September 26, 2022

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Bored Apes, BuzzFeed and the Battle for the Future of the Internet

On Friday, February 4, BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos published a story that ignited an online war. The reason was simple: In it, the technology reporter revealed the names of the main founders of the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT collection to be two men named Greg Solano and Wylie Aronow. Almost immediately, the public identification of the previously pseudonymous Solano and Aronow led to self-righteous anger. Many vocal proponents of crypto, NFTs, and/or web3 believed Notopoulos had “doxxed” the 30-something-year-old men—and put their physical safety at risk.

“WTF is the point of this? What public interest is served?” asked Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook employee who was pushed out of Apple after employees publicly complained about his history of misogynistic statements.

“I can’t wait to eventually give @BuzzFeed the Gawker treatment,” wrote Ryan Selkis, the CEO and co-founder of the  web3-focused crypto intelligence company Messari, referring to the Peter Thiel-backed lawsuit that killed the digital news site. 

Selkis and Martínez were far from alone in their condemnation. Jordan Fish, the crypto personality who goes by Cobie and runs the popular show UpOnly, called Notopoulos “a whore for clicks.” The founder of a crypto recruiting firm suggested the Bored Ape community could pool its money together through a decentralized autonomous organization and complete a Gordon Gekko-style “hostile takeover” of BuzzFeed. People sent Notopoulos threatening messages, saying that they were uncovering the addresses of her home and place of work and those of her parents and siblings. (“Your parents [sic] suburbs are not that far away actually,” one person told Notopoulos.)

The reaction felt like the next chapter in the web3 movement, which, for the purposes of simplicity, Motherboard will use as a catch-all to describe the heterogeneous community rallying around crypto, NFTs, the “metaverse,” and hopes for a more decentralized web. Broadly, the movement has tried to position itself—and largely succeeded at positioning itself—as a collection of Good Guys pushing toward a fairer, more communal form of internet capitalism. But the reaction, in some quarters, to the BuzzFeed story was a dark turn.

To many many of web3’s most vocal proponents, the fact that Notopoulos discovered the identities of Solano and Wylie through publicly-available records that linked the men to Yuga Labs did not seem to matter; nor did the fact that Yuga Labs’ CEO had confirmed the news prior to publication; nor did the fact that Bored Apes had taken the world by storm, helped along by countless celebrity promotions; nor did the fact that Yuga Labs was seeking a $5 billion valuation and in the process of closing a $200 million funding round led by one of the most influential venture firms in the world; nor did the real power Solano and Aronow are accruing, or the way that ramifies out into the real world, or the idea that they should be at least minimally accountable in the public eye.

“I’ve been told on more than a few occasions that it’s not okay for me to express my skepticism or opinions.” – Software engineer Molly White on the web3 and crypto community

While a few web3 proponents saw the identification (the purported “doxxing”) as justified, many others expressed strident belief that the only thing that mattered was that Solano and Aronow, perpetuating the fantasy at the heart of web3—the idea of a decentralized world in which the ordinary and the powerful alike will only be as accountable as they choose to be—had wished to remain anonymous, and that a journalist had not respected those wishes. Such anger around the issue of pseudonymity says a lot about what the next few years could look like. 

Tomorrow’s culture wars will take place—are already taking place—in the world of web3. 

The term “web3” is often traced back to Gavin Wood, the co-founder of the Ethereum blockchain, who in 2014 wrote an online treatise in which he sketched out his vision for a “post-Snowden” web. In it, Wood stated that a core tenet of the web’s next generation would be privacy, including encrypted communication through “identity-based” pseudonyms. “Information that we assume to be public, we publish. Information we assume to be agreed upon, we place on a consensus ledger. Information that we assume to be private, we keep secret and never reveal,” he wrote.

Such a claim was of a piece with the ideas of the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, who created Bitcoin and has never revealed their identity. But Edward Snowden’s leaks about the true scope and power of the U.S. surveillance state made it even more clear to Wood that “no government or organization can reasonably be trusted.” In an interview with Wired late last year, Wood said his vision boiled down to “less trust, more truth.” 

