If Johnny Knoxville and Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel were to pool their respective talents to launch a tech startup, the outcome would look a lot like Eristica. The Russian platform allows users to set each other challenges in exchange for cryptocurrency, and since launching in 2015 has attracted some 1.2 million users and quickly filled up with videos of people snorting raw eggs and eating mould for the entertainment of faceless strangers.
Conceptualised by 25-year-old Muscovite, Nikita Akimov, Eristica is available on Google Play and Apple’s App Store, and allows users to pick from a pre-set list of around 200 challenges before daring another user to attempt one. Whoever sets the challenge offers up some cryptocurrency as a prize, which is automatically released to the "daredevil" when video proof of the completed dare is uploaded. Users get degrading content, Eristica takes a 3 percent fee, everyone's happy.
At least, that’s how it's supposed to work. At the time of writing, the transaction feature hasn’t been implemented yet, but the Erastica team is currently in the process of an Initial Coin Offering – an "ICO", cryptocurrency crowdfunding – and hope to process transactions in-house once they secure some more investment. "Right now, the platform works without money, so people post challenges and do them just for fun," Nikita tells me over Skype. "They have an option to connect with each other and negotiate on the prize privately somewhere together, on messaging platforms. We don’t really care – that’s none of our business."
In case you’re wondering who would debase themselves free of charge, most of Eristica's daredevils (who account for roughly 3 percent of its total user base) are prominent Steve-O imitators who already post dumb shit to YouTube and have a proven track record of converting self-degradation into internet engagement. Nikita tells me that the Eristica team specifically targeted these adrenaline-driven influencers (of which there are plenty in Russia) to drum up interest in the platform without having to pour bundles of cash into marketing. They’ve also helped draft many of the dares currently available on the app, which is part of the reason why they tend to be so humiliating.
Although Eristica also offers up entirely benign challenges involving skateboards and musical instruments, these, predictably, don’t get nearly as much attention as videos of people drinking their own piss through a tea bag. When I ask Nikita why he thinks this is the case, he points out that "we would never have [had] this interview if I just showed you guitar tricks and skateboard stunts. You would see that and think, 'Oh, is this a video compilation or what?' Right?" Right.
Just as Jackass kicked up a moral panic when it first appeared on MTV, this aspect of Eristica's model has been a magnet for criticism. Chris Messina, a prominent Silicon Valley designer whose resume includes stints at Google and Uber, has compared the app to the technology that "the Unabomber warned us about". When I put these criticisms to Nikita, he seems entirely unfazed: "We provide people the platform, we provide the instrument for them to show off their talents. If someone decides that he's going to make bad stuff, we're going to fight that, but that's a question for society rather than the platform," he replies nonchalantly.
This stance is very much the default position across Silicon Valley. From Mark Zuckerberg’s initial denials that Facebook-driven fake news helped elect Donald Trump, to Google’s deflections that its anti-semitic search suggestions are simply "a reflection of the content across the web", Big Tech regards its platforms as inherently neutral, with any problematic consequences arising out of them being the fault of users abusing their capabilities, rather than any issues with the platform itself.
While this argument is full of holes, I can't help but wonder what sort of human being would actually pay to watch someone humiliate themselves for their personal amusement – especially when countless hours of such material already exists across the web. It's this personalised element that makes Eristica so twisted: when we watch Ryan Dunn shove a toy car up his ass, we are passive observers. But if you pay another Eristica user to go cook up a maggot omelette, you're an active participant in their discomfort.
According to Nikita, the majority of the platform’s users are aged between 13 and 22, and roughly three-quarters of them hail from Russia, while the rest are scattered mainly across India and south-east Asia. The geographical component doesn’t really offer much insight: the reason why Eristica is so popular in this region is because its creators actively targeted these specific markets and not because of any cultural peculiarities. But it’s quite telling that its user base consists primarily of teenagers and those clinging onto a prolonged adolescence. This is roughly the sort of age that people do really moronic shit to impress their peers. Playground dares are a childhood right of passage, a duel of one-upmanship and bravado where we jostle for a position on the social hierarchy by proving who has the most bottle. Or, at least, they used to be, for those old enough to remember a world before smartphones and non-stop internet connectivity.
It’s well known that social media has a way of mimicking IRL human interaction while quietly alienating us from our peers. As more of our lives are transferred online, certain rituals become consigned to the pre-digital past. But while these rituals may disappear, the impulse that drives them remains. This might be what makes Eristica so appealing to its users: it gives a generation who've grown up planking alone an intimacy that they’ve been denied by the internet era.
And therein lies the brilliance of Silicon Valley: for all their spiel about changing the world, what tech and app developers really do is drive a wedge between people with their products and then monetise our estrangement by charging us for the things we used to do face-to-face for free.
So, I guess, props to Eristica for spotting a gap in the market.