Of Course It’s OK to Out the BAYC Founders

In "doxing" two of the NFT project's creators, BuzzFeed News was simply doing its job.

By Will GottsegenLayer 2
AccessTimeIconFeb 7, 2022 at 6:19 p.m. UTCUpdated Feb 7, 2022 at 6:35 p.m. UTC
By Will GottsegenLayer 2
AccessTimeIconFeb 7, 2022 at 6:19 p.m. UTCUpdated Feb 7, 2022 at 6:35 p.m. UTC

Will Gottsegen was CoinDesk's media and culture reporter.

This past Friday, BuzzFeed News’ Katie Notopoulos published a story revealing the identities of “Gordon Goner” and “Gargamel” – the two pseudonymous founders of Yuga Labs, the company behind the Bored Ape Yacht Club NFT project.

“Gordon Goner” is Wylie Aronow, a 35-year-old from Florida, and “Gargamel” is Greg Solano, a 32-year-old writer. Buzzfeed made the discovery by going through public business records; Yuga Labs is incorporated in Delaware, with an address tied to Solano.

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We’d already known a little about the founders: In interviews with Rolling Stone, CoinDesk and The New York Times, they’d shared details about their backgrounds (both men had backgrounds in writing, for example) and their path to creating the Bored Apes.

But for some of the biggest crypto influencers and investors, Buzzfeed’s revelation was a bridge too far.

The influencer “Cobie,” formerly known as “Crypto Cobain,” called Notopoulos a “whore for clicks.”

“They’re literally cartoon apes,” wrote the investor Mike Solana, apparently trying to downplay the importance of the subject matter. “There was absolutely no reason to dox these guys. The heroic language being used by journalists to describe this story as if it were some kind of massive scoop in the public’s interest is disgusting.”

Outside of crypto, the word “dox” (usually defined as “publicizing someone’s private information”) specifically connotes harassment; within the space, its meaning is slightly more complicated. Founders will sometimes make a point of doxxing themselves as a show of faith, attempting to convince investors they won’t just run off with their money (this is significantly easier when no one knows who you are).

There’s a strong culture of anonymity, in crypto, which stems from its “cypherpunk” history.

It’s weird, to the uninitiated. Traditional finance reporters pivoting to crypto in the past year have consistently balked at the idea of allowing subjects (not just sources) to remain pseudonymous in stories when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. And it’s part of why, in the public imagination, bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have remained so closely associated with misuse and criminality. Why stay anonymous if you have nothing to hide?

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons to stay anonymous even if you have nothing to hide. The premise of crypto is that maybe, if you feel like it, you should be able to send money without handing over your personal details to a bank.

But the Bored Ape Yacht Club founders aren’t just anyone. The Bored Apes have dominated the discourse around NFTs for months, both in and out of the crypto space. At this point, they’re de facto brand ambassadors for crypto collectibles.

The Financial Times recently reported that Andreessen Horowitz, a powerful venture capital firm with billions already invested in crypto, is in talks to buy a major stake in Yuga Labs – financing that would value the company at around $5 billion.

To me, the identity of these two founders is unambiguously a story in and of itself. The BuzzFeed article didn’t do a whole lot with the identities of these two men; Notoupolos admitted they hadn’t done anything wrong, really. But ultimately, Aronow and Solano are at the helm of a business that’s potentially worth billions of dollars. Apes have flooded the market and saturated the culture. Why shouldn’t a journalist go looking for more details?

It’s also worth noting that Notopoulos didn’t come by this information nefariously or unjustly; she found it online, in publicly available business records.

Some reporters have taken the view that doxxing is unnecessary, period, unless the person in question has done something wrong.

There’s often a real risk in outing subjects, particularly ones who stand to face personal danger if their identity is revealed (think: subjects living in Russia, who might be thrown in jail). No reasonable reporter wants to ruin anyone’s life for the sake of a story. And “burning” vulnerable sources has long been considered a cardinal sin.

In a piece for CoinDesk in 2020, Marc Hochstein (my boss and the site’s head of editorial ethics) wrote that “if you’re going to reveal someone’s personal information without their consent, you better have a damn good reason to do it.”

Larry Cermak, a crypto researcher who said he disagrees with BuzzFeed News’ decision to out the BAYC founders, suggested on Twitter that it would be similarly wrong to dox Satoshi Nakamoto, the famously pseudonymous inventor of Bitcoin.

Again, I have to disagree. Satoshi Nakamoto is inarguably one of the most important people in the history of 21st century finance, and journalists have been trying to out him for years. His stash of bitcoin (now worth tens of billions of dollars) gives him significant control over the markets; he could tank it all in minutes, if he sold. The influence of that stake can’t be overstated. The revelation of Nakamoto’s true identity would be an industry-shaking bombshell about one of the richest and most powerful people in this ecosystem.

Nakamoto’s identity still hasn’t been revealed, mostly because he was incredibly careful about covering his tracks. His personal bitcoin remains untouched. And because he hasn’t cashed out, there’s no real paper trail.

The BAYC founders, on the other hand, incorporated their company in Delaware using a personal address. They weren’t cypherpunks when they created Yuga Labs, they were writers and lay crypto enthusiasts, which is to say they hid themselves more sloppily.

They’re within their rights to remain pseudonymous, but reporters are within their rights to out them, too.

Reporting on the rich and powerful shouldn’t be controversial, from an ethics perspective. It’s just journalism.

DISCLOSURE

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The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups. As part of their compensation, certain CoinDesk employees, including editorial employees, may receive exposure to DCG equity in the form of stock appreciation rights, which vest over a multi-year period. CoinDesk journalists are not allowed to purchase stock outright in DCG.

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Will Gottsegen was CoinDesk's media and culture reporter.

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