“MEN’S ROOM. WOMEN’S BATHROOM NEXT TO DJ. WOW. SUCH DIRECTIONS.”
The handwritten sign was crude, sticky-taped haphazardly on the men’s room door. You see it as you enter the room amidst thumping electric reggaeton and a video projection of rocket piloting space dogs. The showroom was packed: suits, hoodies, T-shirts, costumes, canines. It was the kind of place where vegans sell bottles of Kombucha, programmers crowd around an industrial CPU unit, and two men in bright orange NASA jumpsuits amble pass a line of people waiting to take pictures with a Shiba-Inu.
Welcome to the world’s first ever Dogecoin Meetup, held last Friday night at the Bitcoin Center somewhere deep in the heart of New York’s Financial District.
For the uninitiated, a Dogecoin is a type of cryptocurrency, which can be a little difficult to explain from the ground up. Put simply, a unit of cryptocurrency as a piece of arbitrary computer code that technophiles are hustling to enforce as an acceptable form of payment. The theoretical appeal of cryptocurrencies comes from their claims of anonymity, frictionless transactions, and apparent democratizing power. The Dogecoin is an alternative to the more popular Bitcoin, and in the realm of cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin is the focal point of all-important attention. Bitcoin is big, a lot of people are fretting over it, and everyone’s talking really loudly about it.
I’m still not exactly sure why we were gathered in the Bitcoin Center that evening. It was, in a lot of ways, a party. When I asked the organizer, a skinny bearded gentleman named Ben Doernberg, he quickly answered: “This is a celebration of Dogecoin, of Doge, and the happiness of life” before rushing off to address another matter. But what that means from an official standpoint, who knows.
It’s been an interesting few weeks for cryptocurrencies, especially for Bitcoins. Lately, the mood around Bitcoins seems to have shifted from semi-excited amusement towards formal, grave, and cagey deliberation—perhaps as a reaction towards the massive Bitcoin spike last November, where at one point it was priced over $1000 a unit, and its subsequent crash. Responding to concerns around Wall Street, JP Morgan chief executive Jamie Dimon recently played down the potential of digital currencies in public. Following that, late January saw a Bitcoin hearing called by Benjamin M. Lawsky, New York State’s top financial regulator, which featured an elite panel assembled to defend the Bitcoin. The panel included Fred Wilson, a highly regarded venture capitalist in the tech industry, as well as the Winkelvoss twins, of Facebook lawsuit notoriety.
Reading through the media coverage and relevant forums, it rapidly becomes evident that the Bitcoin community takes itself very seriously. Bitcoin enthusiasts are quick to raise the revolutionary potential of virtual currency, often borrowing the lingo of “disruption” so favored by the flashy tech startup community. These sentiments have functional purpose: the more serious the Bitcoin is taken to be, the more likely it will gain traction as legitimate currency in wider society.
However, if the forces of Bitcoin are working to make digital currency into a serious matter, the nascent community of Dogecoin enthusiasts is its equal and opposing force—that is to say, it brings the force of sheer absurdity into all the cryptocurrency talk.
The Dogecoin started largely as a joke. As the story goes, it all began when Jackson Palmer, an Australian marketer at Adobe, jokingly tweeted out: “Investing in Dogecoin, pretty sure it’s the next big thing.” He was making a reference to the Doge meme, a popular Internet joke that features a quirky, thoughtful, but grammatically challenged Shiba-Inu dog making sprightly observations about a given situation. Palmer’s tweet drew attention, and after receiving encouragement to pursue the idea further, he bought the domain Dogecoin.com. A few days later, an Oregonian programmer named Billy Markus reached out to Palmer, and about a week after that, the Dogecoin was born.
Large swathes of the Internet—most notably Reddit, where the Doge meme is wildly celebrated—quickly embraced the meme-based cryptocurrency, and as with everything the Internet lovingly cuddles into its bosom, the Dogecoin grew rapidly. It was first introduced into the world on December 8th—at this writing, the Dogecoin is the fifth-most valued cryptocurrency on the Internet.
