London gets a Bitcoin exchange and the post-Silk Road black market wobbles on

One of the drug marketplaces set up to replace Silk Road closed, with its owner stealing users' money.

Two contrasting stories about the state of Bitcoin today. The first concerns the ongoing black market for drugs, which is undergoing a lot of churn post-Silk Road. New exchanges are popping up, vendors are dispersing onto them, and customers - or, at least, those brave enough to think that law enforcement agencies aren’t also on top of all this - are trying to figure out who to trust.

It’s all about trust on these sites. I’ve written before about how Silk Road’s success was in part down to its active culture of customer reviews, alerting people to bad quality merchandise and pointing people towards trustworthy vendors. That kind of culture takes a long time to build up, as those searching for a Silk Road replacement are discovering.

This morning, one of those sites - Black Flag - went down, with its owner apparently absconding with its users’ money. Calling themselves “Metta Dread Pirate Roberts” (Dread Pirate Roberts was the name Silk Road’s owner used, allegedly the now-in-custody Ross Ullbricht), they posted the following message on the site’s forum:

Well mates, I am saddened to say goodbye. When I created P: BF [Project: Black Flag], my intent was pure and I wanted to help the community. Several days ago I begin implementing code changes to freeze funds and dump them to myself. I was unable to cope with the stress and constant demand, so I panicked. I am sorry for my actions, but with the funds I gathered from the site, I will be able to keep myself from being homeless for the next several months. I will always remember those that made this possible.

The servers will shortly be turned off. Please make migrate to the new Silk Road forums.

Keyboard DPK and Ganja are not me. They did not know this happened, and were kept in the dark just like everyone else. Please do not hold my actions against them.

I have let a lot of people down, including myself. I put hundreds of hours into this site and forum, and never wanted to see it end up this way.
As of now, I will no longer be using the name MettaDPR, nor will I be signing into the forums or site. The forum servers will be going down in week or so; the market will be going down within the next few days.

Abandon ship.

-MettaDPR

We have no idea how many bitcoins MettaDPR has taken with them - the site wasn’t up for long, and is nowhere near one of the bigger Silk Road alternatives - but it shows the difficulties facing the drug black market community. Someone could set up a site for a while, wait for people to trust their money to it, and then skip town.

You can’t regulate against that because, y’know, the drugs thing. The impossibility of retreiving stolen bitcoins is built into the system, so the only thing you can do is try and stop thefts in the first place. And that leads us to the second bit of interesting Bitcoin news today, which is that London is (finally) getting what looks to be a serious, well-backed exchange - Coinfloor.

Considering its position as a world financial centre it is surprising that it took so long for something like Coinfloor to emerge, but then UK government’s lack of urgency in working out if it wants to regulate Bitcoin trading has kind of forced its hand. As Coindesk reports:

Coinfloor, which is backed for an undisclosed sum by VC firm Passion Capital, is the first firm to trade bitcoins for GBP on an order book for at least a year. There are scant other exchanges in the UK trading bitcoins for GBP. Bittylicious offers the chance to buy bitcoins for sterling, for example, although this appears to be a more rudimentary site, and doesn’t have the charting facilities offered by Coinfloor. London-based Intersango ran an order book and allowed GBP trades, although that site inherited hacked and now-defunct virtual currency exchange Bitcoinica. It was sued by customers, and is no longer taking registrations.

Getting backing like that means it feels it doesn’t have to wait for the Financial Services Authority to sort out what its policy towards Bitcoin will be. Talks have happened, but nothing concrete has emerged.

However, Coinfloor represents the other side of the Bitcoin world to the Black Flag closure - its increasing legitimacy, both as a payment method and as a commodity. Despite a still-volatile price - over the last couple of weeks there was an unexpected surge and ebb that is believed to have been caused by a Chinese exchange - the wobbles in the underground Bitcoin market are increasingly separated from the above-ground one, lending it legitimacy it needs to survive.

The post by Black Flag's owner announcing the closure. (Screenshot: @josephfcox)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Maggie Goldenberger
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Living the Meme: What happened to the Ermahgerd girl?

