Crypto Shame and Lazy (or Worse) Journalism
a.k.a. Resident Advisor gifted Friends with Benefits a little bit of reputation rehab.
YouTube started out as a dating website, Twitter was launched as a podcast network and Amazon famously began as an online bookseller. There’s a long history of pivots in the tech world, and Friends with Benefits (a.k.a. FWB), a decentralized online social club that the New York Times once described as a “V.I.P. lounge for crypto’s creative class,” appears to be in the midst of a major rebrand—one that in which the word “crypto” is barely mentioned at all.
Last week, the organization unveiled the lineup for the forthcoming second edition of FWB FEST, its boutique festival in Idyllwild, California that was inaugurated last year. Billed in the official press release as “an ideas festival that brings together diverse communities of creatives, artists, programmers, and builders to discuss and showcase the future of internet culture,” the multi-day event is also poised to feature performances from Caroline Polachek, Yves Tumor, Nosaj Thing B2B Jacques Greene, Helado Negro, Mary Lattimore, CFCF and a number of other acts. And while that same press release does make sure to note that the festival’s first go-round was described as “Crypto Woodstock” by the Washington Post, it’s telling that “crypto” appears literally nowhere else in the text. (The trend continues on the festival’s FAQ page, where the words “crypto” and “Web3” both appear only once each.)
From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense why FWB would move to change up its messaging. Crypto’s reputation is in the toilet, and while much of that stems from the numerous financial scams that have decimated the space during the past year, there’s also a cultural component at work. In the wake of the outsized hype that sprung up around NFTs and “crypto art,” thrusting folks like Beeple and projects like Bored Ape Yacht Club into the spotlight, a general aversion to all things crypto has taken root amongst artists and musicians, including many of those who were initially curious about the technology’s potential. For Friends with Benefits, this represents a serious problem. The organization’s appeal has always been predicated on notions of cool and exclusivity—it’s not a coincidence that FWB was repeatedly hailed in its first year as a “digital Soho House”—and in 2023, crypto evangelism has become anything but fashionable.
Perhaps that’s why in the months prior to the festival announcement, Friends with Benefits had largely stayed out of the spotlight. This represented quite the change from 2021 and 2022, when FWB had actively cultivated press attention (and become something of a media darling in process), and after realizing that the organization had all but disappeared from the news cycle, I recently decided to take a fresh look at their operation. What I found didn’t paint a particularly encouraging picture.
Although crypto endeavors everywhere have run into trouble during the past year, FWB has specifically grappled with both growing member unrest and staggering financial losses, including more than $440K alone on the 2022 edition of FWB FEST. (That’s a loss of nearly $900 for every one of the 500 people in attendance, despite the fact that they each paid approximately $900 in Ethereum to attend.) FWB claims to have more than $18 million in its treasury—at least some of which certainly stems from a $10 million investment round (at a $100 million valuation) that venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz led back in 2021—yet apparently that’s only enough money to keep the operation going for another 12.7 months. Beyond that, the price of FWB’s own crypto tokens, which peaked at $186 back in August 2021, has plummeted; when I wrote about the organization last month, they were trading at $7.77, but during the past four weeks, their price has slipped as low as $3.02. (As of this writing, it sits at $4.22.) Holding 75 of these tokens is a requirement of FWB membership, which means that folks who previously paid upwards of $5K and $10K to join the organization have since taken a major bath on their investment.
In light of these struggles, pivoting likely seems like FWB’s only option. The organization may have once been the poster child for Web3 and the seemingly utopian potential of decentralization and blockchain technology, but now that the mere mention of crypto is more likely to inspire revulsion than elation, FWB leadership has shifted its messaging to talk of creating “a new kind of social network.”
Is it working? It’s too soon to tell, but the initial press response to last week’s festival announcement has so far been tepid. Brief news pieces (both of which were essentially regurgitated versions of the original press release) appeared in FLOOD and mxdwn.com, but there was one outlet that published a more substantial story: Resident Advisor. Written by Andrew Ryce—one of the most senior members of the publication’s editorial staff, and someone who’d written an in-depth feature about FWB back in 2021—it features an interview with several members of the organization’s leadership, and could have provided an insightful look at the inner workings of a high-profile crypto community during a period of transition.
Unfortunately though, the article was one of the most feckless pieces of music journalism in recent memory. It doesn’t appear to be sponsored content—although Resident Advisor doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to acknowledging conflicts of interest—but it nonetheless provided Friends with Benefits with an open forum to spin its own narratives, many of which were misleading or flat-out untrue.