The story of $ALEX the coin and Alex the person gives us insight into the mindset of a representative of a fairly typical type of participant in the crypto-Web 3.0 community. Let’s call this type ‘The Preacher’ — he has heard the call earlier than most, he has heeded it, made it into an integral part of his life, and now he’s preaching to his pasture as he builds his house of worship. But to appreciate it, we need to look at the story from the perspective of a different era, a bygone naive age — 2019.
Part 1. The Metacartel and Peter Pan
Like most crypto stories, this one starts out sounding like a cyberpunk fairytale. It’s 2019, we still don’t know what a ‘variant’ is, Brexit is the worst/best news of the year, nuclear war is a distant possibility rather than a practical concern, and Alex Masmej is deep into crypto.
The ideals of crypto are inspirational to the young Frenchman — incredible pace of change, amazing success stories, new models of reality. A group of enthusiasts known as the Metacartel catches Alex’s eye and he quickly leverages his skills in building communities into a stake in the endeavor. The organization was focused on building DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) and making these radically democratic tools more user-friendly and easier to implement within any community. In fact, he dropped out of 42, a prestigious tuition-free programming school funded by a French billionaire, to join Metacartel full-time.
It was a group of young entrepreneurs and we were looking for the next technological breakthrough with a low barrier of entry because getting into augmented or virtual reality takes billions of dollars,
said Alex about his start in the field on The Defiant podcast in August 2020.
Metacartel Metacartel is where Alex meets Peter Pan (or, rather, pet3rpan), who would play the role of his namesake and send Alex into Neverland with the help of some digital fairy dust.
In 2019 Alex tweeted that he wanted to visit a crypto meetup in Berlin, but lacked the funds. And immediately he received the $1500 from Peter Pan. This ended up being Alex’s entrance into the Ethereum community. But, more importantly, Peter and Alex agreed to tokenize the debt, which in turn drew the attention of Roll, a startup that was pushing tokenizing people and communities. This is where the story heard across the Internet started.
Part 2. Desperate times call for desperate measures
Before we go further, an explanation — what the hell does tokenizing oneself even mean?
The basic idea behind it is the same as stocks: people buy stocks on the assumption that their cost will rise as the company experiences success. People who own a bigger percentage have a bigger say in the decisions of the company.
When people offer their personal tokens for sale, they want people to bet on their future individual success and ultimately profit from it, financially or socially. Since there’s no real system of personal tokenization, there’s no ruleset. Anyone can promise anything to their investors and there’s absolutely no regulation system, the promises can be as grand as the imagination of the tokenized person allows, and if they disappear into the ether (no pun intended), there’s no way to hold them accountable, except socially.
And on the other hand, if a person offers terms that are unfavorable to them and too favorable to investors – perhaps from desperation, perhaps from lack of foresight, perhaps due to any of an infinity of reasons — there’s no clear way back except conversation or silence.
Alex created $ALEX in 2019, but it came into its own after COVID hit — the fuel on the embers of technological progress, speeding up almost every trend imaginable, good and bad.
Speaking on The Blockchain Economy podcast about this period, Alex remembers:
At that point, I lost a lot of money in DeFi, I had $2000 to my name. I was in Paris, COVID hit, it’s March 2020, I lost my side income, and the only resource that I had to maybe bounce back — I was speaking on the main stage at ETHCC conference (one of the largest cryptoconferences in Europe that’s been running since 2017. – To The Moon) about my experience with $ALEX, which at that point was very insignificant. I realized this would likely be the last conference, so I have to make a splash because I have no money. Some thought it was a fun little experiment, but I literally needed $20,000 to continue my journey.
Since he was first, his approach has been influential for those that follow in his footsteps. This is how it played out: after speaking at ETHCC about his idea, in April 2020 Alex raised $20092 by selling 1,000,000 tokens to 29 people. The tools he used were his personal Twitter account to announce the sale, a Medium post to explain his offer, and a Google form to gather potential investors. He partnered with Roll to streamline the process of minting $ALEX.
He needed funds to help him move to Silicon Valley and survive for several months, to springboard him into a role as a founder in the crypto space. He was careful not to promise any returns but outlined what he wanted to give back to his investors — up to 15% of his earnings over the next years, and an ability to influence his decisions. As quoted from The Atlantic: “10,000 $ALEX bought a retweet from Masmej on Twitter; 20,000 $ALEX, a one-on-one conversation with him; 30,000 $ALEX, an introduction to someone in his network.”
While the initial goal was reached very quickly, by June 2020 Alex offered a few more coins for sale in a project to outsource his decisions to the holders of his coin. The scope was very limited, just a multiple choice question about which habit he should pick up for a month — running 5km, not eating red meat, only using Bitcoin for a month, or getting up at 6am.
The mechanics and logic behind this move were outlined in his Medium post announcing the initiative:
This voting mechanism is truly novel because only people who own $ALEX can vote. The rule is 1 $ALEX = 1 vote, meaning the more $ALEX you hold, the more invested you are into my success, and thus the bigger your vote will be in my eyes. Technically, people invested in $ALEX should make good decisions for me, since they have money on the line and if they’re rational enough, would want to see their investment appreciate. I choose the question, so I guide them.
If Alex’s foresight wasn’t obvious from the fact that he became the first person to tokenize himself on the blockchain, the fact he was talking about NFTs and even has several startups in the field, all launched well before the Beeple Sotheby's sale, is telling.
