Pseudonyms are coming back.
The most interesting articles I read and Twitter accounts I follow are increasingly penned by pseudonymous authors. People like Jesse Livermore, Modest Proposal, and The Stoic Emperor can avoid ridicule and pursue unpopular ideas because they aren’t paralyzed by the social repercussions of their words. With the assurance that old thoughts won’t come back to haunt you some day, you can write freely about controversial ideas, difficult experiences with friends, and work-related observations that might upset your employer. Stripped from the chains of risk, writing will become easier because you won’t need to hold back.
Writing online brings social and financial benefits. But the social risks of online harassment or rejection from your social circle are too high for many people to start. Thus, our culture is riddled with “Don’t Post on Facebook” syndrome, where many of the smartest people don’t publish online for fear of unexpected and career-ending consequences. Specifically, people are afraid of instant repercussions from their employers, their friends, and the media-at-large. A friend recently told me he received backlash from his company’s public relations department for telling the honest story of co-founding his company and revealing some of its financial numbers.
Many other hyper-intelligent people won’t publish anything work-related for fear of losing their jobs. The more people pay attention to them, the less they can say. They see other online writers succeed and believe they could have the same success if only they could write under their real name. Those who sit on the sidelines and consume without producing content underestimate the benefits of writing under a pseudonym, even if you only have a niche audience and 3-5 well-written essays on your personal website. By writing under a pseudonym, they can avoid compliance issues at work and skirt the troubles of Internet fame. The more a topic challenges the predominant narrative of society, the more likely the best accounts who write on that topic will be pseudonymous.
Balaji Srinivasan, the former Chief Technology Officer at Coinbase has said: “Over time, doing things under your real name on the internet will be a bit like putting your social security number out there. It won’t commonly be done. Instead, people will earn and speak under different pseudonyms. Real names and Social Security Numbers will be confined to official forms.”
As pseudonyms become more common, people will separate their social name from their earning name so their words don’t destroy their economic opportunities. Moreover, sharing ideas that are mainstream in the moment can come back to bite you a decade later when consensus shifts and the values of the future conflict with the moral code of the present. Because anonymity protects them from the risks of publishing online, people who write under a pseudonym can pursue the truth without fear of punishment.
The cultural effects of the Internet may be new, but writing under a pseudonym isn’t. Many of America’s forefathers wrote under pen names. By obscuring their identity, the forefathers could share clever ideas without the risk of libel or sedition charges. The impressive list of names who wrote pseudonymously includes Thomas Paine, Alexander Hamilton, Tomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin wrote under the pseudonym Ms. Silence Dogood to publish work in the New-England Courant. At the age of 16, Franklin was working for his older brother who wouldn’t let him publish his ideas. But by creating the alter-ego and dropping the letters under the door of his brother’s print shop every week, Franklin saw his ideas in print. Using the pseudonym, Franklin critiqued life in colonial America. He used a satirical tone which contrasted the era’s rigid and conservative social mores. The character he created with a pseudonym was so appealing that he received letters from men offering to marry “Ms. Dogood” once they learned she was widowed. Later on, Franklin wrote under the pseudonyms of Richard Saunders and Poor Richard in Poor Richard’s Almanack. There, Franklin wrote with his characteristic blend of thrift and courtesy.
In addition to protecting his identity, writing under a pseudonym forced Ben Franklin to pursue an extra layer of truth. As I wrote in the Social Media Trap:
“On social media, we create our own Big Brother. The laid-back honesty users once had when posting on Instagram and Twitter in the platforms’ early days is gone now. Spend enough time on both platforms, and you’ll begin to operate with the tact of a corporate communications professional. Both platforms are performative. On Instagram, we judge every post by its impact on our public image, and on Twitter, we have to examine how our ideas will be interpreted by a wide range of audiences — today and in the future — with permanent records of everything we publish. Now that our failures are on public display, we’ve stopped taking risks.”
Freed from the Social Media Trap, pseudonymous writers can write like scientists instead of public relations professionals. With their identity obscured, writers enter an idea meritocracy where they can’t get away with hollow arguments by appealing to authority. Likewise, their readers can’t make ad hominem attacks — where they criticize the writer’s identity instead of their ideas. Given these limits, merit and truth become the most important factors in the fight for truth, which raises the quality of public discourse.
Beyond the Founding Fathers, the list of famous writers who wrote under pseudonyms includes C.S. Lewis, Isaac Asimov, J.K. Rowling, Michael Crichton, and Stephen King.
You Keep the Benefits of Pseudonymity
People who write under a pseudonym can still access the benefits of writing online — such as access to people, ideas, and opportunities — whether they reveal their identity or not.
Writers who remain behind a curtain of pseudonymity can still watch their ideas spread. For example, people like Modest Proposal and Jesse Livermore are still invited on popular podcasts like Invest Like the Best and quoted by big-name writers like Ben Thompson. The allure of mystery can be a tailwind too. I’m surprised by how many impressive people large, pseudonymous accounts have been able to meet without revealing their identities. Their emails and direct messages are filled with ultra-successful people who use their influence to persuade them to reveal their identity or meet in person.
