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Digital Fashion, Identity, and Safety–Interview with a Member of the Witness Protection Scheme

I received an unusual email. The name of the address was strange, and the contents seemed peculiar, too. The recipient said they had found me through my ethics and fashion writing in the web3 space, and that they wanted me to cover a story for them.

However, there were two crucial caveats. Firstly, the person who messaged me said they would not be revealing their true identity. This unfazed me, as the web3 space is filled with people who avoid using government names online (just look at how the Bored Apes team initially hid their identities).

The second caveat was more interesting. They told me that the information they wanted to give was “extremely sensitive and very possibly life-threatening”, and so they were only willing to communicate via PGP encryption or via VPN-backed virtual webcams.

Naturally, this intrigued me. Although it also worried me. The only information this person had given me was that they had a story they wanted me to tell that related to my industry, and that it was sensitive.

I replied to them using PGP and asked what the story pertained to, and we got to talking. Firstly only through messages, but later through webcams, although I never saw their physical form– only a virtual rendering of their avatar.

They told me that they wanted to discuss their relationship with the digital fashion and web3 space, and what I soon learned was that they were under the Witness Protection Scheme in their respective country, and that they had been for a number of decades.

The story they wanted me to tell was one that related to their own digital identity.

Unsafe Identities

The person I spoke to, who went by her chosen pseudonym of s82, had been placed on the Witness Protection Scheme through no fault of their own. They told me they had “no criminal history or background” and that their enrolment was purely due to the people they knew and the things they had seen. Regardless, this led the police to perceive they were in danger. As a result, they were relocated to a remote part of the country, and given a new identity and documentation.

From then onwards, s82 has lived in fear of violence. Not only from the criminals who instigated their relocation, but even from the police as she describes their treatment of her as “grossly negligent and degrading”. In essence, the police mishandled the extremely delicate experience of witness protection, and did the “bare minimum” to protect s82 on a physiological and psychological level.

As a result, she is now deeply unsure of her identity, and has been left feeling like a “non-person”. She tells me she had “minimal involvement in the identity” she was given, leaving her feeling non-existent and constantly questioning the nature of her reality.

“ My experience on the scheme has been extremely traumatic, as it has forced me to conceal my identity, which has left me voiceless and in many ways faceless. Figuring out who I am is a daily job. For decades I have been dissociated from who I am and unable to clear picture myself”

Crafting a New Self

I asked s82 how she has dealt with the new identity given to her, to which I saw her virtual avatar re-position itself. You see, while I never saw s82’s physical form, her digital avatar was mapped to her own body, and so when she moved in the real world, her body virtual self did, too.

She went on to explain the torment she has felt since her new identity was forced upon her, to which she went into detail about how tormenting it was to assume a new person.

“I cannot stress how literal I am being when I say my original identity was destroyed. My concept of self was burned to the ground. And the replacement I was given never fitted right. I had practically no involvement in the identity I was given, and so it never felt like mine.”

To put it simply, she never did truly adjust to the identity thrust upon her. It has never felt like hers. So, as a means of gaining some autonomy over herself, she chose to build her own identity.

“The identity I was given was not mine. I never grew into it like you do as a child, and I had no hand in crafting it. So I had to go about creating something new.”

That was when she began to refer to herself online as s82, a name I am told relates to a specific legal provision involved in her case. Creating an online pseudonym gave her the ability to gain some mastery over her identity, and take matters into her own hands.

The name was a purely virtual one, used in niche online circles and underground digital hangouts. The reason for this being that she never wanted to draw too much attention to herself as she was worried for her own safety. This meant she had to tread extremely cautiously when communicating online, ensuring that her privacy was intact.

Web3 as a Saving Grace

While s82 had been speaking in online circles for some time before the web3 space, it wasn’t until its explosive rise that she began to feel more comfortable. In particular, this was because the industry had brought with it a revised view on the nature of privacy.

It is quite common for web3 projects to have pseudonymous or fully anonymous developers, founders, and even influencers attached to them. The most famous example of this would with Bored Apes.

This instilled s82 with hope, as it set the ground for people with hidden identities to exert themselves in digital spaces and broadcast their ideas.

Before web3, anonymity and pseudonymity were hardly ever placed in a positive light. The idea that somebody could (or need to) hide their identity was seen as little more than a security problem. Despite the right to a private life being mentioned explicitly in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, it was often treated as a problem to be solved, instead of a core feature of human life.

“The rise of the pseudonymous founder may be scary to some, but for me it has created a safe haven.”

It gave her hope that she could express herself and speak on virtual platforms without immediately being met with scrutiny.

