Crypto pushes identity and gender boundaries with Simp DAOs
In crypto, traditional markers of identity matter very little: many of the sector’s most successful participants operate entirely behind pseudonyms.
In crypto, traditional markers of identity matter very little: many of the sector's most successful participants operate entirely behind pseudonyms. Some are pushing the idea of flexible identities even further, using a combination of blockchain-based conventions and gender boundaries to build their brands and raise money.
DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations, are the crypto world's version of company-like entities. These blockchain-based communities allow members to contribute their time, skills and money in return for rewards like crypto tokens, and can be a means to organize around a single goal — like purchasing a copy of the U.S. Constitution.
So-called simp DAOs are oriented around the relationship between female influencers and their fan bases. Typical Simp DAO members, or “simps”, are men seeking to express their admiration for, and attract the attention of, the influencer to whom the group is dedicated.
Some of these entities are created with the explicit blessing or oversight of the influencer in question. Instagram influencer Irene Zhao, an early player in the movement, co-founded a platform which aims to help people monetize their fan base through DAOs. Her own effort, IreneDao, has recorded more than $8 million in trades of its affiliated nonfungible tokens on OpenSea since launching in mid-January.
“Fans can come up with very structured advice, like how I should do the DAO, how I should position myself in the space, or whether I should still take adverts on Instagram,” Zhao told Bloomberg in an interview.
“Without IreneDAO, I wouldn't even have this chance to interact with them,” Zhao said, adding that moderated interactions through community platforms like Discord means she experiences less harassment in personal messages compared with other social media.
Other entities operate without the apparent participation of the people they're named after, including one dedicated to an OnlyFans performer named Belle Delphine. Now, men are getting in on these DAOs in a different way: not as the simp, but as the simp-ee. And, as there often is in crypto, there's an additional twist.
“It started out as a bit of a joke,” said Eric Wall, chief investment officer at Arcane Assets and who has previously acted as an adviser to Zhao's DAO, among others. For years, some of his 82,000 Twitter followers had a ritual: posting photos of Wall, a cisgendered man, altered to look like a woman. With the rise of simp DAOs, Wall saw an opportunity.
“I got a group of followers that liked the girl version of me, and it gave them an outlet to be my fans in a more playful, romantic way.” He established EricaDAO in January, partly as a way to raise the profile of blockchain and crypto.
“These creators have huge audiences, tens of millions of fans that are very much prepared to spend vast amounts of money and dedicate it to the causes of the simp queen,” said Wall. “Getting the creator economy into the blockchain space is the thing that is going to push mainstream adoption.” Wall said he does not intend to make a personal profit from EricaDAO, and plans to use any earnings to sustain the DAO itself or to support charitable causes.
Bait and Switch
Wall's case is just one instance of a recent uptick in cryptosphere experimentation that makes light of gender identity via the digital alteration of male figures into attractive female avatars.
Other notable men in crypto who've had community-created feminized personas include Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin, El Salvador's Bitcoin-obsessed President Nayib Bukele, and Justin Sun, the founder of the TRON blockchain ecosystem and ambassador for Geneva to the World Trade Organization.
“If you want to embody the ideals of crypto where you're allowed to be anonymous, then it's not strange if you want to be fully anonymous in your social interactions. And if you are given the opportunity to be anonymous, then that also opens the door for you to experiment with gender,” said Wall. “Being constrained to your natural-born identity is not what crypto is about.”
Gender fluidity for branding and profit isn't exclusive to crypto. On video and streaming platforms like YouTube and Twitch, male gamers Natt and F1NN5TER perform as women, making money from confusing unaware strangers online while their fans are in on the ruse.
“It's like Hannah Montana,” said F1NN5TER, who dresses as his female alter ego Rose for months at a time, in an interview on YouTube last year. “You've got a very normal side, just a gamer boy making Minecraft videos, and then this weird thing on Twitch that I'm doing for this community.” Neither Natt nor F1NN5TER responded to requests to be interviewed.
This form of gender performance can be linked to so-called “pink-washing”, said Florence Smith Nicholls, a doctoral researcher in games, ethics and artificial intelligence. Brands exploit aspects of female and queer culture for their benefit, without providing any real-world support of such groups.
Nicholls said these performances on Twitch and in DAOs appear less likely to be a genuine exploration of gender identity, and instead treat gender as more like “an added feature” of virtual reality.
And while the stakes are high for anyone in the offline world seeking to express their gender in ways that might challenge the status quo, male crypto celebrities who choose to don a female costume from time to time aren't necessarily affected by the same constraints.
“Because of how they're specifically set up, it feels less like an individual's personal journey in exploring their gender and more like a vehicle for finding another way to market crypto,” Nicholls Smith, who is non-binary, said of DAOs like Wall's.
Wall said his experiment with Erica hasn't resulted in much of a negative reaction from his community to date.
Most of the backlash he received has focused on the concept of simp DAOs, he said, rather than his actions. Complaints originated from those who view such organizations as further means for beautiful women to exploit their male fan base, which Wall said they likened to a type of digital enslavement.
“The only reason that I get away with it is because I'm transparent with the fact that I am a guy in reality, and I'm doing this as a playful thing to demonstrate something,” he added.
A Gender-fluid Metaverse
Since operating as Erica, Wall said his female persona has become an outlet for expression. EricaDAO provides a way for him to live outside of the sarcastic, crypto expert social branding that he had built for his male self, and to experiment with what he calls his virtual gender identity. Erica can be a vehicle to be playful, happy, or even an excuse to not have all the answers, he said.
“You don't necessarily need to be confined to your biological gender in the metaverse. You can be whatever you want, and it doesn't have to be the same thing every day,” said Wall, adding that he has always preferred to pick female roles when playing computer games.
“You can wake up one day and say ‘today I feel like I want to embody male ideals and characteristics', and on other days be more comfortable radiating female characteristics. That's one of the great things about the metaverse: It doesn't have to be gendered, it can actually be pretty genderfluid.”
This progression into a genderfluid metaverse might also have been aided by a base level of anonymity afforded to everyone during the pandemic, where experimentation away from prying eyes became a lot easier to achieve while staying indoors.
“When people suddenly had the opportunity to work from home with cameras off, a lot of people who were closeted in their gender non-normativity felt the freedom to actually start dressing the way they wish and no one was any the wiser,” said Dr. Helana Darwin, a tech researcher and author of Redoing Gender: How Non-Binary Gender Contributes Toward Social Change.
“It takes a lot of emotion, energy and research. It takes finding community groups online that can speak to what identity really looks like for people.”
Darwin suggested that perhaps the pandemic has further blurred the lines between what's virtual and what's reality, making it harder to distinguish where online experiences end and real ones begin. This is likely to continue as the metaverse expands, with entire communities, identities and relationships existing solely online — but feeling just as real as anything in the physical world.
“If you are given the opportunity to be anonymous, then that also opens the door for you to experiment with gender,” Wall told Bloomberg. “Being constrained to your natural-born identity is not what crypto is about.”