The modern nation-state pins people down by type. Before the advent of the printing press, identity was primarily based on private, immediate relationships: geography, local community, religious faith and working relationships. But widespread dissemination of the written word meant that large communities began to organize around shared languages, and identity systems became extremely centralized. These centralized systems aggregated properties about people at enormous levels of scale, retaining identifying information covering millions of participants. Today a similarly disruptive technology, the internet, has resulted in yet more data collection and identity categorization. But as the internet continues to develop, it is possible that user-owned networks without a government or corporate mediator will allow users to explore identity in freer, less rigid ways.
State-Imposed Identity Categories
One state-driven method of collecting information is the census. For a nation-state, the census is crucial. If you want to govern a population, you must first make that population legible. Everybody needs a name, an ethnicity, a gender and an income level. Most of those classifications are necessarily binary: Did you make more than x or less than x this year? Are you part of this category or not? Once the state has answers to these questions, it can use the abstractions to determine policies and manage elections.
Another such system is medical record keeping. In recent months, institutions have increasingly begun requesting COVID status on identity forms, asking whether you belong to the vaccinated or unvaccinated identity group. When I returned to Harvard’s campus in January, everyone wore masks, nobody was allowed to eat or drink in communal spaces and students had to test for COVID each week. I thought these measures were extreme, and then I found out those were the rules for vaccinated students—unvaccinated students had not been allowed back on campus. One day in March, all the restrictions went away overnight: My life was suddenly far more convenient, but those of the severely immune-compromised were suddenly far more stressful. This is what happens when policies are based on Industrial-Age lines: There are no gradients for people with different levels of immunity to different variants, nor are there methods to account for the massive variation in lifestyles across a student body.
The cruelty of centralized identity systems is that they eliminate local diversity and impose a uniformity on everything. People become forgettable anomalies, or even inconveniences. The identity boundaries that the state conjures up don’t come close to modeling the complexity of the human population underneath. And over time, the markers that a state uses to categorize its citizens end up constituting those people’s identities. For example, people of South Asian and East Asian descent did not generally view themselves as part of the same category until the creation of the “Asian American” type. It’s like dividing kids up in gym class and assigning them to opposite teams—the illusion usually works. It was not until 1960 that people could select their own race, and not until 2000 that Americans could describe themselves as more than one race. Only in 2020 did the U.S. census form begin to ask respondents for an ethnicity in addition to their race.
Authenticity vs. Artificiality on the Internet
Part of the utopian appeal of the internet was that you could eliminate this pigeon-holing and permit more fluid notions of identity. In the early days of the web, chat forums such as The Well and social networks such as SocialNet were methods for escaping one’s identity and incubating alternative identities, often under pseudonyms. And as the internet became mainstream, games like RuneScape, Club Penguin and Neopets played a significant formative role for the so-called Zoomer generation—the digital natives born after 1997. On these platforms, no single force was responsible for defining who people were or the categories to which they belonged. The aspirational ethos was one of freedom and authenticity.
Today, almost nobody associates the internet with authenticity: we associate it with artificiality. Facebook (since renamed Meta) was, in many ways, the online version of the overarching nation-state. As it grew, it mapped real-world identity onto digital life, turning each human being into a unified identity whose interests were eventually made legible to advertisers. This process began on college campuses, where excitable undergraduates began translating every part of their social lives to their online profile, epitomized by the legendary “Relationship Status” button. Digital identity became singular and census-like—Facebook went to the extent of requiring a government ID check when they suspected a person of using someone else’s name or profile picture.
Participation on the internet quickly began to feel like a never-ending piece of theater. As Jia Tolentino put it in her essay collection “Trick Mirror”:
As more people began to register their existence digitally, a pastime turned into an imperative: you had to register yourself digitally to exist. . . . In real life, you can walk around living life and be visible to other people. But you can’t just walk around and be visible on the internet—for anyone to see you, you have to act. You have to communicate in order to maintain an internet presence.
The internet ushered in the first era in which all people could bring their personal thoughts to the public sphere. Expression became a democratic form of performance art, and the “personal brand” became a pervasive metaphor. Human beings literally began to treat themselves as products to be advertised, their identities squashed and their influence quantified. It was psychologically exhausting.
Identity Is More Than Classification
There are many differences between the nation-state and the big tech companies. Facebook may have extraordinary influence over our private and public lives, but it does not even have a monopoly over its users: It must compete with TikTok, Snapchat and many other companies for the same scarce user attention. By contrast, the state has a monopoly on all sorts of things—most notably, as the German sociologist Max Weber pointed out, on the legitimate use of violence.
But what both institutions certainly share is a way of seeing the individual person as a collection of classifications: They demand that their citizens—or users—fit certain boxes. Today, it is common to hear young people push back on identity boxes: You can be gender fluid or sexually fluid. You can be platonically married or romantically polyamorous. You can identify as many genders or none at all. Recently, one of my best friends told me that they had changed their name. This is increasingly as common as changing your hair color.
Alongside this cultural movement, there is a rapidly expanding ecosystem of internet communities that are characterized by a different conception of identity. On platforms such as Discord, Reddit and Telegram it is increasingly normal to operate under name(s) that are different from the name that is tied to a person’s real-life interactions. The members of these communities may be scattered across geographic borders, and their identity markers may be disguised. While anonymity on the internet isn’t new, it is becoming possible for users to maintain persistent pseudonymous identities across applications. They are experimenting with technologies—many of which I’ll be exploring in this column—that are supposed to allow them to govern themselves without the force of the state or a centralized tech platform. The promise is that user-owned networks will be maintained by a cooperative economic model that will enable them to go past the expectations of what kind of governance and economic opportunities have been possible previously.
If the nation-state was characterized by centralized, tracked identity, what is the model for personal identity in a self-governing community? What is the online identity system that would open up empowering new possibilities for social organization that the internet has thus far failed to support? Some technologists believe the solution is machine learning, replacing bureaucratic zero-one boundaries with smooth curves. Others believe we should be living in a metaverse where every person maintains multiple, seemingly unrelated identities. Finding the correct answer strikes me as extremely important: If much of the chaos of recent years has been a response to our digital lives distorting our sense of self, then the question of how our identities are fragmented and fractured across the internet is existential and political, not simply technological.