The problem with Rare Pepes, a casual observer will note, is that these days they're far from rare. The internet is awash with the pictures of the goggly-eyed frog and has been for years: as far back as 2015, after a user dumped over a thousand Pepes into a single vertiginous Imgur album, the community opined that the meme was mainstream, over, dead.
Of course, Pepe has now had a bizarre resurgence as a white supremacist symbol, which was even displayed on the lapel of Richard Spencer as he received the now notorious and heavily meme-ified punch. So is there any way to separate good Pepes from bad, common from rare, dank from deplorable?
That's where the Rare Pepe Directory comes in. It's a list of Rare Pepe images—most in the form of trading cards—that are represented as digital assets on the bitcoin blockchain, making use of the same cryptographic properties that mean you can't spend the same coin twice. And tied to the directory is the Rare Pepe Wallet, an online storehouse that collectors can use to keep, trade and sell the Pepe cards.
To be included in the directory, Rare Pepes are created using Counterparty, a platform which lets users issue digital tokens with a fixed circulation—like a mini currency—and release them in such a way that they can be exchanged between users over the bitcoin network.
The newfound uniqueness of the certified rares has led to a subculture of Rare Pepe traders which has coalesced around a Telegram group. I joined it to chat to some of the traders, who were pretty quick to oblige by sending me my first Pepes and talking about the project with me.
One user, Sipher, told me in a chat:
I collected hockey cards and comics as a kid. I have the biggest collection of anyone I know, which are all basically worthless now because of overprinting and counterfeiting. These cards are providing a real proof of concept for establishing a trackable asset attached to a "collectible item". You can't counterfeit assets on the chain, either you own it or you don't.
Strangely enough, there really is something satisfying and about seeing the ranks of your wallet slowly fill up with the cards. In an afternoon hanging out on the channel I accumulated 15 different cards, the rarest of which was PWA—Pepes With Attitude—with a circulation of 187 (geddit?). But this is nothing compared to the rarest Pepe of all, ONLYONEPEPE, of which understandably there is only one, or close second WINKELPEPE (named after the Winklevii) with a circulation of two.
Regarding the frog's alt right links, the traders were also quick to distance themselves from his new incarnation, pointing out that people were banned from the group for abusive behaviour and that no offensive Pepes would be certified. ("Best just to ignore those extremists and Be rare, Be Pepe", one user told me sagely.)
Though the cards may be trivial in nature, genuine scarcity plus a desire to collect translates into real world value. Built into the wallet is a mechanism for placing buy/sell orders, fulfilled through XCP or Pepecash (the "currency of the Pepesphere"), both cryptocurrencies which can be traded on exchanges for bitcoins or dollars.
The upshot of this is that these Rare Pepes really do change hands for money: for the most part a negligible amount, but sometimes ten, twenty, or—in the highest recorded trade—the equivalent of close to $500 at time of press.
It's a surprisingly functional ecosystem, with the lulzy in-jokes underpinned by sophisticated back end technology. And despite its frivolous nature, Trevor Altpeter, Director of the Counterparty Foundation, says that rare Pepe trading is a welcome test of the capabilities of the protocol.
"The Rare Pepe phenomenon is demonstrating the features of Counterparty, most importantly the ability to enforce digital scarcity for the first time," Altpeter said via chat. "Its value as a test case is evident in the rising number of Counterparty transactions related to it, and the people building around these cards all over the world."
Feels good, man.