“What we have to do is activate the web3 community to become a vital source of money, media and votes so that if a member of Congress takes a negative approach, then they pay a price at the polls.” – Former presidential candidate Andrew Yang

“I have a particular meaning of trust that’s essentially faith. It’s the belief that something will happen, that the world will work in a certain way, without any real evidence or rational arguments as to why it will do that,” Wood said.  

Today, Wood’s words could just as easily be used to explain the armies rallying around his web3 concept. In theory, web3 boils down to an internet “do-over,” as Brian Morrissey, the former president and editor-in-chief of Digiday Media, has succinctly put it. In it, users are the primary financial beneficiaries of their time, as opposed to the “Web 2.0” schema, in which mega corporations like Facebook and Google benefit from a system in which they “provide services in exchange for your personal data,” to use one description on the Ethereum Foundation’s website. 

“Web3, they argue, would eliminate middlemen—whether lawyers or banks or gatekeeping sites run by executives and subject to human error,” Charlie Warzel recently wrote in the Atlantic. “Instead of relying on the whims of the platforms and their founders’ design and rules, both creators and consumers of content will own pieces of internet services.” 

The theoretical lack of central players is why people refer to web3 (and its nebulously associated idea, “the metaverse”) as a “decentralized vision” in which blockchain technology allows people to build businesses and earn money online without needing middlemen like Jamie Dimon and Mark Zuckerberg (and their underlings) to help facilitate transactions and take a cut.

In reality, as tech reporter Mike Elgan has noted, “The two biggest buzzwords in tech right now—the ‘metaverse’ and ‘Web3’—describe platforms that don’t exist, aren’t expected to exist even by boosters for a decade at least, and probably will never exist.” Phil Libin, a longtime Silicon Valley entrepreneur who immigrated to the U.S. from the Soviet Union, has compared the passionate lobbying campaign for as-of-now theoretical web3 world to communist propaganda.

“There is no single site that lets you do anything useful or at scale,” Libin recently said. “But you are supposed to believe in it like the Soviets were supposed to believe in a communist utopia.”

“There is no single site that lets you do anything useful or at scale. But you are supposed to believe in it like the Soviets were supposed to believe in a communist utopia.” – A Silicon Valley entrepreneur who emigrated from the Soviet Union

To the extent they do exist, they mostly consist of centralized, monolithic institutions and ones that aspire to be. What is manifesting is not a world where middlemen are deprived of their share and data brokers are cut out of the action due to clever, privacy-protecting protocols, but rather a new online world in which seemingly anything can be financialized thanks to blockchain technology, which creates a digital infrastructure in which “every product is simultaneously an investment opportunity,” as Bloomberg’s Matt Levine has put it. Such a set-up, which places speculation at the core of digital life (itself becoming increasingly indistinguishable from real life due to various long-term trends accelerated drastically by the pandemic), has fostered an environment in which scammers are “luring people into bogus investment opportunities in record numbers,” as the Federal Trade Commission warned last year.

But the most visible effect of these developments is that they’ve created a world in which the receipt for a crude image of a bored ape can be worth millions. 

Difficult as it may be to believe, the Bored Ape phenomenon is less than a year old, although algorithmically-generated NFT collectibles have been around for years. Solano, Aronow, and the other two founding Apes—crypto programmers who went by “No Sass” and “Emperor Tomato Ketchup” and have since revealed their identities—invested roughly $40,000 upfront to produce the Bored Ape project, most of which went to illustrators. From that, they created a 10,000-image NFT collection that sold out in a single day and quickly became the most well-known symbol of the NFT movement thus far. Since then, celebrities including Stephen Curry, The Chainsmokers, Jimmy Fallon, Post Malone, Timbaland, Logan Paul, Eminem, Serena Williams, Paris Hilton, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Justin Bieber have shoved their way into the club. 

