Cryptocurrency attracts publicity – and lots of it. But for every celebrity enjoying their moment in the Sun and trying to put the world to Wrights, there’s a figure in the background whose face is not plastered on skyscrapers, and whose signature isn’t attached to copyright claims.
Brandon Chez is the founder of the world’s most popular cryptocurrency website, CoinMarketCap.com (CMC) – and yet he is almost completely unknown.
Yet when Chez unilaterally changed the way CMC calculated the price of Bitcoin in early 2018 due to anomalies in pricing on South Korean exchanges, there were unintended consequences.
The date of that decision has become somewhat legendary in crypto circles: January 7th, 2018 marked the pinnacle of the crypto boom, a date on which the total market capitalization exceeded $830 billion.
But whether it was Chez’s decision to remove artificially-inflated prices from South Korean exchanges like BitHumb, or any other catalyst, the world reacted to what appeared to be a sudden plunge in the price of BTC by panicking; sending the crypto market into a free-fall that would mark the beginning of an 18-month long bear market.
“I think that at that moment the market had already begun to decline, so the time was chosen rather unsuccessfully,” Chez told The Wall Street Journal in an email.
Some were tempted to pin the entire fiasco on Chez – even though market indicators had been illustrating an unsustainable bubble for weeks, and South Korean authorities were already reining in purchases of cryptocurrencies via banks.
Mati Greenspan told eToro clients at the time that “For myself and all of you reading, I propose that we boycott this website effective immediately.” (He has subsequently described that as “a long time ago”, and explained to Crypto Briefing that his real concern was that a decentralized economy was using such a centralized resource. Greenspan also reaffirmed that he believes everyone has a right to privacy.)
But every disaster movie needs a fall guy, and Chez neatly fit the profile… or lack thereof.
Since then, Chez has become – if anything – even less visible. After photographers showed up at his New York apartment attempting to capture his face on camera, he is reported to have moved. His co-workers describe a man who “values his privacy” and who has no desire to become a celebrity.
“Brandon is a smart, humble and down-to-earth guy and he deserves to have a life,” explained CoinMarketCap Chief Strategy Officer Carylyne Chan. “He wouldn’t even be able to go to the grocery store if the Wall Street Journal successfully doxxed him. You wouldn’t believe some of the stunts some people have pulled to try and get their projects on CMC – it’s not hard to imagine they would harass him personally when there’s so much at stake.”
And that could an understatement. CoinMarketCap is currently one of the top 350 websites in the world by traffic, according to Alexa. For comparison, Coinbase comes in at #970, while Binance is at #767. (Crypto Briefing is closing fast, at #75,415… ahem.)
It’s well-known in the industry that some exchanges charged exorbitant fees to list projects at the height of the crypto bubble. Many have now changed those practices – but the publicity associated with a listing on a premier exchange is nothing compared to the opportunity to appear on the first page of the CoinMarketCap rankings.
As CoinDesk recently reported in a remarkably candid exposé, a cottage industry has grown up around attempts to game the system by artificially-inflating volume – although even the individual profiled in their piece, Alexey Andryunin, acknowledged that “I think FATF will shut it down quickly: the cryptocurrency exchanges will be regulated like NASDAQ and pumping fake volumes will be banned”.
A recent opinion penned by a Forbes ‘contributor’ questioned whether CoinMarketCap was doing enough to bring about change in the way metrics were presented.*
Chan pointed to a recent post on CoinMarketCap’s Data Accountability and Transparency Alliance (DATA) guidelines for exchange reporting as part of continuing efforts to bring accuracy to the space.
“We are working on a set of robust measures to really tackle this problem holistically. Any solution that purports to solve this volume issue right now is non-exhaustive and unable to address the true issue behind it. They either attempt to exclude large swathes of relevant exchanges or assets, or hack together an easily-gamed solution,” she explained. “What we are looking to produce is a verifiable, statistically-provable way of solving these issues, and that is going to take some time, with the help of our DATA Alliance partners.”
Brandon Chez Unmasked, Kinda Sorta
Throughout the history of cryptocurrency, some people have preferred anonymity over celebrity. The identity of Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto, despite all claims to the contrary, has never been established.
The inventor of the Proof of Stake mechanism, Sunny King, has been equally unwilling to hog the limelight – allowing peers such as Vitalik Buterin to shoulder the twin burdens of public worship and disdain. King was behind one of the original six coins featured on CMC, and is the creator of PrimeCoin and PeerCoin. His latest venture, V Systems, was announced last year.
Now Chez and King are set to appear on stage together at a CoinMarketCap event in Singapore, to be held in November.
But here’s the kicker: they’ll be wearing masks.
“Brandon will be hosting Sunny in a fireside chat of sorts, making this a panel of mysterious, never-before-seen founders,” claims a CoinMarketCap press release.
Spencer Yang, Head of Business Development and Partnerships at CoinMarketCap, explained the reasoning. “We all know that anonymity is important for some people in crypto. For the same reasons that gold bugs don’t advertise that they keep bullion buried in their back yard, crypto enthusiasts don’t generally show off their digital assets to the world.”
One person who did was Ian Balina, a paid promoter of Initial Coin Offerings who would often display his personal wealth via social channels. While appearing on a live-streamed video his wallet was allegedly hacked and drained – although this was met with some skepticism by the community.
A similar (better-documented) situation occurred when well-known investor Michael Terpin was SIM-swapped, losing around $24M in cryptocurrency. Terpin got it back – and is suing AT&T in Federal Court – but not all investors are so lucky.
But these experiences, and the reports from around the world of crypto investors being robbed, have contributed to a general feeling in the community that it’s better to fly below the radar.
Theories around the postponement of TRON founder Justin Sun’s lunch with Warren Buffett ranged from “He’s been detained by Chinese authorities” to “He’s subject to an exit ban” and “He’s in San Francisco suffering from kidney stones”.
A truly bizarre set of issuances from Sun’s Weibo account – since deleted – appear to confirm that his publicity-seeking antics finally attracted the wrong kind of attention, from the wrong people.
Attention Deficit In Order
While some have questioned how CoinMarketCap can commit to transparency while its founder is committed to anonymity, there is no dichotomy in traditional markets.
Mark Zuckerberg is the founder of a platform that promises to bring people together: yet Facebook spends $22M a year on keeping him away from the proletariat.
“He is synonymous with Facebook and, as a result, negative sentiment regarding our company is directly associated with, and often transferred to, Mr. Zuckerberg,” explained Facebook in a company filing that could have been issued by almost any major business with a highly-visible founder.
As CMC continues to make global news, even as the data reporting industry becomes more fragmented, Chan pointedly remarked that “Brandon prefers not to travel with a security detail.”
Anonymity and cryptocurrency are inseparable: while it turns out that Bitcoin can be traced – and easily – there are protocols that truly allow anonymous transactions.
Carylyne Chan promises that despite (or perhaps because of) the masks, the event in Singapore will be “entertaining, educational, and exciting”. Her take on Chez’s decision to almost emerge from his cocoon of silence is simple:
“This is a chance for Brandon to interact with an audience of crypto enthusiasts, who know and use the tool he built six years ago; without an intermediary, but in a way that’s safe and protects his privacy. In fact, he thinks that people should focus on Sunny King’s appearance more than his, because according to him, Sunny built a fundamentally important consensus mechanism and he ‘just built a website’!”
“On a side note, I think it’s gonna be awesome,” she added. “You might be surprised. He’s just a relaxed guy who loves crypto and is excited to talk to someone he respects, and to the community around CoinMarketCap.”
Disclosure: Crypto Briefing is a member of the Data Accountability and Transparency Alliance, which is mentioned in this article.