It helps that the Dogecoin community has a fun and communal nature, offering a stark contrast to the Bitcoin community that has long been observed to suffer an image problem (including charges of sexism, misogyny, and criminality). The websites, forums, and subreddits that make up the Dogecoin ecosystem are marked by rainbow colors, garish Comic Sans font, and a culture of “tipping”—the act of giving Dogecoins in positive recognition of created Internet content. Markus, one of the Dogecoin creators, states that this relaxed spirit is partly intentional and partly organic. As he explains in an email conversation with me:
It’s one of the things I feel we helped shape, and something the community kind of developed. I think the doge meme helped shape too. Myself and Jackson have continuously stated that Dogecoin should be about having fun with cryptocurrency, learning about it, and about tipping and being generous, and not as much about staring at the price and trying to make short term profits. The doge meme itself helps with the levity—it’s hard to get too ‘srs bsns’ when you have a coin based on a silly doge meme.
Lately, the Dogecoin community has been making plays for greater attention. In January, Dogecoin populated headlines when the community raised $30,000 to help the Jamaican Bobsled team fund their trip to the Sochi Winter Olympics. Last week, the Dogecoin community successfully raised another $30,000 (or 30 million Dogecoins) for “4 Paws for Ability,” a charity organization focused on providing service animals to kids with needs around the world.
The New York Dogecoin meetup, then, can be seen as the community’s latest media hustle. But the more I think about it, the more I get the sense that it’s an indicator of something more. I walked out of the Bitcoin Center last Friday with a bifurcating image: on the one hand, there were clusters of men in suits talking briskly about securities and futures and the SEC. But on the other hand, there was also a whole lot else: on one end of the room, there was a cluster of enthusiastic hoodies perched over a Dogecoin mining rig. Near the front of the stage, I met a guy hustling to trade Dogecoins for different minerals, like opals, rubies, and quartz. There was a haggard-looking older gentleman, gravity-defying hair and an olive pea coat, floating about the room cracking anti-federal government jokes and cackling wildly into the crowd. All throughout, people just seemed happy to be there without having much idea about what’s going on. In other words—the Dogecoin meetup—and Dogecoin more generally—reminds us about where cryptocurrencies originally came from: the Internet, with its menagerie of serious, strange, and wacky people.
I still don’t know why we were there that evening. But I am beginning to comprehend the larger cultural importance of the Dogecoin. Let’s be real: cryptocurrency is fucking weird. To this day, we still don’t know who started the entire phenomenon—all we have is a name, Satoshi Nakamoto the alleged creator of the Bitcoin, who may or may not actually be real. Most of us are still trying to get our heads around the idea of encrypted code money, and what actually goes into the creation of cryptocurrencies.
The Bitcoin community is looking to move fast and break things. They speak with supreme confidence and in authoritative tones. It’s great and all for them, but it often leaves the rest of us cautious, curious and a little creeped out. That’s where the Dogecoin comes in. Embracing the absurdity of the entire system, the Dogecoin presents itself as the opposite end of the Bitcoin community. Functionally, the Dogecoin provides an alternative narrative about cryptocurrency to help us better internalize its significance—even if we’re not directly aware of it.
Or, you know, I might be reading too much into a party where a bunch of Doge-lovin’ folk got together to have a crap-ton of fun. Still, there are other instances that support my reading of these developments.
At the New York State Bitcoin hearing in January, venture capitalist Fred Wilson portrayed cryptocurrency in a divine fashion, stating: “It’s about freedom, ultimately, and whether you want to live in a society that embraces innovation and free speech and freedom or not.” The Winkelvoss twins, sounding almost like a parody of themselves, eagerly chipped in: “Back to what Fred said: Bitcoin is freedom. It’s very American.”
Or, as a Doge would say: Wow. So freedom. Much American.