When I was 21, the cool thing to be was being Instagram famous. Now the coolest thing to be is a mystery. Anonymity is required.
The younger generation of adults and the more online generation are frustrated with being watched and embarrassed by attention-seeking behaviors. It prompted a retreat into smaller internet spaces and secret-sharing apps, as well as a mini-renaissance for Tumblr, where users rarely use their full names. (The majority of new users are Gen Z, according to Chenda Ngak, a spokesperson for Tumblr’s parent company.) Voice and text chat app Discord, known for its anonymous and pseudonymous chat culture, now has 150 million users; Anonymously run hyper-niche meme accounts are suddenly the coolest and most exciting followings on Instagram. The group therapy app Chill Pill offers a “world of future friends and better days”, but does not allow the sharing of personally identifying information. (I downloaded the app but can’t create a real account – I’m over the age limit, which is 24.)
Something has changed online: We’ve entered a new era of anonymity, in which it seems natural to be inscrutable and confusing – forget about the burden of creating a consistent and persistent personal brand. There’s just nothing good raison to use your real name anymore. “In the mid-2010s, ambiguity died online – not natural causes, it was hunted and killed,” writer and podcast host Biz Sherbert recently observed. Now the youngsters are trying to bring him back. I find that kind of exciting, but also annoying. What will they do with their newfound freedom?
In part, the trend is a response to security concerns. During the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, millions of young people downloaded the encrypted messaging app Signal to avoid surveillance they thought possible or likely on other platforms. Anonymous hacker group Anonymous has made a comeback and has been embraced by K-pop fans, many of whom are anonymous, while engaging in pranks that double as acts of civil disobedience. Other activists have released tools to blur the faces of protesters in Instagram Stories and have tried to shift away from mainstream apps to smaller, decentralized apps where users have more control over the data they create and share. .
Anonymity can also be ideological. Crypto culture, now known as Web3 culture, was founded on the idea that transactions could be made online without the exchange of personally identifying information. He also has a newer standard of replacing his human face with a cartoon one. In crypto circles, mentioning the real name of a very wealthy and successful person can amount to “doxxing”, and even those who aren’t well known are cautious about sharing even the most basic personal details. At a recent party sponsored by a new platform Web3, a guest with around 5,000 Twitter followers told me that people online knew what he looked like – he “shows face”, as he put it. – but that he had never shared a single one. photo of his girlfriend. Too dangerous.
But in the end, a return to anonymity is only a return to form. Hiding your identity has always been important in overcoming the horror of being under 24 on the internet. Gradual revealing of personal information, even going as far as “face revealing,” used to be an exchange between people who had shared the same online space for a long time, fostering trust. When Instagram and TikTok came along and made big money from your face, your personality, your thoughts, your beliefs and your personal traumas, young people forgot how good it was to be nobody in particular or try out different identities. They have been coming back for a few years.
“It seems like Gen Z is really fed up with the presentation culture, as you might call it,” Zeke, a 21-year-old biologist and frequent chatter on Discord, told me. “The idea that everything you do should be a representation of your personal identity.” Obviously he didn’t want me to publish his full name – he’s currently applying for lab tech jobs, he said, and while nothing he was going to say to me would be outrageous or would put off a potential employer, he did not. want to “take the risk”.
Zeke doesn’t have any active social media accounts with his full name, but he is on many Discord servers related to his interests, including art, writing, and science. He spends a lot of time there sharing interesting or funny photos of animals, and he met his longtime boyfriend while chatting on Discord under a handle that’s a play on Kermit the Frog. The site is “cold”, he told me. The servers he prefers have 100-200 users, so the conversation is always lively, but it doesn’t get out of control or competitive. Sometimes people say disgusting things anonymously – the worst things he’s ever read! (This well-established trend has contributed to the collapse of anonymous social platforms in the past.) But most of the time, they just drop cool pictures and funny memes, and discuss or riff on them. “It’s understood that, like, you’re not going to kick yourself, you’re not going to judge yourself,” he said. “You are not here to represent your identity; you are just here to relax.
The surprising recent popularity of Discord suggests a nostalgia among Gen Zers for the IRC and forum cultures that primarily existed before they were born. The return to Tumblr reflects a longing for a more recent past, just before the influencer’s age. “I’ve been on Tumblr for about 11 years because I was 11 when I got it,” Maya, an aspiring artist and photographer, told me. She asked to use only her first name, as she does on Instagram. On Tumblr, where she feels most comfortable, she uses the username coldstonedreamery, a reference to an episode of This American Life that she heard a long time ago in her mother’s car. She remains anonymous in part for artistic reasons: Being an enigma is good for world-building and creating mystique around her work, she said. She wants to be known for her point of view, not for her face or even her personality. “I mean, there are embarrassing videos on YouTube of me playing guitar when I was 12 under my real name,” she added.
Being an enigma can produce strange results: Teenage girls on Instagram sometimes borrow selfies of Maya that don’t have her face and present them as their own. Most of the time, however, Maya finds her anonymity comfortable. “I probably get 20 anonymous messages and questions a day, and I feel good answering them and exposing all these intimate details of my life,” she said. “The people asking the questions probably don’t know what I look like, probably don’t know where I am or how old I am. I feel more secure. There’s like a coat over me.
Even on Instagram, classic influencer culture is going out of style. Among the well-known and usually good-looking faces that go by their real names, there are now thousands of niche meme accounts run by anonymous owners. Members of this latter group sometimes reveal their true identities when it becomes financially attractive – if offered a book deal, for example, they must reveal themselves to somebody. If they land a profile in The New York Times‘ Section Style, then everyone is in on the secret. But many of them are content to post behind a curtain. (The more niche the content gets, the less likely financial incentives are at stake, and the longer the anonymity is likely to last.)
The 24-year-old meme creator behind an Instagram account called @neoliberalheaven creates pop culture-inspired collages layered over parodies of political speeches online. (His profile picture is of meme-savvy musician Phoebe Bridgers.) He asked to remain anonymous for this story because he doesn’t want to limit future job opportunities and because anonymity is part of his job. contract. People who discover his feed may appreciate his work for its own sake, he told me, and they don’t care who he is. He also observed that anonymous accounts, by excluding the possibility of becoming a personal brand, appear to some viewers as more “authentic” or as “a new source of authenticity” online because they do not sell anything or don’t try to become stars. The price of authenticity on the internet has gone through the looking glass.
As someone who loves the internet, this all makes sense to me. Why should everyone live, write and think publicly at all times? Why should they be limited this way? As a journalist who reports on the Internet, I also found this frustrating. In recent years, more and more sources have asked for anonymity as a matter of principle, not because they fear specific or likely consequences, but because being named doesn’t seem worth it. I can’t help but see this as an unwillingness to say something and really mean it – and a harbinger of some kind of sad, slightly paranoid near future, in which everyone is cool, very cool and impossible to pin down.