(2020-01-23) Lewis Being Your Selves Identity R&D On Alt Twitter
Aaron Z. Lewis: Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter. I grew up in cyber spaces where legal names were few and far between: RuneScape, AIM, Club Penguin, Neopets, and the like. But when I turned 13, Facebook opened up its floodgates to teenagers across America and washed away our playful screen names.
In 2018, I started feeling nostalgic for the pseudonymous internet of my youth. I decided on a whim to create a “fake” Twitter account, a digital mask to temporarily shield my First Name Last Name from the strange spotlight of social media.
From alt Twitter accounts to finstas to private Snap stories, Very Online people are incubating new models of identity and selfhood. I think it’s a mistake to write off these experiments as trivial or unimportant. We live in an era of unraveling scripts — old institutions are quickly losing credibility and old ideas about identity are becoming untenable. It no longer makes much sense to tie your sense of self to a job or an employer or even a specific skillset.
What the mask reveals
Alt Twitter is a domestic cozy lab for identity R-and-D — the sort of thing that happens all the time in high schools, where kids are constantly showing up in weird wardrobes and playing with new aesthetics.
It’s not a coincidence that I fully embraced my alt account soon after I left my job last year. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next or who I wanted to be next, and I liked the idea of creating a new digital mask for a new chapter in my life.
At first, I didn’t identify at all with my new digital mask. It didn’t feel like me. It had no memory, no history, no friends to speak of. But as I wrote this character into existence and interacted with new people, I started to think of it as part of who I am
Much like our IRL social selves, an alt truly comes alive when it’s seen by others. Twitter is a type of echolocation — you learn about who you’re becoming from the followers and replies that bounce back to you
The algorithm seems to route tweets to the very people who will understand what the hell you’re talking about. You think you’re typing inside jokes to yourself, but it almost always turns out that there are others out there who get you
The more I shared my unfiltered ideas, the more ideas I started having. My random posts sparked thoughtful responses that sent me down months-long research rabbit holes and inspired several substantial writing projects. (creativity)
When you have more than one account, you’re constantly making decisions about which thoughts go where. Do I feel comfortable saying this under my real name, or would I rather vent into the void?
In time, I got over my “stage fright” and switched a lot of my alt activity to my main account. But just when I thought I’d outgrown my pseudonymous profile, something surprising happened. The act of taking my private thoughts public generated a whole new set of thoughts that I wanted to incubate behind my mask.
Meeting pseudonymous friends in real life is a transhuman experience.
the characters of pseudonymous Twitter are developing new conceptions of selfhood that are sorely needed in a time when old scripts are unraveling
Medieval scholars were basically indifferent to the precise identity of the authors whose books they studied. And they didn’t even care about signing their own works
The invention of printing did away with many of the technical causes of anonymity, and the Renaissance created new ideas of literary fame and intellectual property. In the modern era, individual identity and authorship became important and the self became a source of immense value and meaning
The press was seen as an engine of immortality — a technology by which the self could live forever. Gerolamo Cardano, a 16th century Italian polymath, captured the general excitement about the possibility of living forever though the printing press
Unlike the authors of centuries past, modern social media users often prefer ephemerality over immortality. They’re afraid of being cancelled, and they’re exhausted by the treadmill of never-ending identity performance. They want to tone down the grandiose self-seriousness and retreat to the cozy confines of a pseudonymous mask. Keith Johnstone, a pioneer of improv theatre, helps us understand why these types of masks are so attractive. In his IRL workshops, Johnstone uses bizarre-looking masks to induce a light trance state in improvisers. This helps them learn how to let go of their everyday personalities and fully embody a new character. “I like the Mask state very much,” said one of his students. “I guess you could say it acts on me the same way drugs would affect other people — an escape perhaps? A childlike sense of discovery.”
Digital masks are making the static and immortal soul of the Renaissance seem increasingly out of touch. In an environment of info overload, it’s easy to lose track of where “my” ideas come from.
is a remix, including our identities. We wear our brains outside of our skulls and our nerves outside our skin. We walk around with other people’s voices in our heads. The self is in the network rather than a node.
The ability to play multiple characters online means that the project of crafting your identity now extends far beyond your physical body. In his later years, Marshall McLuhan predicted that this newfound ability would lead to a society-wide identity crisis
The default setting on social media platforms — a consistent, persistent, unified profile — enables and exacerbates this conflict. The singular profile incentivizes you to develop a coherent “brand”.
Pseudonymous internet accounts are an escape hatch from this runaway feedback loop. They give you the ability to explore and embrace your multiplicity.
Identity R&D is an infinite game of differentiation and integration. My alt account is like a satellite that orbits my current identity. It does weird research, plays with uncomfortable ideas, asks dumb questions. Eventually, it sends its learnings back to HQ.