BitClout: Don’t let this grim farce blind you to a deeper trend at work

If you want to make your Grandma fear for the future of humanity, tell her about BitClout. Explain that it’s a new website where you can speculate on the value of famous people. Like Twitter meets the stock-market, you can buy or sell anyone, anytime you like. Gwyneth Paltrow right now is priced at $6,003, Obama is going for $4,331. You’re not actually buying them of course but their ‘coin’ — something akin to a digital trading card for that person.

If she’s not wondering what the world’s coming to yet, try telling her how this unholy platform entered the world: none of the famous people actually gave their permission for this, no, the creators just copy+pasted the top 15,000 accounts over from Twitter. Oh and any money you put into the platform can’t be withdrawn until….some unspecified time in the future that the creators deem suitable. And the creators themselves? No-one knows — they’re anonymous.

Is it a scam? An evil masterplan? Actually its neither, so far as I can tell, despite the abysmal launch. Mostly these ‘quirks’ seem to be the by-product of the founders trying to bootstrap a new crypto-economic social network out of nothing. The who’s-who of VCs behind it tells you it’s unlikely to be a scam: Andreessen Horowitz, Sequoia, Coinbase, many more.

BitClout’s top profiles by ‘market cap’

No, I think its almost worse: the creators actually think that this is a good idea. And in a weird way they’re kind of right. Adding market dynamics takes the fan-influencer relationship into a new universe: influencers can set up private chat groups with their biggest fans (judged by size of holding), or distribute limited edition items to them (e.g. early release gig tickets). They can cut haters out of comment threads instantly by limiting replies to only holders of their coin.

And from the ‘investor’ side, all of a sudden you can profit from spotting people with potential — you don’t need to be a VC, you can just buy someone’s coin. Its like unbounded angel investing: any person, anywhere, anytime, in any domain. Your ‘sponsorship’ could even help them: imagine a promising young artist drawing down some of their coin value to fund a year working on a new project.

But still — still — it’s ghastly, isn’t it? The whole grotesque carnival of buying and selling people, real living, breathing people. Is this where technology is headed, turning fellow human beings into trading cards for anyone to speculate on? The Black Mirror label was inevitable, the entire thing is redolent with dystopia. Little thought seems to have been given to the effect of all this on the influencers (even assuming they give their permission). What kind of a world is it where you can look up your ‘value’ at any hour, on the internet, and see yourself in a giant leaderboard compared to…everyone else on earth? This ‘value’ set in a way you cannot see, or challenge, or understand, by an army of faceless speculators deciding, minute-to-minute, whether your future looks more or less ‘investable’ than someone else’s?

You end up with a situation where you can look up the ‘market capitalisation’ of Chris Martin, and compare it to Ed Sheeran. What does that even mean? We have a mental health epidemic on our hands, and we get…league tables? The counter would be that people can just opt-out, quit the game for a bit, like Stephen Fry taking breaks from Twitter. But this isn’t the same: If you leave the platform you will inflict real financial losses on everyone who’s supported and invested in you — all of your fans. That is a weight far, far too great to place on someone, consigning them to the twisted dance forever.

The mistake, though, is to take this product too literally; to let the appalling optics blind you to a deeper trend at work. The broad context here is a tectonic, multi-decade shift of power from institutions to individuals. This is well-underway: the top 100 Twitter accounts surely hold more sway over public opinion now than entire governments. People don’t get their information, their values, their inspiration from monolithic media empires anymore, they get it directly from individuals they look up to: the Elon Musks, or the Taylor Swifts.

And in this world, where literally billions of people are on the internet, all connect-able, the simplistic actions of liking, re-tweeting, following are beginning to look a little dated; quaint even, in the face of the on-coming crypto-juggernaut. A whole series of experiments are testing the waters of a more ‘financalised’ dynamic between fans and influencers: Twitter recently introduced Super-like ($5); Patreon lets ‘benefactors’ sponsor people undertaking creative, or intellectual work; Substack has let journalists build a direct, subscription-based relationship with their readers; in the crypto world artists are hosting private events limited to only people who own their NFTs. You even have people creating of coins of themselves:

23 year-old Alex Masmej raising $20,000 via Etheruem in 2020

For my money the direction of travel here is more towards long-term investment, and less towards ‘trading’. The stench of this product mostly stems from the speculative element: profiteering, betting on someone’s demise, making a quick buck. It just feels wrong. But switch that for something more like angel investing, where you’re locked in for 5–10 years, joined at the hip with the protagonist for better or for worse. Now the dynamic begins to feel much healthier. This is truly uncharted territory, but genie is out of the bottle now, and it ain’t going back.

Data scientist, product junkie, one-time founder. London-based. @tgh44