Amid their sudden success, Solano and Aronow didn’t shy away from the press, money, or notoriety, even if they kept their identities hidden. One of them described the founding Ape team as “the Beastie Boys of NFTs” and said Yuga Labs hoped to become a “Web3 lifestyle company” in a pseudonymous interview with Rolling Stone. Yuga Labs signed with the exceedingly well-connected manager of Madonna and U2 in order to pursue opportunities related to movies, music, television, and gaming, and announced plans to launch an Ethereum token. They hosted APE FEST 2021 in New York City, which included a VIP charity dinner at the high-class Carbone restaurant, a merch pop-up store, a Brooklyn warehouse party, and, of course, a Halloween party aboard a 1,000-person yacht. By November, the company’s four founding members generated “about $22 million from the secondary market alone,” according to Rolling Stone. (The lead artist of the Bored Ape movement, Seneca, later described her own compensation as “definitely not ideal,” which some have used as evidence that NFTs do not always benefit artists as much as its defenders claim.)

The company also caught the eye of the people who run Andreessen Horowitz, the iconic venture firm that is, as of now, the closest thing the concept of web3 has to an institutional voice. The firm, which goes by a16z for short and recently started its own media arm, has not only launched a $2.2 billion crypto fund and invested in more than 50 crypto startups—saying crypto is “poised to transform all aspects of our lives”—but recently sent representatives on a “five-day lobbying blitz” in Washington D.C. in support of pro-web3 policies. (“We support the appointment of a senior official to serve as a web3 czar,” members of the company wrote in a related blog post.) It is no surprise, then, that a16z is reportedly in the process of leading a multibillion-dollar funding round in Yuga Labs that will give the company hundreds of millions of dollars to spend. All of this—the money, the ties to celebrity, the dealings with the lords of Silicon Valley—gives the company and its founders real power, and they’re not alone. 

The infighting and heterogeneity of the web3/crypto/NFT community can make it appear like anything but a united front. Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, a Bitcoin devotee, hates web3; Marc Andreessen, of the web3-loving a16z investment firm, subsequently seems not to want anything to do with Dorsey. Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of the encrypted messaging service Signal, helped create the cryptocurrency MobileCoin, but suggested “technologies like ethereum have been built with many of the same implicit trappings as web1” in a blog calling out centralization in the space. Selkis, the crypto enthusiast who wants to give BuzzFeed “the Gawker treatment,” has described Ron Paul as the “patron political saint of crypto,” while others argue in good faith that they hope to create a more diverse and equitable world in line with leftist tendencies. And technologically, web3 is not one thing that anybody can agree on, except for that it involves crypto.

“A common misconception about web3 is that it’s one monolithic concept which founders must choose whether to fully embrace,” one venture capitalist wrote this month. 

But there are signs that the cultural web3 movement could be creating a new alignment. Andrew Yang, the pro-venture, pro-crypto, rapaciously publicity-hungry entrepreneur-turned-twice failed political candidate, argued in a recent interview that the creation of a united front will be critical for the web3 movement’s move to power. 

“I worry about it de-humanizing our online world.” – A web3 proponent on her concerns about pseudonymity

“What we have to do is activate the Web3 community to become a vital source of money, media and votes so that if a member of Congress takes a negative approach, then they pay a price at the polls,” Yang told the crypto news site Blockworks. Bitcoin advocates, though they often seem themselves as distinct from the web3 movement and even crypto more broadly, are nevertheless developing the political roadmap to follow.

Predictably, web3’s rise has led to a commensurate number of high-profile skeptics long preoccupied with criticizing Bitcoin specifically. Numerous software experts, policy wonks, and artists have made similar arguments, not only about crypto but also NFTs (“how sweet, now artists can become little capitalist assholes as well,” Brian Eno recently said) and the concept of play-to-earn games so central to idealized visions for web3. There is an argument to be made that perhaps these people are being cynical and unimaginative, as are the many journalists who are prone to poke holes in new ideas. As Warzel recently wrote in the Atlantic, a video of David Letterman guffawing at the idea of the internet during a 1995 interview with Bill Gates (“what the hell is that, exactly?”) provides proof that the optimists can, in retrospect, be right. 

