The Man with 73 Masks

A case for social media to embrace pseudonym-schizophrenia
Oct 21, 2021

It's a weird thrill to live a double-life. All I do is write under a pen-name and it's a rush. Nothing crazy. It's nothing compared to Louis Kahn, the famous architect who lived a triple-life, with three-separate families, each equally neglected, only to eventually have a heart attack and die in a Penn Station bathroom.

I have 2 masks. Kahn had 3. One man, Fernando Pessoa, had 73.

For the last 10 months, I've been wearing the "Michael Dean" mask. There's a range of ways and reasons to fork your identity. But there's one thing that's becoming more and more obvious to me. "Stage names" are no longer reserved for performers. Everyone's doing it. We have social media to thank.

  • I was shocked to find out that at least 20%* of Write of Passage writers publish under a name different than their own. This doesn't even include the people who enter WOP under a pseudonym (for example, Charlie Bleecker).
  • Alexandra Allen brought "Finstagram" to my attention yesterday. It's a movement where teenagers create fake names on Instagram to avoid detection from their snooping parents. Stealth mode enables shenanigans.
  • Look on Twitter. Basically every other person has reverted their profile picture to an NFT and changed their name. My feed has turned into a cast of algorithmically generated cartoon gorillas speaking to each other in slang.

What's going on?

I think we're entering a new era of "fluid identity."

For basically all of history, the ego has been relatively stable. But society is getting mega-complex, and our digital tools are making us hyper-aware of each other. The illusion of the self is starting to shatter. This is a trend that will probably only grow stronger and stronger.

There's a funny paradox in here though. While social media networks have accelerated this trend, they aren't designed in a way to capture it.

Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn are more like American Idol than we realize. They breed celebrities, not creators. The "feed" is so unnatural to how humans work at a sociological level. Imagine everyone you ever knew, from all your circles, crowded into a tiny amphitheater, either ignoring or ranking the first songs you write, as you're just learning to play guitar. Sounds like the kind of shit that would drive B. Spears crazy.

What if pseudonyms are actually a product of social media tools that fail to model themselves off the true nature of the human psyche?

None of our social networks are designed to properly embrace the creative spirit. This is a non-negotiable for the Creator Economy in my opinion.

Maybe there's a thing Twitter can learn from Fernando Pessoa, a writer from the 1930's who wrote under 73 pen-names. (s/o to Camellia Yang). He didn't call them pseudonyms, but "heteronyms." These weren't fake personalities, but true facets of himself, each with their own writing voice and experiences.

The more that I write without constraints, the more I discover different dimensions of myself.

What would Twitter look like if it were designed for Fernando Pessoa? A social media network that is "identity-first" and embraces pseudonym-culture could capture the spirit of our times. It could create an experience that fulfills the actual promise of the Internet:

  • Express yourself,
  • without constraints,
  • find the others, and
  • make a living from the work you care about.

A Rant on Social Graphs (one of many)

To start, it would need a < 1 : many > social graph.

WTF is that?

Well, all of the networks we've ever known, from Myspace to TikTok are 1:1.

In a 1:1 network, when you follow someone, you are automatically subscribed to EVERYTHING they ever feel like sharing. Their cat pics, their dick pics, their Bitcoin prophecies, fortune cookie replicas, and death announcements. This is completely unnatural. In real life, what we share is almost always context dependent.

My guess is that social media networks have always been so scale-focused, that they aren't seriously focused on creating digital contexts where people are comfortable sharing in. They optimize for engagement, not shares per week.

I'm going to make up fake stats here, but I'd bet that 1% make 99% of the noise. I would bet that a shocking majority of social media accounts are either lurkers or inactive.

When a social media network has billions of users, and most of them are inactive, it's near impossible to zoom in and understand people for who they actually are.

In algorithm-land, a person is a data point to monetize. We live in the era of "segments" and "psychographics." These tools are so useful for finding averages over millions of people. You can target "republicans over 50 years old prone to conspiracy theories," and build a strategy around it.

But these models are terrible at understanding the complex and tangled truths under each individual. These networks are so fucked, that no one even shares enough for an algorithm to build an accurate model of most people.

A Predicament of the Creator Economy

The "Creator Economy" is co-mingling with the "niche" economy. In many cases, I think niche-thinking hurts creators more than it helps.

There is a shared thread between "segment thinking" (top-down) and "niche thinking" (bottom-up). Both of them view the individual as an atomic unit. Yes, niches are a super effective way to build audiences and snag attention. Tactics around the niche economy have proven to work for startups and soda bottles, but the creative spirit is a whole different beast. Niches don't capture the full dimensionality of the human soul, which is what I think is a creator's strongest asset.

There's so much promise in the Creator Economy, but the movement is blossoming into networks that basically chokes a person's identity. In "content-land" we under-estimate how observer bias funnels our soul into a productized version of ourselves.

We under-estimate how the repressed NSFW versions of ourselves are the versions that enables us to actually connect with people. When Twitter is just one big stage, there's a risk in being real. The border between complete realness and cancel culture is razor thin.

Fernando Pessoa hated confining his identity to a single pen-name. If he wrote under one character for too long, he felt that he was "talking himself out of existence."

Let me temporarily warp myself into a VC. Going all in on a facade of yourself that you think people will like is actually bad business. By being Fernando Pessoa, and propping up 10 versions of yourself, you have more chances for one version of yourself to resonate with a market. Spread your time-investments across your various identities. It's a funny paradox, but by being true to yourself, you're actually more likely to pluck a nerve on the Internet and make a living. We just don't have tools that let you do that easily.

