he future of media is a crypto-based popularity contest
Illustration by Dalbert Vilarino
Entertainment

Surprise! The Future of Media Involves a Crypto-Based Popularity Contest

Could Mirror, a new independent publishing platform, offer an escape from the exhaustion of the creator economy?
November 4, 2021, 4:59pm

This summer, I took a deep breath, steeled my nerves, and joined thousands of writers, artists, and tech types in what has become something of a weekly spectacle in crypto-curious corridors of social media: I asked my followers to help me win a popularity contest.

It’s called the Write Race, and despite the name, it doesn’t involve much writing. Though contestants have the option to write a couple sentences about what they will do if they win, it’s mostly a winkingly dystopian game of clout, with the end goal of being voted into a mysterious online community called Mirror. Voting kicks off for two hours every Wednesday; contestants, represented by their Twitter avatar, move up and down a vertical leaderboard according to the number of votes they receive from past champions and fellow competitors. Once voting wraps up for the day, Mirror tweets out a list of ten winners who made it to the “finish line.” “Round 32 finalists!” the company will exclaim, with a chipperness reminiscent of the gratingly upbeat, bot-like announcer in Squid Game. “It’s time to check your wallets!” 

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Their reward? A digital token granting access to a unique subdomain on a publishing platform where writers can earn cryptocurrency for their prose.

On one level, Mirror is a simple blogging platform like Substack or Medium. But it also offers an ever-expanding suite of crowdfunding tools made possible by blockchain technology that pushes the act of raising money on the Internet into psychedelic new shapes. Through “Crowdfunds,” a writer can issue financial backers a custom token that gives them fractional ownership of an essay—and a future cut of the proceeds if the writer decides to auction it off as an NFT. A creator can automatically route a share of any revenues to a collaborator, using a “smart contract” tool called “Splits.” 

So far, quite a few projects on Mirror have very little to do with writing at all: Ideas funded using the platform include a 42-person collaborative songwriting “camp,”  a dating show, and a cabin community for creators in rural Texas. But a handful of writers have already used the site to generate jaw-dropping sums of money in one fell swoop—often on surprisingly heady subjects, and sometimes before they even put pen to paper.

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Back in January, a product designer and software engineer named John Palmer used Mirror to pitch what he described as “the first community-owned essay, crowdfunded in Ethereum.” After he hit his crowdfunding goal of 10 ETH—the cryptocurrency equivalent of more than $13,000 at the time and now a bit over $40,000—he released the piece to the public, revealing a sprawling theoretical essay that uses the futuristic electronic music genre hyperpop as a jumping-off point for a discussion of ideological turf wars online. Since then, other writers have raised tens of thousands of dollars for everything from a newsletter about Internet culture to a “homoerotic teen thriller” about “a group of three girls at an elite New York City private school who stumble into busting a global sex trafficking ring.”

Unless you’re a crypto fanatic, it’s easy to see Mirror as a kind of niche, crypto-driven amalgam of platforms like Substack and Patreon and Kickstarter—with more steps. But venture capitalists are investing heavily in the space this year, and they clearly see an opportunity in Mirror: In June, The Information reported that Mirror—which was founded by former Andreessen Horowitz crypto partner Denis Narazov in 2020—had secured an undisclosed investment from Union Square Ventures, among other early backers, at a $100 million valuation.

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Despite that tremendous show of optimism, or perhaps consistent with it, the entire enterprise has the giddy, haphazard quality of an art project that is being built in real-time. “So what’s gonna happen?” reads an explanatory article on the Write Race on Mirror’s development site. “We have no idea, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.” (Nazarov did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.) 

Officially speaking, the purpose of the Write Race is to allow existing community members to have a say in who gets to be a part of it: Past winners get 1000 votes to throw around during every Write Race; everyone else starts with only 10. While not exactly egalitarian, this method of community curation is in keeping with a philosophy that you will hear about a lot if you spend time in the spaces of “Web 3,” a shorthand used by crypto optimists to describe the alternative vision of the Internet they say they are building. By contrast with “Web 2” social media companies like Twitter and Facebook—top-down, centralized platforms that harvest our self-expression for ad dollars—Web 3 communities like Mirror tend to foreground values of collective ownership, non-hierarchical governance, and the importance of being able to reap the fruits of one’s creative labor. 

