One of the ways I keep track of what’s happening in cryptoland is by sifting through the rushing wave of chatter, memes and narratives that is Crypto Twitter. I follow thousands of accounts and I leave it to a combination of luck and chaos to dictate what I see at any given time.
On one such occasion a tweet drifted my way: It highlighted the work of a digital animator who had become in demand with the cadre of cool developers and financial engineers that make up the booming world of decentralized finance, or defi.
The animator in question is a pseudonymous artist who goes by pplpleasr on Twitter and Instagram. Her persona seems tailor-made for defi: like many of the projects she works for, she is pseudonymous and seems to exist mainly on the internet. (The main image in this story is courtesy her Twitter account.)
pplpleasr describes herself as a “high quality meme generator,” and memes are the essential medium by which narratives transmit themselves on Crypto Twitter. She joins a wave of creatives who are redefining the aesthetics of cryptocurrencies, and in the process, helping push user counts and prices through the roof.
What defi is
But before we dive into pplpleasr’s work, it’s useful to explain a little bit about the industry she finds herself in: defi. The promise of decentralized finance is that friction-causing intermediaries like brokers, market-makers, custodians and clearing-houses are magicked away by blockchains.
For example, with defi, you can swap your tokens not with other traders, but against pools of capital that are held in smart contracts that in turn live on a blockchain. The execution of the trades are all done automatically, running according to the rules inscribed in the blockchain.
It turns out that people really like defi. A year ago, there was about $950 million worth of crypto tokens locked up in various defi systems, mostly posted as collateral. That figure stood at $45 billion last month, representing a 45-fold increase in a year, according to data site Defi Pulse.
Some of the biggest defi protocols have names like Aave, Uniswap and Pickle. Their branding is usually bright, colourful and comes with a mascot: A cutesy ghost for Aave, a hot-pink unicorn for Uniswap and, somewhat predictably, a pickled gherkin for Pickle.
A host of metaphors have also sprung up around defi projects. Chief among them is the figure of the “yield farmer.” This is a trader who takes advantage of the incentives offered by projects to attract liquidity by performing an elaborate series of collateral deposits, swaps, and arbitrages to accumulate sky-high yields on their original stakes. It’s been called Weird DeFi.
Which brings us back to pplpleasr’s work. Last summer pplpleasr (her preferred moniker) was approached by Bluekirby, a pseudonym with a mutated avatar of Kirby from the Nintendo games. Bluekirby had developed a reputation in the defi world as a master marketer. He had promoted the YFI token tirelessly, causing its price to rise from under $1,000 in July to a peak of $43,000 by September. Bluekirby had seen pplpleasr’s work and wanted to use it for more YFI promotions.
But the project Bluekirby signed her onto was never released. Bluekirby himself then seemingly absconded with $1 million worth of Ether — and after dumping about half a million worth of YFI.
pplpleasr says she noticed that the marketing materials in defi tended to be low-rent and slapdash. She thought her years of experience working on big-budget animations in Hollywood — she worked on Wonder Woman, Star Trek Beyond and visuals for the game publisher Blizzard — could elevate the memes that were being passed around.
“They were these lo-fi materials, people putting a sloppy Photoshop of somebody’s head on an existing image or something. I felt like, what if somebody did this and it’s actually a custom thing?” she says.
She told me her favorite piece was an animation created for Pickle Finance (tagline: “the future of finance is green”), which helps defi traders automate a bewildering series of steps to get the highest yield. It also has its own PICKLE token.
Pplpleasr’s animation announcing the return of Pickle Jars, which are pools of capital with automated trading strategies, is a 15-second clip showing a holographic pickled gherkin rising out of a jar, glitching, set against a minimal techno soundtrack. A woman speaks in Japanese on voiceover, while the pickle’s nutritional information is rendered in Japanese hiragana. Finally, a pair of sunglasses slides onto the pickle, triggering a banner exclaiming “sugoi!!”
“This was the first [video] that graced the Twitter space and people were like, woah what is this video and who made this video?! They just hadn’t seen anything of this style on Crypto Twitter,” pplpleasr tells me. “It caught people off guard.”
More importantly, the video had a “high meme factor,” pplpleasr says. The pickle video was watched by about 15,000 people, while newer pieces are getting audiences of tens of thousands more. “There’s always a factor of virality, which is what every meme aspires to be,” she says.
pplpleasr joins a growing cohort of creative types who work in the cryptocurrency world. Ben Pieratt, for example, has become a sought after designer for his work “pre-branding” protocols before they are even launched. A firm called Other Internet writes research papers, several of which have gone viral, exploring ideas for crypto clients.
Meme marketers in defi might be propagating what the economist Robert Schiller calls narrative economics. According to Schiller, things happen in the economy not because of some reasoned calculation, but because people act on the stories they’ve been told.
A story is told, it gains ground, and soon wider and wider swaths of the economy believe it. “New contagious narratives cause economic events, and economic events cause changed narratives,” he writes in Narrative Economics.
An example of narrative economics at work might be bitcoin itself. The researcher and anthropologist Brett Scott calls bitcoin a digital collectible with “monetary branding.” This causes confusion, intentional or not, that leads some people to think of bitcoin as money. “Once you strip away the branding from the actual things being transferred using that system, they are revealed to be — in themselves — featureless,” he writes.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped bitcoin’s price rocketing “to the moon” as one popular crypto meme would have it. Bitcoin believers would respond to Scott with another meme: “Have fun staying poor,” the retort of choice when bitcoin’s price is soaring.
Memes are powerful, and meme marketing is becoming a multiplier of what the media scholar Henry Jenkins has called “spreadable content.” It’s stuff that’s adapted at a grassroots level to fit into ever more targeted and narrow cultural niches. It turns out the defi subculture may just be the perfect incubator of this form of memetic marketing.
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