3 Properties of a Network for Creators

What we're missing in the Creator Economy is a social media platform that allows us to nurture, explore, and share the dormant sides of ourselves that are begging to see the light. This kind of platform needs three things:

  1. Neutral Context: Right now, platforms come with an embodied ethos. LinkedIn is for jobs. Twitter is for quips. Instagram is for color-corrected selfies. TikTok is for butt-dances? Each network leads each individual to filter and share a side of themselves that is most appropriate for a network.
  2. Non-mimetic: Metrics on Twitter create an unnatural stage. Everyone becomes a grassroots celebrity competing for attention. There are massive implications around "public likes." It leads us to optimize for the sides of ourselves that have been proven to work for other creators. This is why when one format goes viral, there is an army of copy-cat slang parrots.
  3. Identity Unifying: We should be able to host different identities under our real name. For anything we post, we nest it under a mask. This shows the value of a <1:many> social graph. When I connect with someone, I have the ability to subscribe to 5 of their 22 masks. Perhaps one of the mask needs to be approved by the owner. Perhaps they even have 3 top-secret invite only masks, reserved for deep-dark shit among their inner circle.

This is the kind of network that Fernando Pessoa would thrive on. We don't need to all become pseudonym-schizophrenics, we just need new social media networks that doesn't confuse people for carbonated beverages.

To be continued.

For a deep-dive on Fernando Pessoa, you should check out Jonathan Cooks: The 5 Strange Truths Fernando Pessoa Brings to Business

Process Notes

Hours 1-2.5: This draft

re-wrote the outline below into a simple 5-10 point outline, and then just wrote from flow

The Man with 73 Masks

A Model for Social Media based on Pseudonym Schizophrenia

Michael Dean

Symptoms - my own pseudonym - social media flaw (fails to capture) - Pessoau

Finstagram - fake accounts

Pseudonyms on Twitter, NFT Apes

Movement - social media platforms not captured the essence of human spirit

Entering era of "fluid identity" and none of our social media platforms built for ethos

Huge stage - everyone you know, connected, unnatural

from the perspective of SM companies, age of segment, psychograph >niche economy -talk S OOE

average, data point vs. reality - branded facade vs. full self - reality: Pessoau

Not a niche, a brand, a singular identity -

no one captured this true nature other than Pessoua - 73+ heteronyms

avoided idea of ego as a fixed self - complexity of society - schiz>mosaic - diff selves, same core

1 - neutral context - linked in for business - twitter for quips - instagram for butt photos

2 - non-mimetic - more strategic around metrics and identity - warp selves around popularity

3 - unifying - single profile under real name, but then series of "masks" push content, do so under a mask, when people connect - subscribe to or apply to masks

all of these facets - comfort for the creator to uncover their own identity

no sense of stage, competition, brand - write to explore the edges of the self

Hours 0-1: Notes & outline off of Jonathan Cook's article

Links, 1. SM Segmenting, 2. Rise in Fluidity, 3. Pessoua's 73-nyms

22 - social media age - the psychographic, the market segment

24 - even in the emerging creator economy - "niche" thinking

25, 18 - but on the contrary, a fluidity around identity

26 - gender identity, religious tolerance & fusion, flattening

19 - OG - disillusioned with the promise of current networks

20 shift - 10 - 73 heteronyms, own identity, experiences, writing style

20 shift - 4 - Psuedonym-schizophrenia

23 - shattering ego, permanent fixed source of self

21 - model of human identity - Fernando Pessoau, future of social media

Single Persona Syndrome

2 - Can a person be reduced to a single persona?

3 - Segmentation - company scale, 1 million customers, filter into single types

5 - Creator economy - "niche" - the X guy - strategy for attention - signal <> audience

7 - Such models, useful for averages & strategy - work at scale, millions

6 - but misunderstand human identity - "psychographic identity" nothing like any one person

17 - talking self out of existence

8 - OG - creator economy - 1,000 true fans, now with CBCs, 100 true fans

New Theory of Human Nature

9 - theory of human nature - multiplicity of identities

11 - different version of our selves - masks, complexity of society

1 - Alienation - to a world of markets & business

Social Media Solution

12 - social media platforms, linked in, facebook, twitter, work - context extracts one side of self

14 - OF - a platform that, 1) unify all fragments, and 2) neutral context, and 3) non-mimetic

13 - identity as "mosaic"

28 - clubhouse experience - not general, app wide buckets, each person, a collection of buckets

29 - opportunity for a 1:many social graph

Passion Economy

27 - each "persona" a shadow, build off sensibilities of the root self

What if Data gets in wrong hands

15 - OG - weird dilemma - value for business - realistic model of people, instead of caricatures,

16 - OG - constructions of self - comfort in posting - also, training for ML algorithms

Pre-article (thoughts brewing)
  • Camellia Yang brought up Pessoa in a break-out room
  • Feel like I've brought it up several times in Geneva conversations
  • Found out that ~20% of WOP published articles might be under pseuodnyms


There's a temporary way I deal with this now. On my website, I categorize everything I post. It's a way to separate my delirious fiction, from my half-serious essays, from AI-generated non-sense. At the moment, Michael Dean is like the root-level pseudonym that embodies all nested masks. (Note: I need to make this more clear from my landing page)


| Twitter - NFTs - michael@michaeldean.site - 2021 |