As utopian as that sounds, I couldn’t help feeling a bit uneasy when a friend told me he’d send some votes my way if I decided to enter the Write Race. Navigating the crypto Internet can feel like trying to find a way around a city where you don’t speak the language; and besides, the competition seemed like a recipe for humiliation. Still, amid headlines about journalists losing their jobs, musicians making a fraction of a penny per stream, and TikTok creators burning out under the unforgiving glare of the algorithm, I could understand why people were lining up for a chance to experiment with something different.

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The extractive logic of Web 2—where our creativity becomes little more than a widget for somebody else’s bottom line—has felt pretty inescapable during the pandemic. Was this the reason why people seemed to be flocking to Mirror? Could sites like Mirror, and Web 3 more broadly, offer an escape? 

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Illustration by Dalbert Vilarino

Dena Yago is a self-described “long-form girl in a hot-take world.” A co-founder of K-Hole, the defunct art collective and trend forecasting group best known for coining the 2010s fashion buzzword normcore, she said she’s never felt like her writing was a fit for subscription-based platforms, which hinge on keeping readers engaged on a weekly or daily basis. So she was curious about the possibility of using crypto to fund a standalone piece of writing—ideally while earning more money than she would writing for a traditional publication.

“The amount of my peers that I've seen just groveling for $75 checks is pretty egregious,” she said. “There needs to be a new paradigm for how work can be representatively remunerated.” 

The fight for a living wage is important to Yago: She now works as the co-founder of Applied Arts, a creative agency focused on exploring more equitable labor conditions for artists. So when a friend told her about Mirror, she decided to try using it to fund a long-form essay, on a topic near and dear to her heart. She’d recently posted a Twitter thread about how R.J Cutler’s 2021 Billie Eilish documentary, The World’s a Little Blurry, felt like “the perfect object lesson in affect theory,” and wanted to expand on it in a 6,000 to 8,000-word piece.

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The amount she raised for the essay—the equivalent of $27,000 at the time and now more than $46,000—was more than a performative proof of concept for the idea that cultural criticism has more value than our media overlords tend to let on. It also enabled her to realize every aspect of the project on her own terms, hiring an editor, a visual artist, and a researcher and donating a portion of the funds to a creative writing and mentoring organization called WriteGirl. Where writers typically aren’t paid until a month or two after a piece is published, she was also able to enjoy a “lump sum” advance, along with the enthusiasm and feedback of a community of benefactors who were all fractional co-owners of the piece.

The editorial team behind Dirt, the aforementioned Internet culture newsletter, used Mirror to fund an entire season of content for their free Substack and raised around $30,000. Instead of trying to drum up financial support for individual articles, they used the site’s “Editions” tool to sell a collection of 131 animated NFTs, each depicting a publication mascot called “Dirty,” which looks like a smiling cartoon mound of dirt. According to co-founder Daisy Alioto, a culture journalist and audience engagement specialist, the NFTs were also a playful exercise in world-building around the brand—a sort of digital equivalent of the New Yorker tote, grounded in its millennial audience’s nostalgia for pop culture ephemera like Pokemon cards and Beanie Babies. 

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“I'm not totally naive—most of the people participating in cryptocurrency probably don't share the same values as me,” said Alioto, who has done work organizing freelance writers. Still, she said, the money they raised enabled her and co-founder Kyle Chayka, a fellow culture journalist and one of the folks behind media worker support network Study Hall, to realize their goal of paying Dirt’s writers, editors, and artists a fair wage. “I can pay writers $500 to write a newsletter dispatch for something that they wouldn't be able to publish anywhere else—so just putting money in the pockets of cultural critics, freelancers, people that write about the Internet and have interesting things to say,” Alioto said. “I would have liked to have that when I was freelancing.” 

