In November, I went to the most unpleasant event I’ve ever attended, located in a warehouse-like bar in downtown Manhattan and devoted entirely to the subject of NFTs. It was hosted by Gary Vaynerchuk, better known as Gary Vee, the motivational speaker-slash-entrepreneur-slash-influencer whom my boyfriend was profiling for another publication. The crowd primarily consisted of hordes of men, who were not wholly unpleasant themselves but who spoke a language so impenetrable to outsiders that being around them made me feel as though I’d missed something major.
They seemed to work in tech or finance, mostly, and had come to connect with others over the thing they loved most in the world, the wild force driving the feeding frenzy of people storming the bouncer to get inside: money, and making it as quickly as possible. The event’s attendees were at the extreme end, of course, but their language has started trickling into the mainstream as well. If Instagram made everyone a photographer and Twitter made everyone a writer, perhaps whatever the internet has done to the traditional banking system is in the process of turning us all into finance bros.
There has never been a more opportune time to have “money” as a hobby. Options trading, once the provenance of professional financiers, has soared with the rise of stock trading platforms like Robinhood, which makes it extraordinarily easy to buy and sell individual stocks. Stories of artists making hundreds of thousands on NFTs of their work and of cryptocurrency enthusiasts making bank buying and selling them have abounded over the past year. A wave of legalization of online sports betting has swept the country, and with it, lucrative promotions for first-time gamblers that offer what is essentially free money. Not only did the pandemic create a mass of people who were bored and restless, it also created some people with enough financial privilege to try something a little risky with their $1,400 stimulus check.
The gamification of money, and the blurring boundaries between what constitutes investing and what constitutes entertainment, have raised plenty of concerns, and many argue that the government is too far behind the times to adequately address it. “Gambling went from being something that was super taboo to being easier than ordering food on Uber Eats,” says Josh Clayton, a 29-year-old copywriter in Brooklyn. “You watch a sports game and every commercial is an ad for sports betting.”
Josh started sports betting thanks to the massive deal that Caesar’s, one of the largest online sportsbooks, was offering new users: a free $300 to bet just for signing up, plus a match of up to $3,000. He put in $50 of his own money but cashed out with around $800. “A lot of sports fans love to talk about their teams and pretend that they’d be a better head coach than the guy who is eminently qualified and gets paid $40 million a year,” he says. “Sports betting gives you a little taste of making those decisions, and when you win, it feels like a validation of you being smart.”
It’s similar to what people who invest in stocks or crypto feel when something “moons,” or rises in value extremely quickly. “It just totally took over my life in the span of, like, a week,” said Jeff Andrews, a 40-year-old data reporter and a former coworker of mine. Less than a month ago, two of his friends who work in private equity told him about the tens of thousands of dollars they made in NFT trading, and then gave him advice on what to buy next. Since then, he’s made around $25,000, thanks to several moons he scored through tips that trickled in from multiple group chats and Discord servers.
Because of the ways in which this type of information disseminates — in subreddits, in breathless Twitter threads, on niche Discord servers — the world of betting and investing is dominated heavily by people who are already well-represented in tech, finance, and internet culture, which is to say that it is overwhelmingly young and male. Proponents of crypto love to talk about the benefits of decentralizing the financial system, how it can allow for historically underrepresented groups to build wealth, and how NFTs can be used to fund projects supporting charitable causes. Celebrities, from A-listers like Matt Damon, Reese Witherspoon, and Gwyneth Paltrow to Z-list Bachelor influencers, evangelize cryptocurrency as an almost philanthropic cause; what goes unspoken is that they stand to profit from more people investing after them.
Yet in practice, buying and selling crypto often amounts to a whisper network of people already in the know advising each other in private group chats what to buy and when. To an outsider, it can look like a perfectly legal form of insider trading, entirely shielded from any sort of oversight. The concentration of bitcoin wealth is 100 times that of the US economy: The top 0.01 percent control 27 percent of the 19 million bitcoin currently in circulation.
For people who’ve long been interested in investing, the phenomenon has been somewhat bizarre to witness. “I give advice to friends who want to get into investing and tell them to put some into exchange-traded funds or index funds,” says Omar Khan, a 29-year-old who works in fintech and has been investing in the stock market since he was a freshman in high school. “Then all of a sudden these people are like, ‘No, that’s too complicated,’ and they want to get into SPACs. I’m like, hold up — you went from being too cautious to invest in an S&P 500 ETF to SPACs, which are an absolute scam?” (SPACs are a way to list private companies on the stock market, thereby allowing everyday traders to invest in them; many have criticized them as a bubble similar to the dot-com boom.)
