• July 9, 2021

The Dark, Democratizing Power of the Social

In early March, about fifty investors received links to an anonymously created, password-protected Web site. On the site was a seven-page white paper, which opened with the question “What Is BitClout?” BitClout, the paper explained, is a social network that runs on blockchain technology, allowing users to “speculate on people and posts with real money.” Every user is given a public price, which is the amount of money that it costs to buy his or her “creator coin.” With the platform’s native cryptocurrency (also called bitclout), users could buy the coin of any other user on the site. Purchasing a creator coin is a way to invest in someone’s reputation. According to the white paper, the coin is meant to be “correlated to that person’s standing in society.” If Elon Musk launches a rocket to Mars, his value should go up. If he uses a racial slur during a press conference, then, as the paper explained, “his coin price should theoretically go down.”

The investors were encouraged to explore the site, and to send the link to two to three other “trusted contacts” who might be interested. Soon enough, the link began making the rounds on social media. Within weeks, users were spending millions of dollars a day on the platform.

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BitClout’s founders were completely unprepared. “They had no idea it was going to blow up the way that it did,” a seed investor closely involved with the project told me. The founders had intended to start with a “soft-launch,” so that they could debug the platform and incorporate feedback from the first few users. In the early days of the platform, photos uploaded to profiles regularly disappeared, and, at one point, an hour’s worth of transactions were deleted from the site history. Most notably, BitClout hadn’t been listed on any cryptocurrency exchanges—once you converted your dollars to bitclout, you couldn’t get them out. The founders were faced with a choice: pull the plug, or let it ride. They chose to keep the platform up.

Seventeen-year-old Sigil Wen heard about BitClout on March 12th. A senior at a public high school outside Toronto, Wen had spent much of the previous year online, Zooming into classes. That day, he was in his bedroom, scrolling through Twitter, when he came across a post summarizing the white paper. By the time he reached the end, he was convinced; he said that the idea “just resonated” with him. Wen began messaging people, asking if anyone had the password to the BitClout site. When he finally got it and set up a profile, he realized that, in order to invest in bitclout, he needed bitcoin—the most popular form of cryptocurrency, and, at the time, the only form accepted by the site.

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