The publication wrapped up its first season with the release of a couple new rounds of Dirty NFTs, to raise funds for a second. Chayka wrote in a blog post that the ultimate goal was to turn Dirt into a “full-fledged Media DAO,” or decentralized autonomous organization, where supporters can help “choose which coverage areas to invest in and which stories to commission.” 

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Screenshot of a Dirty NFT edition on Mirror

Jumping into the world of crypto publishing can entail a bit of a learning curve—which was probably the first thing that struck me when I decided to enter the Write Race in July. A few days before it was set to start, my boyfriend had helped me set up a crypto wallet, which is mandatory for connecting to the competition. But he forgot to save the private key, and I ended up getting permanently locked out of my wallet in the middle of the voting period: I couldn’t connect to my Mirror account, where I had already racked up several hundred votes.

After I set up a new wallet, I spent an entire afternoon scouring the Mirror site to try to find out how I might be able to regain access—looking for some FAQ, some tech support page, anyone I might be able to contact at all. (Later, I found out that the staff does answer questions via Discord). Eventually, I was able to get a Mirror developer to reset my account by @ing him on Twitter. But then the site’s Twitter verification tool kept glitching. I spent the better part of an evening repeatedly tweeting out a verification message, cringing as I realized that people were probably wondering why I was posting the same spammy-looking tweet over and over. By the time I was finally able to log back on to the Write Race, I was back at square one: Somewhere in the chaos, I had ended up losing all my votes. I also noticed that I had lost three Twitter followers.

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In weeks that followed, my successes and failures in moving up the leaderboard proved about as arbitrary as they are in real life—and as contingent on who you know. Some weeks, watching my avatar languish towards the bottom of the list, I would panic and ask a few token-holders I knew to vote for me, only ever hearing back after voting had closed for the day; other weeks, I would get busy at work and completely forget about the Write Race, only to discover that I had shot up several hundred spots closer to the top. Though I’d put time and care into answering the 500-character prompt that appears on the Write Race page—“What would you use Mirror for?”—I didn’t feel like I had very much agency over the situation. My response kept disappearing from the page, and the friend who’d convinced me to join told me not even to bother trying to publicize my candidacy on Twitter.

On the day I finally won, nearly two months in, some glitch or another with the Write Race resulted in Mirror going silent, without announcing a winner for the day. I ended up finding out from Marvin Lin, my old editor at Tiny Mix Tapes, the long-running independent music publication that had given me one of my first bylines over ten years ago. 

TMT, which went on hiatus last year, has plans to relaunch in the form of a Web 3 digital cooperative. When I’d spotted its logo on the Write Race leaderboard a few weeks prior, I’d thrown the publication some votes as a gesture of thanks; TMT had thrown me some votes too. For a moment, I was reminded of an observation Dena Yago had shared with me about how Web 3 felt like a return to a time when the Internet felt smaller, more human-scale. 

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I had hoped to use Mirror to try funding the sort of long-form cultural criticism and reporting that it can be hard to get traditional publications to invest in. But I was so emotionally exhausted by the Write Race that the victory barely blipped. A few weeks later, in late September, I hadn't even set up a blog when Mirror began rolling out a series of big announcements that made all the time I spent freaking out about the whole thing feel even sillier. 

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Illustration by Dalbert Vilarino


After months of shepherding thousands of Web 3 hopefuls through the competition, Mirror revealed it was opening up its entire battery of tools, including blogging, for everyone to use—not just winners of the Write Race. In a move that recalled non-crypto predecessors like Substack and Patreon, it also announced that it would also be taking a 2.5 percent fee on all economic transactions. 

The news didn’t mean that the Write Race was going away: Winners would enjoy the ability to create a unique subdomain, along with a degree of decision-making power in the community that Mirror has yet to explain. But the development felt like a step in the right direction: Why go to all the trouble to build a new kind of publishing platform, as part of a broader movement to build a new and more democratic Internet, if most people aren’t going to be able to use it? While reporting this piece, I’d heard rumors that opening the site up to the public had been part of the plan all along. 

