Ah yes... I'm Skimmington Harborough, Esq., I come from a family that made its fortune in philanthropy generations ago.

This seems like a pretty straightforward mechanism for covert operatives, to generate a believable (and memorizable) cover that pulls attention away and maintains coherence.

That said, as someone who prizes ethical behavior, it's not possible to practice this and remain wholly honest without some sort of ethical loophole like "character work for entertainment only". A persona requires misrepresentation, which is not the same as de facto anonymity.

So, while I love the write-up, I don't think it's saying what they think it's saying.

As a counter example, I have been largely anonymous online and offline for awhile; yes, aware it is nearly impossible to be completely anonymous, that’s fine, largely a “hobby” for me.

Very direct about it, and yes, some people completely shut you out once you tell them, but vast majority don’t; while my opinion, those who do aren’t people I am interested in knowing. Very similar prior to me being largely anonymous, people would ask me what I did, I would respond saying I did nothing, which at the time was true and did not feel the need to make something up. Oddly, discovered their response almost immediately told me a lot about who they are as a person; they might think I am: cool, on-the-run, lying, nomad, spy, wealthy, homeless, etc.

As for making personas, long ago I tried that, though now it to me feels like lying, especially in context of establishing long term relationships. That said, with personas I created, other than generic names, I would keep them true to myself, though never complete representations of myself. In doing so discovered that the variety of personas rarely played a factor in people engaging me, but it did appear to make a difference if I just happened to contact them randomly in close proximity to them having free time.

All and all, being anonymous really is not that hard. Not even something at this point I spend lot of time thinking about.

The CIA's retired head of disguise pointed out, in commenting on a movie, that you can't really have a drawer full of fake personas (the intel community calls them "legends") ready for use. Good personas are high-maintenance. They have to have some reality behind them - mail drops, email accounts, phone numbers, social media presences, even physical offices. Those take time, money, and ongoing attention. You can't just create them and box them up for future use.
I had an idea a few years ago around anonymity, but now it seems even more possible with things like billion parameter LLMs. A service where you enter text that you want to post on Reddit/Twitter/etc. but you instead give it to your locally-running model, which is trained to output the text with the following transformations:

  1. Writing style change
  2. Degree of extra/reduced fluff
  3. Degree of typos
  4. Typing style change (e.g. using semicolons a lot, misusing commas consistently, conventions like S.O.S vs. SOS)
All in an effort to further anonymize your text. The idea is that people have different, consistent grammatical habits and mistakes, writing, concision, etc. You create a "profile" for each identity you want, usually one per account.

Another interesting concept to explore is platform style. Have you ever noticed that everyone on Reddit sort of sounds the same? People on HN sort of sound the same. I think there's an emergent platform-based profile that top comments hover around, because adhering to this style is more likely to get upvotes. The hive mind is real!

Cool... this post reminds me of Fravia's "enemy tracking" essay from his pages of reverse engineering: If you've never browsed this site, prepare to enter the mother lode of rabbit holes...
Maybe it's because I'm the kind of guy who took the "On the Internet, no one knows you're a dog" comic to heart, but I don't assume truth about any type of online profile, and I usually don't go cyber stalking anyone just because their online handle sounds mysterious.

Picking a new identity might be a good branding decision (especially if you can get NewName dot com!), but I'm also the kind of guy who looks at the message, not the messenger, so whether I focus on what you're saying or not has nothing to do with the online persona you've created for yourself.

> If you defiantly refuse to say who you are, it can make people angry that you’re upsetting social reciprocity.

Citation needed.

This entire post/idea seems to be based on "you can't just make up an obviously anonymous avatar/username anymore (like BakedPotato138)" and I frankly don't see why not. It's been working fine for decades. The only people who are upset over this are authorities and corporations. And in those cases, making up a fake person is quite possibly criminal fraud.

Satoshi is the only very high profile person I’m aware of to remain completely (pseud)onymous.

Many others have tried and failed (though they often broke the law, so that might be the main distinguishing factor)

I had an idea for a funny little startup once: “Adopt an alter ego”

Essentially a marketplace where you can buy and sell prebuilt identities - complete with associated, aged, and populated social media accounts, email accounts, pictures, websites, etc.

I just like the idea of being different people online.

I've noticed the number of places that let you use ephemeral accounts has really dwindled. Spam, marketing, LE, and I am sure other reasons have it so persistent accounts are more common. So creating a persona is probably the easiest way to be somewhat anonymous online but it's getting harder to create unlinked accounts (using new phone numbers and unlinked to your other accounts) and when it crosses into the real world like with shipping products it gets weird. Your mailman might think a stranger is living with you.
> Use an AI face generator to create a completely believable face to match your new name. Download it once and use it everywhere. Run it through face aging software to use this same persona for the rest of your life.