The reaction to $ALEX was immense, with basically all major crypto media and many traditional outlets covering the story. There was even a rap song called ‘Social money’ where Alex read a verse. Something about selling pieces of yourself and your agency really strikes a nerve with people in these times. Perhaps it feels more honest and direct than the roundabout way people do the same thing in traditional careers.
Part 3. The aftermath
Since then tokenizing oneself has become fairly commonplace. It’s being used in ways similar to Alex’s, to fund a person’s growth in return for a potential return. Artists also use it alongside NFTs to get an early start in Web 3.0 and the metaverse. The top players in the space each have hundreds of thousands of dollars invested, there are several different platforms with various use cases, like BitClout (more open and available to an average user, but has a mixed reputation because they made profiles for verified Twitter users without their consent), Rally (“a platform for creators and their communities to build their own independent digital economies”, a very early player in the space), Calaxy (a celebrity-focused service meant to streamline and monetize engagement between celebrities and fans).
And then there’s Showtime, launched by Alex. It’s a platform that aims to add a social element to NFTs and helps artists create personal tokens. In May 2021 they received $7.6 million in investment, very healthy for a seed round. Alex leveraged the clout he gained with $ALEX and the hype surrounding NFTs into a business. This is the mission he states at the top of the Showtime manifesto.
Online creators can’t make much money from producing social media content — let alone consumers. After onboarding billions of people, companies like Facebook, YouTube and Spotify slowly partake in rent-seeking behaviors. They maximize ad revenues and time spent on their apps at our expense. We can’t monetize well, because they do it. They profit from us.
This is the gospel of this cryptopreacher.
Showtime was launched in late 2020, and it strives to solve the issue of NFTs being too niche, a plaything for the rich, and adding a social element. A kind of NFT Instagram, but collectively operated and owned. And with incentive structures for people to support their favorite artists both financially and socially. Here’s how Alex himself puts it in Showtime’s manifesto:
DeFi is mind-blowing tech for insiders, but social platforms will be the ones bringing consumers to crypto — and eventually become their gateway drug to DeFi. By speculating on the future popularity of online content, people could be incentivized to share it. This unlocks new social capital for everyone, on top of the existing NFT perks. Social curation would mean better discovery for everyone and result in more social and financial capital for all parties. We take digital assets not as a finished product, but as a primitive to build on: more than art or collectibles, it has the potential to become the foundation for any type of content online.
His flock is his investors, his 30k followers, as well as everyone who read about him or listened to podcasts where he spoke. There is a lot of clout for people to gain in crypto circles for being the first to do something. And if their move grabs the attention of mainstream media, as it did in this case, their clout spills over beyond the cryptosphere. They become an entry point, a story that piques someone’s interest and inspires them to get involved.
It’s really hard to use Alex’s story as a template, because the first person to make waves in a new field has a different experience from everyone else, precisely because they’re first. And it seems the lesson Alex wants people to take away from his story is not about doing the same thing he did, but instead looking for one’s own opportunities to disrupt.
The experiment has evolved, mostly behind closed doors, in a Telegram chat which only $ALEX holders are allowed to enter, with about 80 current members, up from 29 that invested initially. So it’s impossible to find out whether the promises were fulfilled, or if the goalposts have shifted within the community. What we know is what Alex chooses to publish himself. A collection of announcements can be found on his website, alongside tweets with plans to create a for-profit Netflix password sharing scheme, ruminations on the typical age of crypto influencers, and wishes for more superstar CEOs like Elon Musk.
While Alex still continues his experiments, and is still very much a part of the crypto space, the topic of tokenizing people seems to bore him at this point, and he isn’t using his venues to push others towards tokenizing themselves.
Part 4. Move with purpose and fix things
So, his gospel is disruption, his followers and investors are his flocks, his church is Showtime.
But the way Alex talks has a striking similarity to other disruptors — Steve Jobs, Travis Kalanick, Mark Zukerberg (remember the original Facebook slogan — “Move fast and break things”?). And we’re living in the world they disrupted, for better and worse.
In his interview about why he joined Metacartel back before $ALEX, titled somewhat confusingly ‘The Metacartel Dropout’, referencing the iconic Kanye West album, Alex stated:
What excites me about MetaCartel is the focus on customer products and high-paced experiments. Everyone has a bleeding passion to be on the cutting edge of building killer products which I immediately resonated with.
While this is an approach that leads to a lot of new inventions and is very profitable for whoever strikes it big, there are obvious downsides and clear lessons that need to be learned before we jump into the next cycle (as an aside, ‘bleeding’ passion and ‘killer’ products don’t sound as appealing when WWIII looms over the world).
The economical, mental health, social consequences need to be considered. But neither vanilla capitalism nor crypto incentivizes this kind of thinking. Neither does boundless ambition, youth, and a lack of formal education — most disruptors sit somewhere on the Venn diagram with these parameters, and Alex Masmej is right at the intersection of all three.
This is not to take away from Alex’s foresight and accomplishments. Instead, it’s a plea from a person living in a world cracking under the strain of systems built with incentives that favor the few over the many, allowed to grow and fester over centuries and decades — please, use the power you gain to move with purpose and fix things.
We tried to get in touch with Alex for this story, but he responded that he was too busy to talk. His name on Telegram includes the phrase “Do NOT send me money”.