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Jarrod Dicker, a venture capitalist in the crypto space who previously worked as the vice president of innovation and commercial strategy at The Washington Post, is probably the closest thing the community has to a resident media critic. In addition to being an early investor in Mirror, he’s the co-founder of a collective called Dark Star that has been using the site to pen a number of heady essays about the intersection of the media business, the creator economy, and Web 3—often while leveraging Mirror’s own tools as an object lesson, alongside colorful references to pop culture and rock & roll. (Dicker, who got his start as a music journalist, says that Dark Star is a reference to the Grateful Dead, a band whose deep-rootedness in community he sees as having “correlations, culturally, [with] what’s happening in crypto.”) 

As someone with a background in the news business, Dicker said he doesn’t see Web 3  subsuming the traditional media industry any time soon. But he does think the space opens up avenues of revenue, like NFT sales and crypto-based crowdfunding, that even legacy publications could tap into. He also believes that sites like Mirror have the potential to lay the foundation for a new, more community-driven kind of media ecosystem, driven by enthusiastic and supportive niches of fans. 

One of the more writer-friendly aspects of Web 3 publishing, he explained, has to do with scale: Where the advertising-driven business model of digital media typically requires publications to prioritize coverage that will garner as many pageviews as possible, writers on Mirror can earn money simply because a small and engaged group of patrons is passionate enough about a project to put their money behind it. The ownership model also lends itself to involving fans in the creative process—such as allowing backers of a publication to suggest story ideas or weigh in on areas to cover. “I do think this bottoms-up idea of communities being very participatory in the ideation and content creation process is something that's beneficial,” he said. 

Of course, not every writer is a good fit for a model that obliges them to consult with, or even defer to, their patrons. When it comes to creativity, the most desirable kind of benefactor is sometimes just a benefactor. It also remains to be seen whether giving backers fractional ownership of an essay or publication, with the promise of future earnings if the project generates money down the line, will be a creator-friendly proposition in the long run: If fans invest in a project but don’t see a return, will they put money behind that writer again? Or is the satisfaction of supporting a creator they believe in all that really matters?

There are other potential barriers to entry. Even without having to go through the Write Race, familiarizing oneself with the technological aspects of crypto can be a time investment that many freelance writers simply don’t have. Concerns over crypto’s impact on the environment will understandably make Web 3 a non-starter for some folks. (Dena Yago, for her part, says she purchased carbon offsets for the Billie Eilish piece; Daisy Alioto says that Dirt has been discussing various solutions as well). And even for those who do decide to try their hand at Web 3 publishing, there is also the matter of capturing the hearts and minds of the sort of crypto-rich benefactors capable of dropping hundreds, or sometimes thousands, on an untested idea. As Alioto put it, “The demographics in emerging tech probably privilege the same people that the tech world privileges—probably more white, more male, have some seed funding to already play around with.”

As more and more people onboard to Web 3, Alioto said, the hope is that the world of crypto will come to reflect the diversity of the world we live in. But the observation is a reminder of the many paradoxes of Mirror: How does one even begin to make sense of a non-hierarchical community that chooses to screen would-be members with a popularity contest? How does one square the site’s simultaneous appeal to venture capitalists and labor-activist writers, not to mention the strange combination of doe-eyed egalitarianism and financial opportunism that seems to loom over the entire space? Whether one side will win out over the other—or if the whole project will flame out in a few year’s time—is anybody’s guess. Then again, Mirror could just be an early inkling—a mirror, if you will—of an online future that will defy our received notions about the way the world works. 

And while you technically don’t have to compete in order to use Mirror anymore, the Write Race is more popular than ever: As of this writing, the queue is roughly 21,500 users long. Maybe that’s a testament to the cleverness of the idea as a kind of twisted publicity stunt—like a new restaurant in town, there’s no better advertising than a line outside your door. Or maybe it’s something deeper than that: Maybe it’s a sign that people are looking for an excuse to drop out of the Internet as we know it, even if they don’t know what things will look like on the other side.