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Bitcoin more than you could chew

Nothing is certain in this world other than death, taxes, and the sweet allure of true crime — or a scam story, for that matter, which is a shinier subgenre of true crime. The summer of scam, as it were, never truly ended; it just graduated into every other Tuesday. Frankly, I find this to be a pleasing development. I’ve been on the record taking a moral high ground on true crime stories, generally finding the genre to be more distasteful than not. Give me a scam story, however, and I’ll give you all the time in the world. (On a separate note, I am a hypocrite.)

Exit Scam tells one of those scam stories, as you can probably discern by scanning the podcast’s title. Independently produced by the Longform co-host Aaron Lammer and former New York Magazine culture editor Lane Brown, the series wrapped up its eight-episode run yesterday, concluding its journey through a byzantine story about cryptocurrencies, apparent fatalities, and what may very well be a Ponzi scheme.

To lay out the gist of the premise: In 2019, QuadrigaCX, a cryptocurrency exchange thought to be Canada’s largest, came to a crashing halt after its 30-year-old founder, a Zuckerbergian type named Gerald Cotten, died unexpectedly from health complications during a trip to India. As it turned out, Cotten happened to be the only person in the world with the passwords to the exchange, meaning that, upon his death, over a hundred thousand people suddenly themselves unable to access their assets. They essentially saw their money, collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars, evaporate overnight.

On the surface, the QuadrigaCX situation seems to be a particularly modern financial horror, equal parts a byproduct of the anarchy around crypto’s newness as a technology and what is simply a bad, unforeseen situation. Or is it? I mean, clearly there’s some mystery around the truth, and the series is called Exit Scam after all, so here’s the turn: Dig a little deeper, and you’d find some evidence supporting a belief that the entire debacle — Cotten’s death, the loss of the passwords, the sudden cessation of the exchange — could very well be a staged scheme, and perhaps more preposterously, that Cotten might have faked his death to abscond with all the money that had been stored on the exchange.

I’ll leave the premise there, because to push a little further would give away certain discoveries in Lammer and Lane’s investigation. Instead, let’s talk about Exit Scam’s crypto-world milieu, which makes for a huge part of its interestingness. For those unfamiliar, crypto is a catch-all term referring to a cluster of technological innovations meant to… you know what? Let’s glide over this part. If you haven’t already spent a bunch of time reading explainers in an effort to figure out how to make money off this thing — as I have, unfortunately, compulsively — there’s no real way for me to efficiently and effectively describe the phenomenon without sounding crypto-pilled myself, and that is not my intention. (On a separate note, I am a degenerate.)

That challenge, though, is something that’s very much present in the perspective of Exit Scam. Over the course of its narrative, Lammer and Lane sought to negotiate the internal tension of trying to tell a story about the crypto world without being too of the crypto world.

“It’s probably the hardest thing about making the show, honestly,” Lammer told me when we spoke about the series recently. “I’ve never really had a topic where there’s such an imbalance between what one tiny pool of people know[s] about it and what the larger world’s comprehension level of the subject is.”

Of course, Lammer has long developed some experience on the topic. For one thing, he dabbles in the crypto world himself, even going as far as considering participation in a project that involved purchasing a defunct hydroelectric dam in upstate New York for crypto-mining purposes, as he told Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast last month. (Also, he went on Odd Lots to talk, at mind-boggling length, about the blockchain technology Ethereum and decentralized finance.) Additionally, he used to co-host a weekly conversational podcast called CoinTalk™️, with Jay Caspian Kang, which chronicled their ill-fated exploits at making money off cryptocurrencies and their related technologies. (That show is largely defunct these days, though it does occasionally drop new episodes depending on the news cycle, the price of various cryptocurrencies, and the latest scandals.)

All of which is to say, the crypto world is a subject that Lammer has thought a lot about, both as a participant in what’s being touted as the Great Financial Revolution and as an audio producer figuring out how to talk about it. For Exit Scam specifically, the team felt it was important to lift the story above insularity. The strategy, he tells me, was to largely eschew the crypto focus altogether. “The scam itself had little to do with cryptocurrency,” he said. “In many ways, it was a classic pre-20th-century Ponzi scheme.”

The decision to pursue the Quadriga collapse as a story came organically, a natural extension of his own interest in the scandal. “It was just the king of all crypto stories,” he said. “There was just so much mystery to it.” Already well obsessed with the situation, he decided within a few months of the collapse to build a podcast series around it. At that point, in early 2019, it wasn’t yet clear what was going to happen, or how the scandal was going to eventually resolve (if at all). There were federal investigations into the matter already ongoing at the time, but the timeline for those efforts was unclear. “Honestly, it wasn’t a great candidate for a project that we could be like, ‘Yeah, let’s sell this and put it out there,’” said Lammer. So they decided to work on the story independently without a definite goal or clear endgame, playing things by ear and seeing what happened.

