We Need to Talk About Onchain Identity
The Internet was built without a way to know who and what you are connecting to.
Thanks to a conversation this week, I realized I really need to talk more (more than I already do) about the nuance of identity at the edges of the web. Not going to get into the philosophy of personhood, that’s a whole other conversation. Out of respect for your time, I look forward to covering selfness and whoness, interoperability, and consent within the confines of identity at another time.
It is, however, our responsibility to talk about these topics in ways that are accessible and hard-hitting so they can be shared with new users but speak to where we are currently. Particularly with the narrative going around that more and more media should be minted onchain.
*Important to note who benefits from you adding infinite media onchain. Is it you or those building the protocol/marketplace? 🤔 My view? Bit of both really.
These are some lessons I wish I knew when I started to build a brand and identity onchain.
combination of context and content through a history of crypto transactions which seamlessly signal, authenticate, and verify user data
Digital Identity Primitives
Onchain identity is both a creative choice and an everyday delusion we curate for ourselves. It is delulu summer after all! 😜
Like many chronically online people, I’ve had a handful of online identities but only one onchain identity. The privilege in that statement is incredibly massive for 99% of blockchain users. This means that marginalized people like myself think harder when crafting an identity, personal brand, or vision for how they conduct themselves onchain.
To Doxx or Not to Doxx
When I got my first work in the space, I had a choice to make. Pressure to doxx my location, name, etc., I was unsure of the consequences and didn't have enough references to make the best choice, especially from queer folks. This would give context, credibility, and increased confidence in my abilities. All things I would end up building over time anyway through outlets like consulting, this newsletter, and Twitter.
My early decentralized social identity revolved around making sure where I went in ‘web3’ communities, people knew I am a resident trans woman. Was this the right thing to do? I don’t know, but it was a choice I made. I do know it’s helped others feel safe and that’s more than worth it.
Other examples came up when I was first getting into the space. I saw people registering ENS domains with their full names with instant regret once they realized the consequences of that action. This is the result of very little availability of (accessible) early blockchain education.
We cannot build new and exciting digital identities and at the same time dismiss privacy, metasystems, and how they shape the ways marginalized folks move through the world.
Note: onchain identity, as the definition above states, is related to onchain transactions. Not simply telling someone your identity on Twitter or on a video/voice call, but the context given through crypto history. Wallets/accounts are and can be transparently tracked through an immutable (unchanging) block explorer like Dora.
Identity management should always be up to the user, which is what blockchains allow. No more centralized platforms that force full names on display. You can literally just be a dog online.
We Love Options
We currently, at large, think of our digital identities as the ways we use social platforms like Google, Meta (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, etc.), and Twitter/X.
Kim Cameron talks about The Laws of Identity as tech companies were beginning to explore this topic around ‘04/’05 and it's really no surprise we continue to tackle it today. His talk here from 2020 is worth a listen!
We need a unifying identity metasystem that can protect applications from the internal complexities of specific implementations and allow digital identity to become loosely coupled. This metasystem is in effect a system of systems that…allows one-offs to evolve towards standardized technologies that work within a metasystem framework without requiring the whole world to agree a priori.
These help us control our use of each piece of data we use both offchain (web2) and onchain (web3) as we move through apps.
Some digital identities even give us a Data Backpack that lives offchain. As you’ll see, not everything needs to be onchain. No matter how much this is proselytized by our leaders, thinkers, and builders.
Decentralized Identity & Verified Credentials
A favorite lever to pull on for identity is the Data Backpack from Disco, learn more about how they work here, which allows you actually…finally… own your personal data through a mixture of offchain and onchain DIDs and VCs. We need these “data shields,” as Kim calls them.
Imagine having t-shirt sizes, favorite colors, dark mode preferences, and star signs all available for interoperability in new apps and no more forms, even for jobs! Throw a party or potluck and immediately know allergies to account. 🥳
🎒 Just as a physical backpack might hold a water bottle, notebook, and keyring, these digital backpacks hold all your data that doesn’t need to be public but is freely accessible under your expressed consent.
This fundamentally changes how we view and use our onchain identities and is exactly why we must talk about privacy. Because what if I didn’t want to come out publicly or talk about my queerness? I could give that info to select people while having it private to just myself, not having it written on a web2 rented platform or written (signed) onchain so it’s immutable.
We should be looking to encrypted keys, wallets with actually good UX, and decentralized identities rather than password managers and centralized systems.
More Options for Onchain Identity Curation
Gitcoin Passport - used in the Gitcoin Stack for quadratic funding
ENS - your web3 username, tons of use cases like login and easy readability of ETH addresses (mine is rileybeans.eth)
Interface - social onchain explorer ~ find out what your friends are doing onchain, check out trending news and podcasts
Lens Protocol - a new social layer for web3 ~ check out this ERC6551 primitive from Galverse, your PFP has its own identity
Nuances of Onchain Identity
In getting down to my personal views about onchain identity, I feel this deep urge to mint every important piece of writing I spend hours researching and editing. Like the pull of the moon, I don’t know any deeper need. I often want to just upload my whole self to Ethereum and call it a day.
What if beehiiv shuts down right after I publish this?
What if Twitter is gone tomorrow?
What if, what if, what if!
Onchain media is forever. Offchain identity keeps us safe. Onchain media is Ethereum. Offchain identity shields us.
What's especially important to consider is that when building an identity for one's self online and onchain, we as users must be in control of the conversation.
The call to action here should, at all times, be to consider the real consequences and implications of participating in systems that continue to financialize our identity. Especially when they have policies (or lack thereof) that actively harm our need for self-sovereign identity.
Onchain Community Identity
When I think about identity, I often relate it to the communities I build and the people I choose to surround myself with.
When I built Cloud Scouts, it was my aim to give each member a space where they feel a sense of identity among facilitators of culture with other community builders.
Founders and builders must keep in mind that “belonging” and identity are byproducts of a successful community, not automatic. Exactly why the term (cult)ure exists.
It’s why I’m a member of communities where I feel safe and free to be myself.
Personal branding is separate from onchain identity.
None Hype Left Hypermedia
However memeable onchain media is right now, lately, I’ve been diving super deep into the origins of hyper-everything on the web and early internet. These systems we’ve created have truly shaped our digital lives. Thankfully, I’ll get to publish this research soon.
In the meantime, it’s important to understand why we need to think more critically about the media we do publish to a blockchain and its implications.
See, in all my conversations with builders (even some identity management builders) in this space, I’ve found that so few are truly thinking with self-identity and privacy in mind because:
It may simply not be a priority (it is)
They lack resources (funding) and proper staffing to put privacy first
There are so few users that it doesn’t matter as much (experiments)
Legal structures are still not in place outside the EU and California (GDPR, etc.)
This gets even deeper when you consider the example above from Galverse and other novel use cases where NFTs as token-bound accounts are now capable of owning assets, creating their own transaction histories and identities.
Exploring onchain identity is about self-discovery and self-awareness.
What are the implications of AI-controlled NPC NFTs and wallets? How does an onchain identity affect the future of work and labor? What will this mean for the ethics leaders and policymakers who are still trying to figure out the human element of it all?
What are your thoughts? These are conversations worth having with your community, friends, and teams. If you’re building with onchain media and identity features, reach out so we can chat.
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