Others build their audiences before they reveal their identity. Michael Mayer, who used to write exclusively behind a pseudonym, shared his strategy for converting his pseudonymous following into real-world money and friendships in an interview with Patrick O’Shaughnessy. Even if you hide your identity behind a pseudonym, you can still use email and direct messages to make friends, fundraise for your business, or develop an online product. In that way, writing under a pseudonym is like a call option. You can postpone your decision to write under your real-name without repercussions. Here’s Michael Mayer:
“It’s somewhat easy to transfer that social capital to the right places when necessary. It’s somewhat overrated to accumulate social capital only under your own name. I still have control of the various accounts I have, and they’re still my own capital. It’s like a Swiss bank account. I can transfer out of it whenever I want.”
Michael used his online audience to attract employees, customers, and investment dollars for his startup called Bottomless. In fact, I’m a customer because I’m such a big fan of Michael’s Twitter account and want to support his business.
Likewise, Dan McMurtie, the founder and CEO of Tyro Partners, wrote under the pseudonym SuperMugatu for years. Using the pseudonym, he built connections with higher-ups in the financial industry. One day, he direct-messaged me on Twitter to speak about writing, and, impressed by his 25,000 Twitter followers, I responded right away. Like Michael, Dan made a business decision to start writing under his real name instead of his pseudonym after writing a viral essay on the dating market. Now, he’s being interviewed on Real Vision and featured on Bloomberg podcasts.
As demonstrated by the stories of Michael and Dan, if you want to transfer out of your pseudonym and start writing under your real-name or use your pseudonym’s capital for your real identity, you can. Sure, there are some risks to writing pseudonymously. I wouldn’t be able to teach Write of Passage under a pseudonym because effective teaching requires face-to-face interaction. But I could sell an app or a product under a pseudonym. For example, Wall Street Playboys and Overheard in the Goldman Sachs Elevator have built six-figure online businesses without ever revealing their identities.
The Components of a Good Pseudonymous Brand
The most popular pseudonyms tend to have two things in common: (1) They create a character, and (2) they take a stand.
1. Create a Character
I recommend using a face, not a logo, for your social media profile picture. Something like a statue of a Greek king or a portrait from a famous painting. My reasoning is simple: It’s easier for people to connect with faces than logos, which will make your account more memorable. Once you’ve made the character, run with it. Create slang, patterns of speech, and jokes that align with your character to amplify the energy of your words.
Build a world with your character that goes beyond the ideas you share. Outside the pseudonymous world, Nassim Taleb is a master at character building. In his books, he uses a character named Fat Tony who is a careless and shrewd Italian, who grew up in Brooklyn, and now lives in New Jersey. Fat Tony has working-class speech patterns and deadlifts every day, but only in gyms that cost less than $10/month with the first month free.
On Twitter, the Stoic Emperor has done an excellent job building mystery and capturing the allure of ancient Stoic wisdom. Their beard and shadow in the profile picture communicate the wisdom of an old soul, and the cover photo at the top refers to ancient Greece. The location has been changed to “The Inner Citadel,” which hints at the headspace of philosopher-king Stoics like Marcus Aurelius.
2. Take a Stand
The algorithmic lords reward people with loud opinions. Because the Internet makes it so easy to find people with fringe opinions and unconventional value systems, differentiation is free marketing. The most popular accounts create a movement around their ideas because they say things you won’t find elsewhere, in ways nobody else will say them.
Here, Carnivore Aurelius has drafted the blueprint for future creators. The account blends diet and practical philosophy into a cocktail of ideas you won’t find anywhere else. Two slogans, “Take Back Control” and “Comfort is the Worst Addiction,” steer its rhetorical ship. It rebels against the standard American diet and the food pyramid that justifies it. It’s a crusade against a culture of sloth and a celebration of personal responsibility. By presenting strong opinions with science to back up the claims, the account has built a following of 56,300 people in 16 months and reached cultural influencers like Joe Rogan.
The Pseudonymous Billionaire
Beyond the world of online writing, the Bitcoin white paper was written under the pseudonym, Satoshi Nakamoto. More than a decade later, nobody knows who wrote it and Satoshi is worth billions of dollars. True to the promise of pseudonymity, the ideas have transcended identity. In contrast to a figure like Elon Musk who can be the subject of a federal investigation or who can attract ridicule by smoking weed on a podcast, Satoshi’s identity cannot be touched. To the Bitcoin community, Satoshi has become a god-like founding figure for people to rally around. The untouchable Satoshi narrative is one of Bitcoin’s greatest assets. People care about Satoshi’s ideas, not his credentials. Regardless of Bitcoin’s long-term prospects, Satoshi’s legacy teaches us that you can write under a pseudonym, and still become a billionaire while transforming the global monetary system.
We have seen too many celebrities spend years growing their reputation, only to have their goodwill collapse in a media firestorm. Legions of pseudonymous writers will rise up in response. Those who build a character and take a stand will force people to associate with their ideas instead of their identities and their message instead of the messenger behind it. In turn, the Internet will transfer social capital from the well-credentialed few atop the ivory tower to armies of self-educated writers who demonstrate knowledge by publishing their ideas and building an online audience.
Pseudonymous influencers are here to stay.