But what has distinguished web3 so far is a unique combination of extreme optimism and self-righteous defensiveness. As Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal has written, the movement’s most prominent figureheads often seem obsessed with “Who is against them. Who is in disagreement with them. Who isn’t sufficiently respecting their work. Who hasn’t joined them or invested yet.” And at no time has that tendency to circle the wagons been more on view than in the aftermath of the BuzzFeed story. “There was absolutely no reason to dox these guys,” wrote Mike Solana, a vice president at Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, soon after Notopoulos’s story published. Solana considered the argument that the BuzzFeed story was in the public interest to be “disgusting” and implied that the apparent frivolity of Yuga Labs’ content—“they’re literally cartoon apes”—justified the founders’ pseudonymity. 

It’s not difficult to imagine similar arguments could have been leveled in defense of the earliest version of Facebook if Mark Zuckerberg had founded the social media company in 2021 under a pseudonym. Yet the fact that Facebook transformed in a few short years from a way for college students to share party photos to an election-altering juggernaut should provide evidence of the counterpoint: Popular but seemingly trivial internet enterprises can quickly become something much different. Chris Dixon, a partner at a16z and one of web3’s most ardent evangelists, has said as much in the past, writing over a decade ago that “the next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a ‘toy.’” 

The question then is when, exactly, public due diligence of organizations should begin: Now, or after the consequences of their creation are clear and unavoidable for all of us?

The controversy over Notopoulos’s reporting and the ways in which it’s been expressed have the contours of a battle in a cultural war. The rhetoric, the threats against a female reporter, and the general tone of grievance from a group of people who feel besieged even as society is reordering itself around their whims are all reminiscent of Gamergate, and the many reactionary tendencies in which it culminated. There are real and obvious differences; to compare isn’t to equate. A key similarity, though, is that web3 can be defined the same way Deadspin’s Kyle Wagner defined Gamergate, in a 2014 essay, as, by design, “nearly impossible to define”—so much so that “any discussion of this subject” turns “into a debate over semantics.” 

A little over a week later, the reaction to the BuzzFeed story feels like the opening salvo of a new chapter in the battle over internet anonymity, which has long had to do with relatively arcane topics like government attempts to kill end-to-end encryption but is now breaking out into more fundamental questions about where the right to conceal one’s identity ends, and why. 

“The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a ‘toy.’” – Chris Dixon, a partner at the venture firm Andreessen Horowitz

The idea that it doesn’t end, ever, isn’t incidental to web3, but absolutely central, and will probably become more so as more pseudonymous founders nab hundreds of millions in funding and revenue. (As Notopoulos herself pointed out in her story, “It’s possible that pseudonymous companies could become our new reality.”) Yuga Labs offers a blueprint of where the internet economy is headed—a world of decentralized autonomous organizations and NFTs and cryptocurrencies in which people cannot be certain who benefits or what anyone’s true motivations are.

web3 boosters say such pseudonymity is valuable. One venture capitalist argued shortly after the BuzzFeed story that “internet pseudonymity is a public good” and that journalists need to adapt to the new world. Another at a crypto-focused firm told Notopoulos it could help resolve the longstanding discriminatory issues that founders of color face. Female-led companies nabbed only 2 percent of venture funding last year, and Latinx and Black entrepreneurs received similarly dismal amounts. Considering the barriers women and people or color face, allowing founders to raise under pseudonyms could level the playing field, at least theoretically.  

There is, of course, merit to such arguments, and it doesn’t take much time to think of a myriad of ways in which technology that facilitates anonymity meaningfully contributes to society. One of the issues with a pseudonymity-prizing tech regime, though, is that it is difficult to discern whether such a system improves or perpetuates societal issues. Another is that it can undeniably serve powerful people who simply don’t want anyone to be able to tell what they’re doing. 

It’s also worth wondering what perceived threat caused people to lash out at Notopoulos. Wanting to avoid NSA surveillance is an understandable goal. But pushing for a pseudonymous corporate power comes with ethical questions worth considering today, before web3 is fully built out. Already, one of the hallmarks of the new economy has been so-called rugpulls, in which the creator of a cryptocurrency project pools together people’s money for some higher cause (or not) and then disappears with it all. Some anonymous teams have been able to do so on numerous occasions, and in a recent instance a web3 architect was able to hide their past financial crimes by remaining anonymous, until they were exposed to the shock of investors. The issue has become significant enough that crypto projects sometimes advertise publicly known “​​doxxed devs” to make investors feel confident that their money is in good hands.

