On Anonymity and the Right to Privacy

There's nothing lamer than doxxing someone for fun.

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Today, I wanted to share some thoughts on the value and purpose of anonymity in the internet age. First, some context:

For the last ~two years, I’ve been Editor-in-Chief of the daily financial newsletter Exec Sum. This newsletter was created and scaled by the anonymous meme page, Litquidity.

Exec Sum has a pecular story. A former banker started a meme page making fun of his industry, the meme page grew from a small, loyal cult following to an audience of hundreds of thousands across Twitter and Instagram, and he launched a daily financial newsletter to capture that value.

And it worked.

Today, Exec Sum is a profitable newsletter with hundreds of thousands of readers, and the man behind Litquidity has built upon that success, joining Bain Capital Ventures as a scout and making dozens of venture investments himself.

The craziest part about this story is that for years, no one knew Litquidity’s real name. Could someone have found his name if they really went down the paper trail? Sure. But why would they? “Litquidity” was an inside joke that the entire social media audience participated in.

On Wednesday, Business Insider attempted to spoil the joke by doxxing Lit, exposing his identity (behind a paywall, of course). Why would you dox an anonymous meme page? I have no idea. It couldn’t have been a good business decision. The only people who would care about the identity of an anonymous finance meme account are those who follow said finance meme account, and none of them really wanted to know his identity. They certainly wouldn’t pay for an Insider subscription to read about it.

Business Insider treated the exposé with the gravitas of a ground-breaking Epstein island list reveal, but their resulting article was greeted with 7 likes (on an account with four million followers).

Fortunately, Lit, who I suppose that I can now call Hank, got ahead of that story, and Financial Times published a profile on him seven hours before the Insider piece dropped.

Would Hank have wanted a face reveal if Insider wasn’t preparing to dox him? I have no idea. Either way, he almost certainly wouldn’t have wanted the piece to drop at midnight, but here we are.

Anonymity is a fragile thing. Once you lose it, you can’t get it back. Anonymity is also, for many folks, valuable. In the wake of this saga, I wanted to share some thoughts on the value of anonymity.

Anonymity isn’t some new phenomenon.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Stephen King published a a series of books under the pen name “Richard Bachman.” His reasoning was two-fold: First, publishers frowned upon publishing more than one book per year, and he wanted to avoid saturating the “Stephen King” market. Second, King wanted to distill whether his success was due to talent or luck by removing his name from the equation.

JK Rowling chose to publish under her initials instead of her first name, Joanne, because her publisher feared that an audience of young boys wouldn’t want to read books written by a woman. (Rowling actually wanted to go a step further and use a completely different name because she was paranoid that her ex-husband would see the book). After the success of Harry Potter, Rowling also published a series of crime novels under the pen name “Robert Galbraith,” because, like Stephen King, she wanted the books to be judged by their own merit, free from the pressure and expectations that would have accomodated her name.

Going back to the 1780s, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay published The Federalist Papers under the psuedonym “Publius” to convince New York to ratify the Constitution, as they wanted their opinion to be judged on its own merit, not the merit of the writers.

We still don’t know who Satoshi Nakamoto is, and bitcoin is worth $900 billion.

In the digital world today, people have plenty of reasons to choose anonymity.

Bloggers and writers may, like those listed above, want their ideas to be judged in their own merits, and nothing else. Anonymous Redditors can ask the internet for relationship advice without worry of a loved one identifying them by their username. Journalists in countries that don’t enforce freedom of the press leverage anonymity for their own safety. Twitter is filled with investors who can only discuss stocks and investment theses behind the veil of anonymity, or their careers would be at risk. In the case of Litquidity, anonymity preserved his ability to keep his job as a banker while posting on social media from 2017 to 2020.

Of course, anonymity has its drawbacks. Opinions certainly carry more weight when they can be tied to their author’s face, and business opportunities are limited for anonymous individuals as fewer folks are willing to transact with someone they don’t know. But (excluding instances involving harassment and/or threats) it should be the anonymous actor’s decision to remove their veil, not some bored or malicious third party.

The presence of anonymity encourages a level of creativity, comedy, honesty, and depth that would not otherwise exist online, because folks have the freedom to say what they really think without having to navigate the delicate gauntlet of public opinion.

The decision to ruin someone’s anonymity doesn’t simply destroy their privacy, it permanently alters their connection with audience. Anonymity is valuable for all of us, and those who choose to disrupt that condition for sport should be judged accordingly.

- Jack

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Jack's Picks

  • Everyone has something they need to say. It can be a story you need to tell, an idea you need to share, or a message you want to spread. The problem is figuring out how to put that idea into words and share it. My friend David Perell has taught thousands of students how to find their voice and share their ideas online, and he’s hosting a free webinar on Monday, February 13th to teach you how and why to share your message. Sign up for a seat here.

  • Tim Ferriss wrote an excellent piece on the risk of so many guys treating TRT like a daily multi-vitamin.

  • Semafor published a cool interview with Medium’s CEO on his company’s 2024 profitability, as well as the state of online content.

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