Predatory community

by Molly White on
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A man sits at his computer and types out the story he has fabricated for the Fame Lady Squad NFT project: “we wanted to create an image of a strong and independent woman of the NFT community.” The project draws in $1.5 million from buyers, who talk of their excitement when they found a project they felt was bringing diversity to an overwhelmingly male space, and that was “all about women’s empowerment”.1 They later find out that the “all-female led project” created by “Cindy”, “Kelda”, and “Andrea” was in fact created by a group of three white men.

Three illustrations of women, under the heading "Team". The images are labeled with the names Cindy, Kelda, and Andrea.
The "Team" section of the Fame Lady Squad website, as it appeared before the project was revealed to be led by three men.

Before that, these men were “Sayara” and “Aita”, creating the “Cyber City Girls Club” to “support female and Asian artists and make charities to fight Asian Hate crimes.”2 And before that, they’d come up with “BLM Cards”: NFTs created to “depict the greatest Black People in NFT, and also collect money to donate to Black Charities”. They designed two prototype cards, depicting George Floyd and Michael Jackson, then apparently abandoned the project.34

A Latino man promises that his business will bank unbanked communities: “As a son of an immigrant, I saw firsthand as a child how my mother struggled without access to her money. This company was built to empower those like my mom.” He encourages other Latin Americans to buy his company’s crypto tokens in an initial coin offering, raising more than $9 million. The SEC ultimately charges him with fraud,5 and it turns out he has a history of allegedly running multi-level marketing schemes and investment fraud targeting the elderly.6

More and more crypto communities spring up around facets of identity. “Maricoin” promises to be the “first cryptocurrency created by and for the LGTBIQ+ community” (despite, bafflingly, being named after a Spanish homophobic slur).7

Randi Zuckerburg releases a parody music video titled “We’re All Gonna Make It”, which she says she created to be a “rallying cry for the women of web3”. Matt Binder writes in Mashable that “it looks, sounds, and feels like something you’d see at a LuLaRoe convention to get people hyped about asking their friends if they would like to invest in a new business opportunity.”8

SXSW 2022 hosts panels and events titled “Black in Web3: Now and the Future”9 and “Women Rocking Web3”10 and “Breaking the Blockchain Boys Club”.11 One event promises to discuss “segments of the population that could benefit but aren’t being included [in web3]: underserved communities; from middle America to BIPOC to women, rural and the LGBTQ+ communities”. It is titled, apparently unironically, “Web3 For the Rest of Us”, despite the fact that “the rest of us” that they seem to be alluding to are probably not among the people who paid $1,400–$2,000 for a ticket to SXSW.12


In crypto, you will hear that “community” is everything. Fan clubs form around individual coins, and NFT projects nearly always have a Discord or Telegram chat room where their collectors (or hopefuls) gather. People wish each other “gm” and “gn” and chat about their days, their families, and, of course, their crypto.

Crypto communities often mirror some of the fringes of the Internet. They draw no small portion of their memes and references directly from 4chanPepe the Frog and Wojak are everywhere, and slang that found its popularity in 4chan, like “WAGMI” and “frens”, have become core parts of the crypto lexicon. Other slang common among crypto zealots—references to “chads” and “____pilling” and that brief and weird “wordcel” craze that even Vitalik Buterin and various a16z-ites got in on—are direct nods at the incel online subculture.

Misogyny abounds. A man at Bitcoin Miami 2022 took a creepshot of a woman’s butt that apparently didn’t suit his tastes and posted it on Twitter, drawing over a hundred replies from people either denigrating her or commenting that they “still would smash”. The woman reported the harassment to the conference organizers, only to find that the person she had reported it to had himself liked the harassing tweets.13

Racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry are also common sights in the crypto world.

When a white community manager from SuperRare held a disastrous Twitter Space to apparently try to do damage control for racist tweets that she had written in the past, Black members of the crypto community who spoke up in the Space were immediately inundated with vile and threatening racist messages.14

When a leader of ENS15 stood by his previous statements that “homosexual acts are evil” and “transgenderism doesn’t exist”, many in the crypto community seemed more horrified at the possibility that he could be “cancelled” than at the beliefs he was espousing.16

Although the communities of “cryptobros” on Twitter and Discord and Reddit and 4chan sometimes seem large, in reality there is fairly small subset of the population that is both terminally online enough and drawn to actively participating in these communities. Plenty of people who otherwise might be interested in crypto are repelled by the cryptobro aspect, and either engage with crypto without becoming a part of its community, or forego it altogether.

This is bad for crypto. There is nothing crypto needs more right now than more people.

Crypto, when it comes down to it, relies on greater fools. As assets without any intrinsic value, the way to make money from crypto is to find a greater fool who will buy your assets from you at a higher price. Some crypto projects are very open about the fact that they rely on new people constantly coming in to their ecosystem: game developer Sky Mavis admitted that the in-game economy of their once-popular blockchain game Axie Infinity was “dependent on growth and new entrants”.17 Other crypto projects have been exposed as literal Ponzi or pyramid schemes, only able to pay out those who bought in early from the income gained through a steady stream of newcomers.