Omar says his friends often cite supposedly heartwarming articles about people who put in a few hundred bucks in meme stocks, NFTs, or crypto and became millionaires. It’s irresponsible journalism, he argues, because it so often ignores the many people who lose even more than they put in. “In my group chats with finance friends, we’re like, ‘So many people are gonna lose so much money.’ We’re watching a train crash.” It’s worth wondering, he says, whether the low barrier of entry into this world is such a net positive. “There’s no phone call [to a broker] that you would have had to make 20 years ago. There’s no warning sign of like, ‘hey, are you sure you want to put $50,000 in this penny stock?’”
A year ago, Kevin, who asked me to use a pseudonym to protect his privacy, put $50 into a FanDuel account, which he then gambled into $750 before losing it all in an online roulette game. “It’s a sickening feeling losing that money, but I always come back thinking it will be different,” he told me over Twitter DM. The 26-year-old auto parts specialist in Erie, Pennsylvania, says he realized he had a gambling problem after repeatedly losing after a long winning streak, and then trying to win it all back. “Thankfully, I realized I had a problem before I lost something I couldn’t [get back], like my car or apartment,” he says. “I just want people to know how dangerous it is before you go in unprepared.”
Pretty much every new investor or gambler I spoke to for this story said that for the majority of their lives they’d been relatively risk-averse. Many hadn’t grown up with much money to begin with, which instilled in them a desire to save and invest responsibly in stable portfolios like 401ks, Roth IRAs, or index funds. But because of how easy it is now to gamble in sports, the stock market, or crypto, their approach had changed. While most have been careful not to bet more than they can afford to lose, the wave of sports betting legalizations across the states has watchdog organizations concerned: About 2 percent of Americans struggle with gambling addiction, some of whom end up losing jobs, families, their homes, even their lives.
Other new sports bettors have found real community and joy from the hobby. Multiple people (particularly men) I interviewed said that they now texted regularly with old friends from high school or college about their bets, and that it made talking to new people in social situations easier. “When someone says they have some money on the Australian Open, you’re like, ‘Oh, you gamble on sports too!’ And then you can have a little conversation about it,” says Dan Greene, a 33-year-old journalist.
For Madi, a 23-year-old in Minnesota (she preferred to not use her last name because sports betting still isn’t technically legal in her state), sports betting is more than just a conversation starter. As a queer woman, she says she’s almost never taken seriously as a longtime college and pro football fan, and for her, sports betting is proof that she actually knows what she’s talking about. “In a lot of social spaces, people tend to assume I don’t know much about sports,” she says. “There’s so much baggage that comes with being a female sports fan and a lesbian sports fan. So it feels really validating when I get things right.”
Richard Johnson, a 28-year-old who covers college football at Sports Illustrated, said that his interest in crypto was the product of a lifetime of learning to save. “As a Black person, this wealth was never accessible to us until, like, 50 years ago,” he says. “Our generation is not going to have Social Security or pensions. We’re not even going to fucking retire. The only way to get to the American Dream is to invest.”
A vocal backlash to the nascent concept of Web3, or a vision of the internet that runs on the blockchain and crypto, has cemented itself within the culture. Skeptics argue that the whole thing is killing the environment and is also a Ponzi scheme, which, jury’s still out! What’s significant, though, is how often the backlash comes from inside the house.
Despite turning a five-figure profit in just the span of a few weeks, Jeff still wonders whether it’s even worth it to continue investing in NFTs. He now keeps constant tabs on the rising and falling value of ethereum, newly released projects, and Discord announcements. “I’m not sleeping well because I’m so wired all the time,” he says.
More than that, though, he’s become disillusioned by the lofty promises of the true believers. “The more they explain it, the more I get queasy about it,” he says. “I thought that as I went on I’d learn about it and be like, ‘Okay, this makes sense. I understand why there’s value in this,’ and every day I am renewed with the sense that this is the stupidest fucking thing on the planet.”
Jeff, like most skeptics for whom the system has actually worked pretty well, is eager to cash out once the price of ethereum goes back up. But talking to him, and to the rest of the (almost entirely) men who’ve turned money into a hobby, made me more than anything feel like I was too late to something that hadn’t even really happened yet. Because of course it isn’t “too late” to become an overnight crypto millionaire or to cash out on an incredibly lucky bet; it’s just highly unlikely that that person will be you. Nobody wants to be a cynical spoilsport, stewing in resentment of these men who have won and will probably keep winning, who look a lot like the ones who have always won: the men who have the time, the knowledge, the energy, and, most importantly, the money to turn “having money” into its own hobby.
You can’t hate the players, of course. I asked Jeff if he’d made any money in the 20 or so minutes that we’d been talking. “Not really,” he said. “Around $200.”
Clarification, February 14, 1 pm: Updated to clarify that bitcoin wealth is 100 times more concentrated than wealth in the US economy.
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