We need a way for authors to create and share content in a way that doesn’t carry asymmetric reputational risk.
Online publishing might seem like a given that has always existed (especially if this is the 30th blog post you’ve read today), but I’m still amazed by the power it gives individuals. With a laptop and a blog, I can write things that spread faster than something duplicated by every printing press in existence.
Unfortunately, with this great power comes a lot of uncapped risk. if you publish something that you believe is true, you could face a lot of reputational risk if it annoys people in positions of power. Generally this risk is a good side effect - if there was no reputational downside to writing inflammatory things, the internet would be a cesspool of spam and hate speech. See comments on any YouTube video, for example.
At the same time, what if you write something with good intentions and you believe is true, but you end up being wrong? Or, what if you write something that's so unpopular at the time but is actually true?
It’s no surprise that many people who advanced humankind the most were also wrong a lot. For example:
Biographies of Newton, for example, understandably focus more on physics than alchemy or theology. The impression we get is that his unerring judgment led him straight to truths no one else had noticed. How to explain all the time he spent on alchemy and theology? Well, smart people are often kind of crazy.
— Paul Graham, The Risk of Discovery
The Risk of Discovery is real, and people tend to avoid certain topics because we’ve decided that they’re not worth the risk of being brought up. Even if you are right, we’re either not ready to talk about certain things. The same forces that causes a good idea to spread also means uncapped repetitional risk. Friends, acquaintances, even your career are all in jeopardy if you say something that’s unpopular.
A Platform for Anonymous Writing
I’d like to see a place where:
- You can publish anonymously, and your reputation goes along with you. How would this work? It might be like a one-way function. My real identity can create infinite anonymous identities (egos), and publish under those egos. Maybe there would be a cost to creating an ego, but it would be small compared to the potential upside of writing something transformational.
- Any reputation (or social capital) you gain will be visible to your anonymous identity, but will also flow back to your real identity. I could spin up many identities and publish under all of them, and that reputation would flow back to the real me. People would see that I have a certain amount of reputation, but they would not know where it’s coming from.
- An anonymous author can choose to unmask themselves if they so desire, which would link publicly their anonymous identity with their real world identity.
- People would be willing to take more intellectual risks. You could try writing about ideas that contradict things that you believe in. As an aside, I think the best way to make sure you understand your argument is by trying to argue the counterpoint.
- We’d be more comfortable talking about things that are currently taboo. I think the way we advance is by talking about our differences; not by hiding them.
- How would the content be made discoverable? Where would this content live? It would be nice to just say that it’s a protocol and that users could choose to host content, but that feels like it’s avoiding the question. To really answer this question, I’d like to think about what the incentives might be if you were to relay a message that you might not completely agree with.
- Would people abuse this? Systems tend to take on the values of their creators, and I think the Justice Stewart policy of "I can’t define porn but I know it when I see it" might not scale.
- Moderation. How would such a place be moderated?
- Economics: This also leads to interesting models of publishing. How could anonymous-first content change the economics of publishing? I think this could be truly transformational.