“If there are other people concealing their identities, and they still able to get heard, then I can, too.”

Digital Fashion and Autonomy

The reason s82 contacted me was that she wanted to shed light on a fringe case where the digital fashion world is able to enrich somebody’s life. As somebody who has been genuinely unable to connect with the world due to external dangers, the ability to express herself from a safe virtual setting is immense.

While web3 allowed me to feel comfortable using a separate identity, it wasn’t until the digital fashion industry took off that I felt able to actively craft my own identity.

It allowed her to rebuild her identity, not only via a name, but via her aesthetic. In our meeting, I noticed her avatar was wearing highly vibrant and outlandish clothing. She told me reason for that was to compensate for the fact that she is unable to dress in this way in physicality.

s82 is a recluse. She rarely leaves her home, and when she does she dresses in muted colours. The physical space around her does not feel like it has any connection to her, and so she has no desire to express herself within it. Her self-expression happens practically exclusively online.

And since the digital fashion space took off, her self-expression has magnified tremendously.

Digital clothing helped me to start again, again. Only this time, I was an active participant in my identity. Via encrypted messages, Monero transactions, and a lot of soul-searching, I have been able to build a very specific wardrobe of digital clothes, accessories, and masks that I believe represent who I am.

The important point to note is that s82’s concept of self is greatly aided by the aesthetics of the clothes she virtually wears. It helps her to stand out and gain a semblance of uniqueness and individuality that she lost during the relocation and transition into her new self.

Accentuating the Impossible

I was intrigued to know more about her wardrobe and her style. On first impressions, her avatar (which is a humanoid figure with a minimalist face) is well-dressed and colour coordinated, with vibrant greens, yellows, and purples.

“I am constantly on the search for new digital clothing, often picking some of the more vibrant and unusual pieces that look like they defy physics. I go for these pieces as a way of compensating for the fact that I do not feel able to be vibrant in the physical world. On the rare occasions I leave my home, I dress in muted colours. But when I’m online, I’m dressed in the most colourful, contour-altering, and visually consuming outfits available.

I also choose physics-defying pieces because I think they are a great representation of things that should not exist. I feel a connection because I feel like I am defying the odds to exist in this world, same as these clothes.”

Waiting for the right Metaverse

Currently, when people think of digital fashion, they think of it in relation to the metaverse. But this is not the only way this medium can exist. s82 was clear to me that she is not to be found on any metaverse right now. She said she is waiting for the right place that upholds the right ideals– autonomy, self-sovereignty, decentralization, and community ownership.

“So, of course, you won’t find me on META”.

This means that her digital clothing is only ever really seen via webcam meetups such as the one I had. Some digital clothes can be overlayed onto people’s real photographs, but as s82 must conceal her identity, she does not opt for this method.

Her clothes are only ever seen on her 3D rendered avatar; an avatar that was designed by a friend of hers who she met within the cypherpunk space.

Aesthetics as a Driver for Thought Leadership

I wanted to circle back to something s82 mentioned earlier. She noted that the pro-pseudonymity landscape of web3 had given her the ability to exert herself comfortably. I was interested to know if that had any relation to her interest in digital fashion.

She replied “Yes!” and explained how her ability to craft a unique aesthetic and visual style meant that she could connect easier with people in the online communities she occupied. It allowed people to associate her name with a visual ideology: one of “radical-non-physicality”. The fact people could associate her with clothes that would collapse the world of physics if they existed in this reality meant that people were viewing her as also being somebody who was existing outside of the norms and laws of this world.

While s82 does not defy physics, the fact that she has been able to develop a voice and form global bonds is something that should be impossible given her unique circumstances.

“Through this, I have been able to speak more freely about my own concerns regarding identity and selfhood, which in turn has made me feel more comfortable about who I am and who I have crafted myself to be in such adversity”.

The Underlying Message

Before we finished up, I asked s82 what she hoped to achieve with this interview. Her response was that she wanted the world to know about the “ethical importance” of the digital fashion space.

“It is being too easily dismissed as a gimmick and an empty industry, but digital fashion has given me the ability to feel more like a real person than any real clothing ever has. I understand my predicament to be a rare one, but if the industry is helping just a handful of people feel more sound and healthy, then it has automatically proven its worth.

The limitless nature of this new frontier has made her “physically limited life feel significantly less restricted”.

Digital clothing, web3, and blockchain technology have allowed her to live richer than she initially thought was possible while under the Witness Protection Scheme.

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#sociology#connectivity#lonliness#digitial fashion#metaverse
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