an anonymous identity – not only for the protection it may proffer their ideas, but for the personal safety it also provides.

Being an “Anon”: The Benefits and the Trend

In an increasingly online world, a personal identity can be a target – names, email addresses, locations and other identifiers are all easily exploitable by other anonymous actors.  Duplicate accounts and impersonation are objectives easily accomplished with a name and email. With the connection of a name and email to other sensitive information, such as passwords, risks like identity theft and blackmail begin to loom large. While often this level of access is due to a data breach at some major company with a long list of such info, proffering personal information freely online doesn’t help. Additionally, the increase in “doxxing” of online personalities whose ideas may run contrary to others’ beliefs – or simply have rubbed some online troll the wrong way – is another very real reason for personalities to go dark.

The ability to express one’s opinions and ideas without the threat of asymmetrical personal repercussions is becoming increasingly desirable or even necessary in a polarized world. These factors, independently or combined, have given rise to credible anon. Today, community members and creators are often able to legitimately build, lead and educate from behind the lines of an avatar.  The acceptance of credentials from accounts behind even the names of comic book heroes or other mythical characters happens via the vetting of their content, rather than character, and has often even earned these anons a place in the upper echelons of internet influence.

Bad Actors

It’s not to say that anonymity doesn’t work both ways. While anonymity is a tool being increasingly used by credible sources, it also still remains a shroud to those who prefer to lurk in the shadows, circumventing accountability. The same protection offered to those who might share simply opposing or unconventional views can also be used to spew unwarranted vitriol that would never see the light of day under public circumstances. Likewise, anonymity offers easy cover for scammers, shills, and “developers” of new and unknown but sure-to-be-huge projects, selling the snake oil of the next big thing and then disappearing into oblivion without repercussion. It stands to reason that in an anonymized world, critical thinking, level-headed judgment and personal responsibility play an even greater role. However, the layer of mystery anonymity provides can make distinguishing between bad actors and legitimate anons more challenging.

Navigating Anonymity

When is it necessary to know the character of a person, and when is it enough to rely on the quality of their content? Some of the most respected names in business history have gone on to steal their customers’ funds. A public persona and even proven track record are not necessarily always enough to judge the outcome of an endeavor. However, these same aspects are nonetheless an important measuring stick in due diligence.  Particularly with investments, the outcome of the project remains to be seen – and the character of the founder becomes a greater factor in decision making. At a minimum, a point person reduces the risk of the same absconding with funds or being able to escape responsibility entirely in the event of gross negligence.  An anonymous founder, meanwhile, doesn’t have to be a red flag – many projects can and do benefit from the absence of a central figure. However, even Satoshi’s brilliant brainchild, as the product of an anon, had to work seamlessly for almost a decade before it earned the attention of major investors. Other types of projects rely less on trust. Endeavors like analysis and opinion, other forms of content creation and even sometimes reporting, offer a greater opportunity to be immediately vetted, discredited, discussed or accepted.  The nature of content as a product itself requires less reliance on unknowns like future promises or the persona of the author themselves. While discretion plays a role in any online activity, content provided is intrinsically less opaque than contracts based on character when it comes to anonymous sources.

Anonymity is a double-edged sword that provides protection to whoever wields it. The rise of the anon may mean the distinction between criminal tactics and those used in service of discretion blurs, with future parameters for what justifies suspicion versus what constitutes privacy potentially becoming battlegrounds.  However, just as attackers have historically used anonymity as a veil with which to protect themselves, it stands to reason that anonymity is a tool now being used by credible sources – from innovators to educators and more – in order to mitigate such attacks and remove both themselves and their ideas from becoming targets.  As more people’s lives go online, being an “anon” can provide personal safety on the web, as well as allowing the focus of someone’s work to be exactly that.

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