As crypto has begun to exhaust its existing sources of greater fools, we’ve seen new strategies to reach broader audiences. Advertisements for cryptocurrencies began appearing in the London Tube system and on the sides of buses. NFTs were plastered on billboards in Times Square. Crypto companies began renaming sports stadiums after themselves, or entering into sponsorship deals with NASCAR drivers and baseball teams. Matt Damon told viewers of Saturday Night Football that “fortune favors the brave”, and prime ad real estate at the Super Bowl showed celebrities including LeBron James, Larry David, and Kyle Lowry urging people to buy crypto.

But there’s limited value in someone downloading Coinbase from the bouncing QR code at the Super Bowl, getting their free $15 in Bitcoin, and not touching it again. The holy grail for a crypto project is when they can get someone to join in their community.

This exalted sense of “community” is often trotted out as an example of all the good that crypto is apparently doing. Some starry-eyed individuals talk about how the lifelong friends they’ve made along the way have made everything worthwhile, regardless of whether they’ve gained or lost money. But “community” serves darker goals, whether by design or not.

As Bennett Tomlin put it, “The sense of community and the sense of belonging becomes an important part of the narrative because once you are a Bitcoin maxi, once you’re a LUNAtic, once you’re a LINK Marine, once you’re part of the XRP Army, once you’ve tied your identity in some way to one of these groups, coins, or whatever, it becomes that much harder for you to part and to remove that part of your identity.”18

Communities encourage each other to have “diamond hands” and “HODL” (a term that has since been backronymed into “hold on for dear life”) whenever prices drop, even at huge financial risk. Some lionize the “Dogecoin Millionaire”, who “diamond handed” beyond all reason, keeping his massive holdings of Dogecoin far beyond their peak value of over $2 million and still holding now that they’re worth around $325,000.19 Crypto communities ostracize people who sell off their crypto as “paper hands” and “ngmi” (“not gonna make it”). True believers in various NFT projects encourage one another to “sweep the floor” if interest wanes (buy more NFTs—specifically those listed for the lowest prices), and coiners tell one another to “buy the dip!”

All of this behavior is enormously advantageous for those behind the projects, who benefit when holders keep on holding and when people buy more. Crypto projects in general depend on people believing their tokens have value, and community behaviors that reinforce this are essential.

So, crypto has a problem. “Community” is a huge part of what keeps the faith alive, and crypto more than anything relies on faith. But those communities have developed for themselves a reputation that attracts a very limited group of people—”cryptobros”, if you will, and those willing to put up with them. They need more communities, and ones that will draw in those tantalizing untapped markets: women, people of color, LGBTQ people, and so on.

What better way to draw people into a community than by presenting it as inclusion? “This isn’t good for us, this is good for you. We’re doing this for you.”

That is exactly what has happened.

Crypto communities have sprung up based around gender, nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, or various combinations of these. And it’s often easier for a member of a marginalized group to decide to dip their toe in the water when the person beckoning them in is someone like them, rather than a Pepe the Frog avatar spouting Bitcoin bro catchphrases.

By forming these communities around aspects of peoples’ identities that they hold very dear, it amplifies those ties to the communities that makes them harder to leave, and that make selling assets feel like a betrayal. It’s one thing to sell off some Bitcoin if your “investment” isn’t going as well as you hoped, or conversely, if you want to take some profits and rebalance a portfolio. It’s another thing entirely to do that when your asset is what makes you a part of a “World of Women” community, and where selling may feel like a betrayal to the people you’ve formed relationships with or to the ideological causes the group supports.

This is only more true when you’ve been told that buying this NFT—your Boss Beauty or Hijabi Queen or Flower Girl or Crypto Coven or Rebel Society or MetaSikh—was empowering, you were breaking the glass ceiling, you were pushing back against the crypto white boy’s club. In many ways, the identity-based crypto communities—particularly the women-focused ones that are overwhelmingly made up of white women—are reminiscent of multi-level marketing schemes, which also prey on identity and community to increase their reach. Many MLMs hawk beauty products, weight loss supplements, and women’s clothing—all appealing to women—and encourage the formation of social groups among their sellers that co-opt the language of friendship and feminism, promising to uplift one another, empower one another, and fight back against the male-dominated corporate world.

Six women sit around a table at a restaurant with drinks and empty plates
Photo from Natalie Brunell of her "weekly #Bitcoin dinner with my girlfriends who are new BTC investors"

The #bossbabe #girlboss lingo of MLMs feels right at home in the emerging women-in-crypto space these days, where groups of beautiful women “investors” take photos clinking mimosas at brunch, show off their CryptoChick profile pictures, and receive airdropped NFTs of friendship bracelets symbolizing their membership in the girls-only club.