They wouldn’t be the only ones taking that path, as they turned out to be part of a cohort of nonfiction projects dedicated to unpacking the Quadriga story. At this writing, the CBC has also just wrapped up its own competing investigative podcast series on the subject, A Death In Cryptoland, hosted by its technology columnist Takara Small. There is also at least one visual documentary in the market as well, including Sheona McDonald’s Dead Man’s Switch: A Crypto Mystery, which premiered at the Hot Docs festival earlier this year.

When asked how he felt about the competitive landscape around the story, Lammer waved away the premise of the question. “It wasn’t a major thing on my radar,” he said. “We knew there was some competing stuff coming out… in my opinion, having overlaps isn’t a huge deal. I think most people come to these things through their own path.” He pointed out how there had been a Vanity Fair feature by Nathaniel Rich on the Quadriga scandal, from the fall of 2019, that well predated his and all other efforts.

“The only thing I was really worried about was whether one of these other projects had stuff we didn’t have, or would come to an entirely different conclusion,” he added. “There’s just a lot of anxiety when so many people are telling the same story, although it’s also kind of exciting.”

Of course, such competition does bring potential complications, especially if were talking about a longer-term realization of value within the context of a broader entertainment industrial complex that’s heavy on intellectual property farming these days. Consider the GameStop moment, and the frankly bizarre nature of the way a wildly bloated bundle of film and television projects sprung up around that story, each typically packaged around the most threadbare of intellectual property hooks. On the flipside, perhaps the fast and furious quality of the GameStop IP slinging is actually another data point in favor of Exit Scam: They could well end up functioning as the basis for one of many Quadriga projects to be adapted for more lucrative mediums over the long run.

In any case, Lammer and Lane had more fundamental concerns during their production process, like trying to figure out how to best navigate telling a story about a world that can be impenetrable to normal people, perhaps intentionally so. Now, I would never consider myself particularly well versed in this ecosystem, but speaking as someone who’s spent quite a bit of time indulging his interests in the subject and in the kinds of strange characters it tends to draw, the crypto world often strikes me as having a pungent performative quality to its collective persona. I find it hard to shake the feeling that much of what civilians like myself see of the crypto world from the outside is actually a gambit by people on the inside who only have a marginally better understanding of that world than everybody in order to lure more people into the mix that they can extract value from. A kind of comprehension arbitrage, one that trickles down to the way the crypto world is covered and talked about in the mainstream: The outsider journalist or documentarian might think they’re telling the right story, but maybe they’re only telling the story that the shitposters want you to tell, ultimately contributing to the expansion of the scheme themselves.

Lammer feels he’s well equipped to navigate these tricky waters, largely because he sees himself as operating as a semi-insider semi-outsider that’s familiar with the stakes involved on both sides. “If you’ve ever listened to CoinTalk, you’re already aware that I own some, but generally speaking, when I get involved in crypto media, it’s not me giving buying advice. If anything, CoinTalk was a cautionary tale: Don’t do what I do,” referring to the fact that he’s been pretty transparent about losing gobs of money on bad trades. 

For some, Lammer’s positionality might be a contentious one. “There’s a schism within the community, in that some people believe if you participate in crypto — say, owning some assets — that you shouldn’t be covering it,” he explained. “But it’s hard to cover this world from the outside because, honestly, it would be hard to understand the underlying motivations from that perspective. People don’t exactly say what they mean with this stuff. A lot of it is weird posturing. It’s a culture that takes place entirely on Twitter and in real time.”

With Exit Scam, Lammer is acting upon something that he thinks is much needed in the crypto-related media space. “News in this space tends to have a short shelf life,” he said, noting that much of it tends to be dominated by weekly and daily news-cycle material, because that format meets the underlying incentive of those who are most in search of such information. “It’s like sports. You can’t be writing about round one of the playoffs right now if you’re interested in the NBA. People wanna think about last night’s game.”

“There’s an opportunity right now to tell the story of crypto for people who are interested in it” — which, at this point, is a lot of people — “but at whatever beginner or intermediate level of knowledge they’re at,” he added. “Good entry points for people who are like, ‘Hey, I didn’t know anything about Bitcoin before, but I’m interested now, and I’m curious about what’s really going on over there.’”