Credit Without Risk: An Anti-Cancel Publishing Model

My friend was canceled recently. He’s a writer who published an article which was critical of the work of a beloved figure in the field. Hundreds of people responded to him over the internet, criticizing his intelligence and his appearance and saying that he should never work again.

Cancel-Free Writing

Getting canceled doesn’t seem like much fun at all. How might you, a writer on the internet, avoid it? One option is to never publish anything. (Abstinence is the only 100% effective form of anticancellation.) Another safe way is to publish anonymously. Anonymity is secure, but comes at the expense of the recognition and power that accompanies identity. Your real name is atop your LinkedIn profile and your resume, and a writer’s resume is simply a list of things they’ve written. Fully-anonymous publishing surrenders a significant asset for writers: credit for their writing.

Probably the best option for most cancel-fearing writers is pseudonymity. Pseudonymity is better than pure anonymity for the writer who wants to be read. Pseudonymous writers can amass a following, make money, and form a very real identity around their pseudo-self. I can think of a handful of internet pseudopersonalities off the top of my head whose writing I know is worth reading. I know nothing about the individuals behind the pseudonyms, but their work on its own is meritorious.

Pseudonymity is useful, but may not be a good fit for many publishing use-cases. A writer who publishes pseudonymously must choose between abandoning their true identity (publishing pseudonymously all of the time) or fracturing their corpus across multiple identities (publishing pseudonymously some of the time). Moreover, a writer who publishes pseudonymously cannot claim authorship (and the credit associated) without rendering the pseudonym useless.

An Alternative

An alternative to pseudonymity is something I’ll call optional anonymity. Here is how it works: an author first publishes a document anonymously, but retains the ability to verifiably claim authorship in the future, should they wish to do so.

This model remove uncertainty around the risks and benefits of authorship. Some published works might garner harsh criticism but little acclaim: they are not worth de-anonymizing. Others might be controversial but highly-regarded; such work might fall into the category of “things which are true that you can’t say”, and an author may decide that the acclaim is worth the criticism and verifiaby claim their authorship. Still other articles might be utterly uncontroversial despite pre-publishing fear that they could offend; these can safely be de-anonymized and added to the author’s clips list.

A Simple Technical Implementation

Optional anonymity could be simply implemented via cryptographic key-signing. When an author initially publishes the document, they also publish a digest signature computed with a cryptographic key pair which is kept secret. The writer can decide to de-anonymize his or her authorship by publishing the public key from the key pair used to compute the digest.

# Generate a new public and private key
openssl genrsa -des3 -out private.pem 2048
openssl rsa -in private.pem -outform PEM -pubout -out public.pem
# Generate a signature to publish with the post.
openssl dgst -sign private.pem -keyform PEM -sha256 -out blog.txt.sign -binary blog.txt
# When you want to reveal authorship, publish the key.
openssl dgst -verify public.pem -keyform PEM -sha256 -signature blog.txt.sign -binary blog.txt

A Product

You can imagine a platform dedicated to publishing optionally anonymous writing. There would be two broad sections to such a platform: one section for anonymous posts and another for posts that the writer had de-anonymized. Most writers wouldn’t use a publishing platform like this one most of the time. But I posit that the writing that appeared on it would be more interesting, on average, than most internet writing, because the writers that published on such a site would be those that knew something true that they might be able to say.

See also

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