While much of the recent wave of relentless hype around NFTs -- or non-fungible tokens -- has been most visibly manifested in high-dollar art auctions or digital trading cards sales, there's also been a relentless string of chatter among bullish investors who see a future that ties the tokens to the future of social media and creator monetization.
Much of the most spirited conversations have centered on a pre-launch project called BitClout, a social crypto-exchange where users can buy and sell tokens based on people's reputations. The app, which launches out of private beta tomorrow morning, has already courted plenty of controversy inside the crypto community, but it's also amassed quite a war chest as investors pump tens of millions into its proprietary currency.
Early backers of the platform's BitClout currency include a who's who of Silicon Valley investors, including Sequoia Capital and Andreessen Horowitz, the startup's founder tells TechCrunch. Other investors include Chamath Palihapitiya's Social Capital, Coinbase Ventures, Winklevoss Capital and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. A report in Decrypt notes that a single wallet connected to BitClout has received more than $165 million worth of bitcoin deposits suggesting that huge sums have already poured into the network ahead of its public launch.
BitClout falls into an exploding category of crypto companies that are focusing on tokenized versions of social currency. Others working on building out these individual tokens include Roll and Rally, which aim to allow creators to directly monetize their internet presence and allow their fans to bet on them. Users who believe in a budding artist can invest in their social currency and could earn returns as the creator becomes more famous and their coins accrue more value.
"If you look at people's existing relationships with social media companies, it's this very adversarial thing where all the content they produce is not really theirs but it belongs to the corporation that doesn't share the monetization with them," BitClout's founder, who refers to themselves pseudonymously as "diamondhands," tells TechCrunch. (There's been some speculation on their identity as a former founder in the cryptocurrency space, but in a call with TechCrunch, they would not confirm their identity.)
The BitClout platform revolves around the BitClout currency. At the moment users can deposit bitcoin into the platform, which is instantly converted to BitClout tokens and can then be spent on individual creators inside the network. When a creator gets more popular as more users buy their coin, it gets more expensive to buy denominations of their coin. Creators can also opt in to receive a certain percentage of transactions deposited into their own BitClout wallets so that they continue to benefit from their own success.
The company's biggest point of controversy hinges on what has been opt-in and what has been opt-out for the early group of accounts on the platform. Most other social currency offerings are strictly opt-in. Users come to the platform in search of a way to create tokens that allow them to monetize a fanbase and build a social fabric across multiple platforms. The thought being that if the platforms own the audience then you are at their mercy.
BitClout has taken an aggressive growth strategy here, turning that model on its head. The startup has pre-populated the BitClout network with 15,000 accounts after scraping information from popular public Twitter profiles. This means that BitClout users can buy shares of Kim Kardashian's social coin or Elon Musk's without those individuals ever having signed up for a profile or agreeing to it. This hasn't been well-received by all of those who unwittingly had accounts set up on their behalf, including many crypto-savvy users who got scooped up in the initial wave of seeding.
The startup's founder says that this effort was largely an effort to prevent handle squatting and user impersonation, but he believes that as the platform opens, a sizable pre-purchase of creator coins reserved for the owners of these accounts will entice those users to verify their handles to claim the funds.
Perhaps BitClout's most eyebrow-raising quirk is that the platform is launching with a way to invest into the platform and convert bitcoin into BitClout, but at launch there's no way to cash out funds. The project's founder says that it's only a matter of time before this is resolved, and points to Coinbase and the Winkelvoss twin's status as coin holders as a sign of future exchange support to come, but the company has no specifics to share at launch.
While the founders and investors behind the project see a bright future for social currencies on the blockchain, many in the decentralized community have been less impressed with BitClout's early efforts to achieve viral adoption among creators in a permission-less manner.
"BitClout will make a great case study on how badly crypto projects can mess up incentive engineering when they try to monetize social networks." Jay Graber, a decentralized platform researcher involved in Twitter's bluesky effort, said in a tweet. "Trust and reputation are key, and if you create a sketchy platform and mess with people’s reputations without their consent it is not going to go well."
If BitClout comes out of the gate and manages to convert enough of its pre-seeded early adopter list that there is value in joining its closed ecosystem version of a social token, then it may have strong early momentum in an explosive new space that many creators are finding valuable. The concepts explored by others in the social currency space are sound, but this particular execution of it is a high-risk one. The network launches tomorrow morning so we'll see soon enough.