It’s made running an NFT marketplace just as difficult. This month, the blockchain startup where Jack Dorsey sold his first tweet as an art NFTs for $2.9 million halted the buying and selling of NFTs due to “rampant” and “fundamental” issues. The company’s CEO told Reuters that he could not figure out a way to stop people from selling NFTs of property they didn’t actually own or that could reasonably be called securities. 

“It kept happening. We would ban offending accounts but it was like we’re playing a game of whack-a-mole,” the CEO said. “Every time we would ban one, another one would come up, or three more would come up.”

In November, Annika Lewis, a self-described “recovering VC,” expressed her own reservations about web3’s growing acceptance of pseudonymity, even though she now works for GitCoin, a web3-focused platform. “First and last names have been replaced with inscrutable .eth & .nft domains, and the faces of the humans behind the accounts have been replaced with cartoon JPEGs,” she wrote. “It’s way under-discussed relative to its prominence, and, in ways, I worry about it de-humanizing our online world.”

To the extent that web3 enthusiasts elevate, to a universal principle, the idea that anyone should be able to do anything they want online without anyone knowing about it, they are arguing for a world in which no one has to be wholly accountable for their actions. The evidence that we have, though, suggests that even in its infancy, web3 is creating a class of people who will have a lot to answer for. The system coming into existence, in fact, tends to mirror the one that came before it, with the powerful few controlling the vast majority of the wealth on offer. “Blockchain turned out to be the most rapid recentralization of a decentralized technology that I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Tim O’Reilly, who coined the term Web 2.0, said this week. The top 10 percent of NFT holders own four-fifths of the market’s value, and 0.01 percent of Bitcoiners hold 27 percent of all the circulating coins, creating a new online ecosystem that Scott Galloway said described as more of a “re-centralization of power into the hands of fewer” than anything else. 

“Every member of Forbes’s 2021 crypto billionaires list is a man. A third of them attended Stanford or Harvard. Out of the 12 listed, only one isn’t white. The web3 narrative feels like a Ted-X talk given to a survivalist group,” Galloway added. Some new people have certainly struck it rich, Bored Apes included, but then again, so did the misfits who came to be portrayed in Martin Scorsese’s Wolf of Wall Street.  

“Blockchain turned out to be the most rapid recentralization of a decentralized technology that I’ve seen in my lifetime.” – Tim O’Reilly, who coined the term Web 2.0.

Molly White, a software engineer, last year started documenting the issues she sees with web3 in her sarcastically named blog “web3 is going just great.” Over email, White told me that the animosity Notopoulos faced didn’t surprise her in the least. “I actually think the backlash is quite representative of the crypto space, which I’ve found to be so resistant and hostile towards criticism in ways I’m not sure I’ve seen before. Some proponents of crypto get enormously angry with those who so much as question the technology, much less criticize it, and I’ve been told on more than a few occasions that it’s not okay for me to express my skepticism or opinions,” White said.

Like many of web3’s loudest advocates, White can appreciate the value of internet anonymity and privacy. “[T]here are lots of very good and noble reasons people might want to stay anonymous: people living under oppressive governments, whistleblowers, journalists and researchers exposing extremists, for example,” White wrote. “I’m not sure if I’d put ‘want to run a multi-million dollar company without any accountability’ on that list. I am surprised that so many in the crypto space are so fiercely protective of the anonymity of the people behind these huge, multi-million dollar projects, especially when a lot of the reasons that people involved with them have chosen to be anonymous have turned out to be really shady.”

Selkis has positioned himself as one such protector, a particular sort of anti-“cancel culture” free speech advocate who mostly defends those on his side. One day after Notopoulos’ story came out, he dug up tweets Notopoulos had posted in 2009 arguing they were proof of some unnamed “persistent double standard,” then pushed the idea of a “activist-oriented policy group with a legal fund” that could fund “privacy suits against outlets that doxx private citizens.”  

The sides had been drawn. And by Tuesday, Selkis had been invited onto Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show for a jovial conversation. Soon after the segment started, he claimed that “crypto media can help with censorship.” The question is who he’s worried will be censored, and who he’d like to shut up.