This approach will need a plan for dealing with Zoom. It has normalized, in a very short time, the video component of what used to be strictly audio - the phone call. If you don't display your face, people get mad.

I am a real person. I have a birth certificate. My problem is that people, when they learn my name[1], don't believe I'm a real person, or they believe I'm a person hiding behind a pseudonym. I blame my parents.

Examples? A dozen years ago Facebook went on a purging mission to get rid of fake accounts. I had to prove to the people behind the algorithm that I was real, and had an online presence dating back to the turn of the century. The same thing happened with Google+ (remember that?): to overcome their objections I had to supply links to real-life documents that cited my name. It was annoying at the time, but I can smile about it now.

Same thing happens in real life. I've had people ask me if I changed my name by deed poll (answer: no). Some people have told me that when they heard my name they thought I must be some sort of wannabe rockstar (answer: no, but I do write poems). Sadly, a few people have confessed that they thought I was Black before they met me - I cannot even begin to understand the thought processes they used to reach that conclusion!

I don't believe my name has been a barrier to my advancement in life. It does offer me some anonymity (evidence: I'm not famous) while at the same time making it very easy for people to find me via Google.

[1] - Rik Roots[2]

[2] - Okay, it's Richard Roots[3], but I shortened it when I was at school because people kept shortening it for me to 'Rick' and then asking me if I spelt my name with a silent 'P'

[3] - Turns out that the Roots surname has a pedigree dating back to the Norman conquest of England[4]. The origins of the name come from the Old English word 'rot', which meant 'glad' or 'pleased'

[4] - See - and yes, I was born in Kent.

PS for Australians: please don't tell me the Wombat Joke. I've heard it many times.

Anonymity is impossible, especially online. About the best one can do is to engage in clever obfuscation though there's a benefit to creating multiple personas for online activity: it makes it easier to keep your silos of interest separated. It's not for everyone but it can be handy.
I love Derek's writing. He's so casually eloquent, without being up his own ass like PG. I've learned a lot from reading what he's produced, and I can certainly attribute (in part) a few successful endeavors to being a "slow thinker" as he calls it.

We live in such an insane, reactionary world these days and I find it very refreshing to hear from people who've clearly thought hard about what they're about to say/write.

Sometimes, I even wish HN worked this way. I wish the front page was about 10x as slow, and that we could discuss things for a week or two instead of a day or two. It'd be messier, but I think the fruits, separated from the weeds, would be juicier.

Now this makes me wonder if Derek Sivers is a real person or not.
This is one of my favorite features of 1Password (no affiliation, but I've used them for 10+ years and am a fan). They have an identity section that you can use to store all kinds of personas securely and even use the information to autocomplete forms. With the ability to add custom fields, you can easily store more than just the standard metadata like name, dob, etc.
What they’re talking about is called “apparent cover.” That is, a cover story which you don’t have to tell anyone, they make it up in their head from the clues you provide.

For example, if you see someone at dawn on the docks with a tackle box, a fishing pole, and dressed for fishing, you don’t think “spy come to take photos of ships.”

Providing a plausible identity is a good practice for hiding your identity.

I wouldn’t suggest the AI face though. Firstly, it makes the face picture unique in that you can’t (currently) get other pictures of the same “person.” If you have a single picture of yourself it looks weird. Facebook without any pictures? Instagram with nothing? No other pictures of yourself, ever? Definitely weird. Better to just avoid it and use the plausible identity as a layer behind your online handle. Then use an avatar, but don’t hide your name. George Howell, aka “17forty” ‘from college, when I used to drink a lot of 40s, 17 was my personal best lol. Just dumb stuff.’

That is a good approach. My persona is going to turn five years old now, but it looks much older. In fact, my persona looks older by design, which reduces the need for profile maintenance but, in turn, is often targeted for age prejudice. I'm called "old fart" many times a week, and it kinda sucks.
Okay 'Derek', good advice.
This reminds me of Taleb’s story about how he says he’s a limo driver at cocktail parties.

He chose this to be boring but plausible and move the conversation on.

To me it seems like if you dodge the topic of employment some people will get curious and dig in. If you say what you do, they might be curious and nothing is more boring to me than talking about my job to “normies.”

I think there’s a concept of digitally hiding through being normal. Evading Google leaves a black hole around your activity. Making a digital “Bob” who just does boring, normal stuff creates an ad profile that no one cares about.

I feel so much more comfortable when someone cold calls me with a thick Indian accent and tells me his name is John (or Mike) before trying to sell me an extended car warranty or life insurance!
Art Vandelay, importer/exporter.
You look down, they know you're lying and up, they know you don't know the truth. Don't use seven words when four will do. Don't shift your weight, look always at your mark but don't stare, be specific but not memorable, be funny but don't make him laugh. He's got to like you then forget you the moment you've left his side. And for God's sake, whatever you do, don't, under any circumstances...
One more use case for personas:

As someone who owns a popular website, I often receive guest writing inquiries (probably for links and SEO).

