It’s 2022, so identity politics are hardly new to the scene, and they lug around enough subtext to stifle whatever conversation they stumble into. Well, before you bend over backward to make up some awkward excuse to leave our little chatroom, let me get to the point: above politics, above identity politics, there is just identity. No two individuals, regardless of their shared experiences, are identical. I am here to celebrate this, and to argue that web3 does, too — unlike, say, the web2 algorithms optimizing toward profit at the expense, or detriment even, of their individual users.
Like most things we cover and discuss in this dumpster fire of a web3 publication, identity is an incredibly nuanced discussion, the discourse of which is often twisted in favor of self-serving political takes and quips that hardly convey the whole truth of this intangible core to our human experience. So why bring it up today?
Well, like Chad promised when he shat all over my favorite emerging technology last week, El Prof has arrived to resuscitate the 0.2% of my ego he soiled with a spirited defense of my optimism for the space. It’s been well-documented in our archives through my diatribes against big tech giants, and spans collaborative intelligence, equitable distribution of wealth, and freedom and accountability for all. But the most specific case for crypto technology is one I’ve more or less relegated to the margins… until today. It is a possible solution to the World Wide Web’s identity crisis.
IRL, we see identity most often discussed by social movements, or reactions to them, that struggle to deconstruct the intangible, networked, nuanced reality of personal identity to create an overall more accepting — if somewhat oversimplified — reality. Or, alternatively, by old men in power, fighting to force it into comfortable, controllable boxes that reflect only their lived experiences. But, naturally, we are also starting to see it factor into the artificial bastardization of the human experience that now dominates the vast majority of experiences on the planet – the Internet.
The Internet could not operate without identity. Every time you log into an app, an inbox, a shopping cart, et al, the software needs some way of knowing it is you logging in, so it can show you the correct data in return. The current ways of proving online identity leave a lot to be desired — peep all the bots that are allowing rich kids to buy their way to influencer status or spreading misinformation. For one thing, your entire existence is on a server, vulnerable to hackers or, worse, the probing hands of one of five mediocre white guys who hold it. The web2 identity system is based around these user tables (read: fancy spreadsheets) for every unique application an individual wishes to access. these applications command custody of your identity, and thus are chiefly involved in designing the little internet bubble that forms your online reality. Whereas an intuitive option would be quite the opposite.
That’s where blockchain technology offers a potential solution. This is the anonymous, decentralized identity proposed by web3 evangelists like myself. Users, in theory, could hold, control, and monetize their own data, without losing any of the convenience of these modern web2 applications. Mirroring the tide of social change, online identity could be returned to the individual.
This means that, rather than contributing their information to a shared blockchain, each individual could have their own cryptographic table – compiled in a distributed user table, enabled for developers to define custom data models. Your information would be catalogued for future distribution, while remaining in your custody. It would be hosted decentrally on multiple open networks, flexible to any identifier or data structure, composable across non-standardized contexts. And, like real identity, it would evolve naturally and fluidly over time.
Would users even want to handle their own data? Well, in practice, they already do, every time they fill out a profile or set up an account on one of these platforms. And most of the requirements for these systems — as well as what’s valuable about them — are already understood well enough to be standardized. A single blockchain in which every user has a unique cryptographic address and new data is issued as NFTs, standardized and transferable to every application, is great in concept. But, in reality, there are bound to be competing schools of thought on what this standard should be, and thus, competing blockchains will emerge to secure it.
We’ve actually covered a few such protocols before, like these wannabe Bond villains trying to use biometric eyeball scans to create a universal basic income. Some are less Rick & Morty b-plot worthy, like bonafide Bond villain Vitalik Buterin’s project of choice, Proof of Humanity. Launched by a non-profit blockchain arbitration protocol, PoH uses a hodgepodge of defensive onboarding techniques such as refundable deposits, facial recognition tools, and user curation to build a registry intended to encourage safer social media environments, fairer voting systems, UBI, and – to the billion people in the world who lack a legal ID – a quantified sense of identity. But, aside from the problems with efficiency, scalability, and adoption, their methods for proving identity runs counter to the Ron-Swanson-esque hard-on for anonymity shared by many degens.
Nevertheless — like Neil Armstrong when Stanley Kubrick called ‘Action!’ — I will plant my flag on the final frontier, even if it’s one day revealed to be a soundstage. Proof of online identity remains an elusive challenge. But, after a year of immersion in the space, I now wholeheartedly believe it will be solved on the blockchain.
In fact, we have our own solution in mind, which does not involve virtual bodily violation, nor registering to a billionaire’s little black book. We call it Proof of Community. If communities, united on a common ground — be it physical location, interests, or ideals — could stake their reputations to vouch for the 1/1, human existence of their user base, it could create a truly decentralized, crowdsourced authentication model, while allowing for genuine anonymity, simultaneously, should they choose to operate privately online. Figuring out how to quantify reputations and communities without creating the same arbitrary boxes we’re fighting to break out of, does, admittedly, pose a challenge in its own right. But it’s one we’re beginning to take head on, as we partner with content creators to help them monetize their data and reclaim their identity, online and off.
This crypto technology, when wielded correctly, could empower individuals to govern their identity online and reap the full financial benefits if they so choose, while returning privacy to those who would rather unplug completely. I believe the future is small business powered by big data. But that doesn’t make me a technofascist or anarcho capitalist or even your run-of-the-mill cryptodouche.eth. After all, identity is infinitely complex. And, ultimately, I think web3, unlike web2, allows for that reality.