Four years after going viral, Maggie Goldenberger reveals what it was like for her childhood photo to become a meme.

Maggie Goldenberger is not the Ermahgerd girl, not really. Although she is the star of the four-year-old meme of an awkward tween girl holding up her favourite Goosebumps books, she was actually in costume at the time.

“I was in like sixth grade [year seven] maybe, and I’d always dress up and take photos with my friends,” she says. “I don’t feel that offended by it [becoming a meme] or feel that embarrassed by it, because I was just messing around.”

Now 29, Maggie is video-calling me from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, where she works as a cardiac nurse. Although she was 11 or 12 in the now internationally famous picture, it only went viral when she was 25 and on a six-month-long travelling trip. The image spread across the internet and was quickly captioned phonetically to imitate a speech impediment, and thus a rhotacised pronunciation of “Oh my God” was born. “Ermahgerd,” an internet user emblazoned the image, “Gersberms!”

If you’re not exactly sure what that means, you’re not alone. Maggie’s mother, although immediately proud of her daughter’s new-found fame, was a little bemused by the internet’s captions. Maggie tells me her mother, “had the picture up in her office and she thought it was hilarious. But she kept telling me like: ‘Maggie! They’re putting all this German writing all over your picture! What’s going on!’

“She didn’t quite understand it but she loved it.”

Like her mother, Maggie didn’t immediately comprehend her new online fame. She is happy to share her story, and laughs about it, but admits she still doesn’t really “get” the meme. “I’m even more confused about it now than I was then,” she says. “I kind of got like the novelty of it and it being fun but I don’t understand how it’s lasted so long.”

It is this confusion that means that Maggie, unlike most of the memes I have spoken to, has not made much money from her viral fame. “It’s hard for me to get behind something that I don’t understand,” she says when I ask if she ever considered releasing merchandise. “Also if I’m gonna make shirts I wanted them to be like fair trade, organic . . . and it just seemed like a lot going on, like the responsibility of it.”

Though Maggie could potentially have made thousands of dollars, not cultivating her online fame means that she is now able to live a relatively normal life. Most people don’t recognise her from the image, although word-of-mouth does mean that sometimes strangers approach her to take a picture. Maggie doesn’t mind this, but she is annoyed when people won’t reveal why they want a picture with her. “Then I’ll just find out a couple weeks into knowing them that they know about [the meme],” she says, “and I’m like, oh, just say it upfront.”

Yet while Maggie has never been embarrassed of Ermahgerd girl, she did get a taste of the darker side of internet fame when her friend’s brother uploaded a more recent photo of her, in a bikini, to Reddit, and revealed in his post that she was lesbian.

“I could finally feel for other people like in those tabloid magazines,” she says. “I thought I was a pretty confident person, not that weird with my body and things, but to have someone put your photo out there without your knowledge and to have people sharing it and making ugly comments . . . it's kind of an ugly world out there.”

Although Maggie did not enjoy being exposed in this way, she says the best thing about becoming a meme was when Vanity Fair wrote a profile on her in 2015. “I was going through a break-up at the time and when it came out I was getting attention for that and it just took away attention from the big break-up, so that was good timing.”

Despite enjoying the renewed attention on that occassion, however, Maggie is generally very grounded, and says she doesn’t normally announce who she is when she meets new people. “I usually try and not say anything,” she says, when I ask if it affects her dating life. “I keep it on the DL.”

 



Via Maggie Goldenberger

In many ways it is fortunate that 29-year-old Maggie is detached enough from her Ermahgerd persona to be able to do this. “I try to feel for others that have their meme go viral and it's their real picture,” she says. “It was kind of weird that people were just making fun of a child without trying to figure out who the child was . . . I just don’t understand why people feel like it’s okay just because it's online and it's a stranger.”

For the future, then, Maggie says she is “still working” on embracing her meme status. She has no plans to cultivate it online or to make any money, and instead intends to do some travel nursing across the United States or potentially abroad. I ask her, if she could have been famous for anything else, instead of this, what would she choose?

“Initially I think like comedy,” she muses. “But then I think I should do something for the greater good.”

 “Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.