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‘Your government doesn’t get to define who you “really” are’: Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin doubles down on crypto pseudonym culture

June 10, 2022, 7:07 PM UTC

The crypto industry is filled with pseudonyms and anonymous users, so much so that many people are better known by their online monikers than their real names. 

That’s just fine with Vitalik Buterin, the 28-year-old founder of the Ethereum blockchain and a prominent voice in the crypto world. In a tweet Friday, he said that “Your government doesn’t get to define who you ‘really’ are.” 

People should stop referring to their passport names as their “real” names, he said, adding that “If you use a different name in most day-to-day interactions, that is your real name.”

Buterin’s tweet is an affirmation of crypto’s pseudonymous culture at a time where the industry’s mega growth has pushed its major players to be more transparent about their true identities. Many of the people behind large crypto projects are only known publicly by their pseudonyms, even though investors have plowed hundreds of millions and, in some cases, billions of dollars into what they’ve created. 

This struggle was on full display in February when Buzzfeed published the real names of “Gordon Goner” and “Gorgamel,” founders of the popular Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT collection. They turned out to be Wylie Aronow and Greg Solano, two 30-somethings with literary backgrounds who met while growing up in Florida.

Buzzfeed’s article prompted immediate backlash from some members of the crypto community who said the article amounted to “doxxing,” a term that usually describes a person with malicious intent who publishes someone else’s private information online. 

Although Buterin didn’t comment publicly about the Buzzfeed incident, he recently entered the debate over anonymity. On Wednesday, he laid out his thoughts on Twitter, saying that while using real names for accountability is sometimes good, there are other times when anonymity is necessary like when voting or participating in juries. 

Buterin added on Wednesday that anonymous culture online gives people freedom to speak their minds. But he acknowledged some downsides.

“As an anon, you don’t get negative personal consequences for saying things others dislike, but you also miss out on lots of positive personal consequences,” he tweeted.

Buterin has previously spoken out publicly about anonymity. Responding to Russian journalist Leonid Bershidsky on Twitter in 2017, Buterin mentioned former Google engineer James Damore as an example of the downside of being public with your real name. In 2017, Damore published a sexist memo criticizing Google’s approach to diversity, including claiming women have more “neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).” 

“He got fired,” Buterin said of Damore at the time. “Accepting such a consequence is admirable, but that should NOT be the only path.”

Buterin has been thinking a lot lately about how to deal with the question of identity in crypto. In May, he co-wrote a paper titled “Decentralized Society: Finding Web3’s Soul” with economist E. Glen Weyl and lawyer Puja Ohlhaver that proposed “soulbound tokens,” unalterable NFT-like tokens that can store any information from a person’s education credentials to their employment history on the blockchain.

Unlike NFTs that can be sold or transferred, the soulbound tokens would be non-transferable and issued and received by blockchain wallets called “Souls.” Souls could theoretically interact with each other, according to the paper. For instance, a university “soul” could issue a soulbound token to its graduates’ “soul” accounts or a sports team could sell a soulbound token as a ticket that could not be faked. This could provide unalterable evidence that someone has a diploma from a specific university for employers or prevent the sale of counterfeits 

Aided by soulbound tokens, Buterin and his co-authors foresee a“decentralized society” in which individuals store permanent records of their most important information on the blockchain.

Soulbound tokens are still mostly theoretical, yet they could stand to change how Web3 defines online identities. What’s interesting is that despite all the personal records that could be put into a soulbound token, a Soul wallet wouldn’t necessarily have to be tied to a legal name, the paper said. 

“A Soul could be a persistent pseudonym with a range of SBTs that cannot easily be linked,” according to the paper.

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