By Yathukulan yogarajah
Economic and Financial Anthropologist
Goldsmiths, University of London
London SE14 6NW
Buyers of cryptocurrencies – whether students in London, church goers in Uganda who have been told of them by their priest, or university students in India who have pooled their assets in order to purchase some – face incredible levels of uncertainty. Prices of cryptocurrency can drop to 90% of their value or skyrocket in a matter of hours, causing palpitations of the heart, an adrenaline rush, euphoria and a depressed state for those observing these price movements through smart phones on bus journeys back from church or walking home after university.
How do those in the cryptocurrency world deal with this level of volatility and uncertainty? One way is through stories. We have always told stories to grapple with the uncertainty of life. Whether fairy tales told to children during war time to warn them of the uncertain terrain they inhabit, almanacs, or astrological charts. Conventional finance also has its own stories. Stefan Leins writes of the way financial analysts construct stories that are complex enough to justify their worth, but not too complex so that it bores traders with notoriously short attention spans. Graphs, pie charts, and diagrams have to be used in particular ways. Data has to be collected from certain reputable sources and portrayed using specific formatting to tell a convincing story (Leins, 2018). These stories become legitimised as ‘economic reasoning’, elevated to the extent that they appear to hold some key to unlocking the door to an unknowable future. Stories invented in order to present the future as epistemologically, rather than ontologically uncertain. In the emergent world of cryptocurrencies, where uncertainty exceeds conventional finance, and without the extensive resources of economic theory to draw on, participants cultivate their own form of storytelling through memes.
It’s 18th December 2013, a week before Christmas, and the price of bitcoin has dropped sharply to around the $500 mark. Two weeks ago the price was over $1100 – having risen from the $100 mark a couple of months before that. The feeling of joy, excitement and hopefulness is slowly being replaced by dread and anguish in the crypto world. So much for Christmas.
A person going by his netizen name Gamekyuubi, having had quite a bit of whisky, takes to a popular bitcoin forum to express his feelings and thoughts on the recent price movements. He types a 250-word post, riddled with spelling errors, that would go down in bitcoin folklore.
GameKyuubi reasons that they are simply not a good enough trader to predict the volatile movements of the market, and despite whatever the market does they are going to simply ‘hodl’ – a misspelling of hold.
That moment was transcribed by others on the forum into what became known as the Sparta hodl meme – perhaps the most popular meme in the cryptocurrency world. In the face of price volatility, and the emotions that ensued, those in the world of cryptocurrency were to be brave and hodl – that is, to not sell their cryptocurrency.
Through repetition and reworking the term, ‘hodl’ or ‘hodling’ came to invoke a moral sentiment within the community, it became a way to discipline oneself, and to look to the distant horizon beyond short-term volatility. The meme transported the original story of GameKyuubi, but also came to be used by others to express their feelings towards price movements. The stories told through the hodling meme did not merely reflect price movements or market sentiments, but soon came to influence people’s actions. These hodling stories were not merely a ‘camera’ that captured the sentiments of the cryptocurrency world in the face of uncertainty, but also acted as an ‘engine’ that would itself influence price movements and market sentiments (MacKenzie, 2008). Hodling invoked certain practices and ways of speaking about uncertainty within the cryptocurrency world (that my research looks at) that came to influence the market.
Fluid and temporary, memes are a powerful way to tell stories in the constantly shifting and volatile cryptocurrency world. Today there are many other memes besides hodling. These memes have become an important part of the cryptocurrency world, however, their significance has been greatly overlooked. As one meme puts it: ‘came for the crypto, stayed for the meme’.
My research addresses this absence, by collecting stories and describing how people communicate their feelings and thoughts about the market, the social life these stories enter into, and how they come to affect the movements of markets. In doing so, I hope to provide an insight into the role that anthropologists can play in uncovering and exploring emerging forms of uncertainty and how they are managed by creators of new worlds.
Leins, S. (2018). Stories of Capitalism: Inside the Role of Financial Analysts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
MacKenzie, D. (2008). An Engine, Not a Camera: How Financial Models Shape Markets. MIT Press.