Most of the time it's either Indians or Eastern European guys. But for some reason they always use fake personas and names to sound/look more "western".

When I asked why do they do that, the answer was "it increases the conversion rates" among "western" publishers. Who also happen to be the most valuable prospects.

So, basically they exploit the conscious or subconscious xenophobic biases in people of western cultures towards people from other "foreign" cultures by creating fake personas. And it works! People are more likely to accept guest articles from someone who looks like them.

PS. You would be surprised to know how many contributors at Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, Tech Crunch, Mashable, etc are completely fake personas.

In one of his novels Cory Doctorow talks about his bad guys doing astroturfing with persona management software to help them track who said what to whom.

As the advertising and tracking arms race escalates, I wonder if there’s a burgeoning industry for personal persona management. So you can isolate your private life from your public life/lives.

Derek's father is a wealthy property developer from Portland, and I'm sure that wealth came in real handy when CDBaby was in its growth phase. But Derek doesn't document that in CDBaby's history because I guess it doesn't fit with his "persona".
Maybe Adam Johnson of the Citations Needed podcast is just an entirely made up persona?

> Am I talking with someone from Australia? Philippines? Brazil? Are they 20 or 60? Male or female

Well due to how easy it is to create a fake identity on social media, knowing who someone /really/ is, is the real quest. I've experimented with creating completely false identities on social media, and populated the profiles with plausible information.

I went the extra mile and created fake domain names, under my alias, fake AI created profile pictures, fake family members, even fake boyfriends. I avoided anything that could be unraveled like saying I work at such and such a company, when there is no employee records under my name at that company (Fake LinkedIN profiles are a hard problem).

One very important thing to keep in mind: If you generate a fake persona and present it as entirely real, you are being dishonest.

This may not matter for inconsequential things like the pen name for your SubStack or something. However, it definitely matters if you plan to engage in anything serious or do any business under that persona.

If you run into situations where you're forced to switch to your real identity (e.g. employment relationship, legal matters, or even an accidental leak) then you could lose a lot of credibility. People will naturally wonder if you were trying to hide something from them, regardless of your initial intentions.

The trouble is when you've been using your alternate persona, chatting with a stranger, and encounter someone who knows your real name that wants to say, "Hello."

"Oh, uh, ... that's my middle name."

I was reminded of which was in the pre-AI era.
> It’s human nature to want to know who’s speaking. If they don’t say, it creates a mystery.

Yes it's human nature to want things but, socially, one might learn to go without something if it's at odds with what someone else wants. If someone doesn't let me keep private things which I would prefer to keep private, unfortunately I will simply learn to avoid that person.

That's to say, "make a persona" is being offered as a panacea to when those around me don't allow for privacy but it is a panacea I would not choose.

been explaining this security policy of mine to people for years in different words. when people think they have answers, they stop looking.

this is why when you look up my dox or grep for my passwords, its not hard to find my fake social security number, address and password in the usual place.

in the future i want to build this into a server. What kind of server are you? Oh, I'm IIS running ASP (not rlly). send your ops down rabbit holes to nowhere instead of depriving them of the feedback they rely on. i love it.

That's pretty genius. I have no social media for socializing, it's purely a photo and idea box.

It's now possible to:

- Create a believable phony organization "Meet the leadership team" page using deep fake images and ChatGPT bios.

In the near future, it will be possible to:

- Generate significant history social media trail with random posts and shares of fake content of all kinds, joining groups, and participation to build up legends to be sold to customers in the future.

I like what this guy has to say and I like that he is centered on helping people. His writing reflects that. I have one of his blog posts on my wall "How to thrive in a unknowable future" and when this article came through Hacker News I immediately identified the name.

If the original poster wants to chime in how he found this writer that would be of interest to me. Thanks for this post. Posts like this make the world a better place to live in.

Pfff... people have been doing this online forever, especially furries.

Most people don't know who Kayodé Lycaon is. I'm quite literally a (painted) dog on the internet.

I have an alter-ego that I release music as. I like that nobody knows who that is, but weirdly I think my alter-ego is a much more likeable character than me.
I'm surprised to see commenters comparing use of made up personas to lying.

There're communities that create/change their personas to match how they perceive themselves, encourage their members to experiment with presented identities, and expect the society to respect and accept presented personas without questioning. I'm totally OK with that. How is this different from presenting oneself as an alter-ego though?