The rhetoric often echoes the same sort of “Lean In feminism” pushed by Sheryl Sandberg in the early 2010s that encouraged women to be assertive in the workplace and grab themselves seats at the metaphorical table—without upsetting the apple cart too much, of course. “We have watched a lot of these bros get together and earn a lot of money, and I think we deserve to be in this space just as much,” said Gwyneth Paltrow, encouraging women to buy NFTs in January 2022. “I think that there’s a high probability that crypto will really be the future, and even though some people are still skeptical I think it’s here to stay and we should really be part of it,” she said—only months before NFTs and crypto in general would experience a serious downturn, and Paltrow’s crypto and NFT posts would trail off to nothing.2021


Some of these identity-based groups and projects are outright frauds. The interest in diversifying crypto has also caused a boom in projects focused around diversity, which have found interested buyers in members of marginalized groups as well as those hoping to support them. And this interest, of course, has drawn the scammers hoping to cash in as well: there are many instances now of men pretending to be women and promoting “women-led” NFT projects. Affinity fraud has also become rampant—the practice where scammers appeal to specific groups that have formed around shared identity.

Most of these identity-based groups, however, appear to be sincere. They are run by people who are who they say they are, who truly believe that they’ve found financial opportunities in crypto, and who are trying to open the doors to more people like them.

The distinction largely doesn’t matter.

Groups that operate under the guise of inclusion, regardless of their intentions, are serving the greater goal of crypto that keeps the whole thing afloat: finding ever more fools to buy in so that the early investors can take their profits. And it is those latecomers who are left holding the bag in the end.

With projects that seek to provide services and opportunities to members of marginalized groups who have previously not had access, but on bad terms that ultimately disadvantaged them, we see predatory inclusion.22 With projects that seek to create new communities of marginalized people to draw them in to risky speculative markets rife with scams and fraud, we are now seeing predatory community.

Notes

  1. Archived version of the Fame Lady Squad website↩︎

  2. Archived version of the Cyber City Girls Club website↩︎

  3. BLM Cards NFT Twitter account↩︎

  4. Stokel-Walker, Chris (August 12, 2021). “This $1.5 million ‘women-led’ NFT project was actually run by Russian dudes”. Input↩︎

  5. SEC Charges Issuer for Conducting Fraudulent and Unregistered Digital Asset Security Offering” (Press release). U.S Securities and Exchange Commission. August 4, 2021. ↩︎

  6. Uulala Review: Oscar Garcia triples down on securities fraud”. Behind the MLM. October 29, 2021. ↩︎

  7. Street, Mikelle (January 3, 2022). “1st LGBTQ+ Cryptocurrency, Maricoin, Launches With Questionable Name”. The Advocate↩︎

  8. Binder, Matt (March 3, 2022). “Why is Randi Zuckerberg making cringe music videos about cryptocurrency?Mashable↩︎

  9. Black in Web3: Now and the Future”. SXSW 2022. ↩︎

  10. Women Rocking Web3”. SXSW 2022. ↩︎

  11. Breaking the Blockchain Boys Club”. SXSW 2022. ↩︎

  12. Web3 For the Rest of Us”. SXSW 2022. ↩︎

  13. Pardes, Arielle (May 10, 2022). “Miami’s Bitcoin Conference Left a Trail of Harassment”. Wired↩︎

  14. SuperRare parts ways with its community manager over racist tweets, she hosts a disastrous “apology” Twitter Space”. Web3 is Going Just Great↩︎

  15. Ethereum Name Service, and the reason you keep seeing “.eth” suffixes everywhere. ↩︎

  16. ENS governance put to the test as a bigoted 2016 tweet from its director of operations resurfaces”. Web3 is Going Just Great↩︎

  17. Axie Infinity: Infinite Opportunity or Infinite Peril?Naavik. November 12, 2021. ↩︎

  18. Tomlin, Bennett and Marx, Paris (May 19, 2022). “(Un)Stablecoins and the Crypto Crash”. Tech Won’t Save Us. (Timestamp 21:35). ↩︎

  19. The Dogecoin Millionaire (April 17, 2022). “Why Elon Buying Twitter Is Bullish for DOGECOIN”. (Timestamp 9:44). ↩︎

  20. Tiku, Nitasha (April 6, 2022). “Famous women join the crypto hustle, but it could cost their fansThe Washington Post↩︎

  21. WTF is an NFT?!? Crypto for Beginners + BIG SURPRISE!” BFF. January 26, 2022. ↩︎

  22. See Seamster and Charron-Chénier’s 2017 “Predatory Inclusion and Education Debt: Rethinking the Racial Wealth Gap” and Taylor’s 2019 Race for Profit↩︎

Disclosures for my work and writing pertaining to cryptocurrencies and web3 can be found here.

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