Now no one will believe my real name is Gill Bates.
This works, as long as you don't have to paypal people. Is there a way to make paypal transactions anonymous to the other party?
"Tell white lies to avoid awkward conversations" is perhaps not the revelation the author thought it might be.
Now I want to make a persona a just because.
I guess it's useful to drive away curiosity from laymen but how does it stop corporate knowing me by crosschecking multiple docs? For example the banks for sure need my real name and id and phone number, all other services need those too.
This is good advice that does feel borderline unethical. I’ve found that people don’t have to be defined by their actual names though, they can be defined by activities or what they enjoy or want.

I personally have leaned into the latter framework.

Hmm. Makes me wonder if Derek Sivers really is his given name. Maybe it's a pseudonym? I guess I could email him and ask. And before you ask, yes, Dingosity is not the name I was born with.
>Once people start wondering, they need to know.

You're projecting.

>That’s a problem if you really want to be anonymous.

Large emphasis on really.

Stop conflating secrecy with privacy. The former is another pair of shoes entirely.

The social media equivalent of fuzzing basically.
I use VPN's when I can, I mix up my browsers, and I've largely abandoned social media. Hopefully it helps shrugs
Liked the write-up was a fun read.

But I really don't get the point of being anonymous on social media.

Pst, “Derek silvers” - sounds exactly like a fake but believable name
Also don't forget to hide whois on that created .com domain.
Catfishers are thanking the author for the great suggestions!
> ...Instead of block and battle, deflect and settle.

I love that appraoch!

Very good, Old Sport!
Use a PURDAH, like in "Fall; or Dodge In Hell"
I don't really bother hiding anything.

Anyone who wishes me harm, can figure out who I am, fairly easily. I own a home, and I'm not sure if people know how much that exposes folks.

I want people to know who I am. I don't think that I have much bad about me (although a number of folks think I'm a stuffy old boomer -they're probably right).

It also helps me to behave better. I was not always a stuffy old boomer, and I behaved ... not like an adult ... on the Internet.

I'm big on Responsibility and Accountability. I'd like to see more of it in others (but am frequently disappointed). I find that it's best for me to act like I'd like others to act; whether or not they do, is not my business.

I was told "We teach people how to treat us."

Isn't this what a pen name is?
Derek Sivers- rare, but believable.
Simulacra 101
makes me think of disinformation and differential privacy: too hard to hide the truth so fill the space with lies so it takes too many resources to find the truth.
Personally, I have no problem not being anonymous online. But I do prefer to have privacy online.

Some folks conflate them, but while they are related, they are not the same thing.

Sites like HN provide privacy through pseudonymity (which is, essentially, the "solution" prescribed by the author of the blog post), allowing those I interact with here to know that "I" am "Nobody9999".

Unsurprisingly, that's not the name on my passport. But on HN, you can be relatively sure (assuming I'm not also operating sock-puppet accounts as well) that my thoughts, ideas and expression are from the same person.

I preserve my privacy by not using my "legal" name here. The combination allows me to freely express myself without being tracked down, doxxed or otherwise abused by those who might disagree with me.

As for other places on the internet, I generally don't utilize sites that require verification of my personal details (an excellent example is ChatGPT, which requires not only an account, phone number verification as well), not because I'm engaged in evil/illegal/nasty behaviors, but because my business is my business and no one else's.

That's at least an attempt at preserving some semblance of privacy, but doesn't really provide anonymity.

While (as others have mentioned), my electricity provider, my landlord, my ISP, my mobile device service provider and my doctor all know who I am, where I live and an astonishing amount of information about my life, for the most part that's necessary to participating economically in society.

As such, especially given the lengths to which ISPs and mobile service providers go to to collect information about my activities, my privacy is significantly curtailed. That generally pisses me off, not because I really have anything to hide, but because (and I'll say it again), my business is my business and no one else's.

while I do understand the blog author's point of view, rather than creating an alternative persona online, I'm just me and mostly share my thoughts pseudonymously without trying to create an alternative backstory for those pseudonymous identities.

However, those who choose to use online resources that require verification of their identity, may need to take additional steps to preserve their privacy/pseudonymity. I choose not to engage in those forums and, as such, my privacy is improved a little.

Is that sufficient for me? No. Unfortunately, there's a limit to what I can do while still living "on the grid." And since I have no interest in squatting in a lean-to deep in the woods, I do have to give up some privacy.

I'd love to live in a world where collection of PII was the exception rather than the rule, but those my countrymen (with a very few exceptions) elect to legislate and execute such laws as are legislated don't seem to give a rat's ass about privacy, unless theirs is impacted.

And more's the pity.

Edit: Fixed typo.

this is fucking brilliant in its simpicity
This is so based. Now I don't know anything anymore is the author Derek Sivers from California who now lives in New Zealand even real. Is anything on his about page even true? How are we supposed to trust it? Then again, it doesn't matter.
Want to cover your genitals? Make a beer gut not a pair of shorts