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The bitcoin boom is a surprise windfall for druggies

Those who bought the cryptocurrency for illicit trades have ended up with a good investment.

“After buying about $500 worth of bitcoin, I spent about $300,” says Simone*, a student at a prestigious university in London. “I totally forgot about the other $200 sitting in my bitcoin wallet until it started popping up on the news. I checked how much I had, and my so-called investment had doubled, and now it’s tripled.”

The last few weeks have seen a surge in the value of the leading cryptocurrency bitcoin, taking the value of total in circulation to $280bn. A single “coin” now breaks the $17,000 mark. Despite institutional pushback from the likes of JP Morgan chief executive Jamie Dimon, who described it as "fraud", its debut on the futures market – which allows investors to speculate on a future rise or decrease in its value – is the latest sign of its popularity.

Cryptocurrencies are decentralised financial assets, which use “consensus” power of a large user network to verify transactions, creating or “mining” those currencies without a third party. Bitcoin is the most recognisable and systemised, though many other competing currencies have sprung up, with some such as ethereum and ripple becoming better known. But while many bought into bitcoin as an investment, because they believed in its ideological underpinning or just out of curiosity, its surge in value has also created something of a windfall for another group – those who used it to buy drugs.

Simone got into bitcoin when she needed a prescription medicine her insurance couldn’t cover in the US, so turned to the so-called dark net – the part of the internet which Google cannot search and where tracking is almost non-existent. “It was going to be so expensive, so I ended up getting six months worth of drugs for about $200 total,” she says, adding that she wants more people to start using it because it was so helpful for her. She also still uses her bitcoin to buy study drugs and psychedelics.

Most of the people I spoke to were like Simone, acquiring bitcoin for purchases on the dark web due to its combination of relative ease of access and anonymity. “It was a currency of necessity for me – the reason I had it is simply because it is the only way to do those transactions,” says James*, a student in London. He has no bitcoin now, and admitted that it was strange to see it “blowing up” over social media and in the news. “The most I ever had was 2BTC, which was worth £600 at the time – it’s absurd to think about how much that’s worth now.”

“I got into bitcoin because me and my friends wanted some dance supplements for a rave that was coming up,” says Jack*, a student in Wales. “Stuff is hard to come by, and usually kind of pricey – so some friends in Loughborough and Manchester told me how to get on the deep web, so I thought I might as well give it a go.” He describes the process before adding that it was “too easy”.

Even more recent bitcoin buyers were taken in by how quick it was to get into. “It’s really easy – you can go on the website, or go to the store in Soho [known as a bitcoin ATM], like I did,” says Charles*, another student who had bought bitcoin to buy drugs and was now holding on to it because of its rise in value. “It’s anonymous and you can pay in cash – then you get an account number and password.” In October, he bought £450 and, at the time of writing this article, it had gone up to £688.76. “So I made £238, just waiting.”

Simone agrees, saying the people who got into bitcoin were either risk takers – “or people like myself, who got into bitcoin and made some cash by mistake by doing drugs”. James points out that the kind of person in possession of bitcoin ranges from tech and money-savvy dads, to drug dealers and users, and even hitmen. But people like Simone, Jack and Charles are probably like a significant number of those who own bitcoin, who invest small amounts, and then return months later to find that it's jumped in value.

Despite publicity and excitement over what the growth of bitcoin means for international banking or the future of finance, these surges could be propelling dangerous cycles on the dark web, perhaps even creating an incentive for criminals to take their operations digital. Drug barons and other criminals who have already made the leap will have watched the fruits of their labour grow in value, assuming the didn't immediately cash out after getting paid. 

Jack Smith, at the website Mic, has highlighted a similar issue through his work on @NeoNaziWallet, a bot which tracks cryptocurrency transactions between suspected neo-Nazis who have been thrown off mainstream fundraising sites. He found that their wealth had increased rapidly thanks to the bitcoin boom. By its very nature bitcoin is hard to track, so it's almost impossible to tell how much criminals on the dark web might have benefited.

The shady aspects of what bitcoin is often used for are not lost on those who have bought in. “Although it’s socially acceptable to have BTC all of a sudden, I found it very stressful to buy when it had illegal connotations,” says Emma*, who works for a shipping company and has seen her bitcoin increase in value from £15 to £107. And yet everyone seems to own some bitcoin, or have at least a friend who does. For some, the association with illegality isn’t really a concern. “Just because [buying drugs is] illegal doesn’t really make it worse than some of the legal things wealthy people do or have done,” Jack says.

Among both experts and those who have accidentally ended up with a rapidly appreciating investment, opinions vary on what the future holds for bitcoin.

Charles believes that the only real risk is that it will become illegal and accounts will be frozen. “They are afraid of what they don’t understand – I think 99 per cent of bitcoin buyers are under 35 or 40, and people who work in financial institutions are much older.” Others, like Emma, are anticipating a change in banking regulations and are planning to sell soon.

Despite differing predictions about how the currency will evolve, none of those whom I spoke to think it's going away any time soon. Many sent me an update on the rising value of their investment, even if we had only spoken an hour before, seemingly aware the surge in popularity was creating a bubble. The only question is deciding on the right time to sell.

Simone is planning to sell what she has by the end of the month. “I get a kick out of making money as much as the next person. But, at the end of the day, I’m just someone who was in the right place at the right time.”

*Names have been changed

Photo: mdl70 via Flickr
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Childhood mythology is being revamped by digital monsters like Slenderman

The stories the younger generation tell one another are just as rich, and as terrifying.

“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool...”

The eldritch tones of Donald Pleasance will breathe a chilly memory along the vertebrae of those of a certain age. That 1973 public information broadcast about water safety lingers long in the memory. But why? There was something about the hooded figure depicted beside the river where children cavorted that just resonated. A shadow, a memory, a whisper. It was as if we'd almost heard it before. It wasn't just a warning. It was a story.

Before Donald Pleasance kept Britain's children from its treacherous riverbanks, we had tales of ubiquitous river-hags. Two good examples are Peg Powler, who haunts the banks of the Tees, and Jenny Green Teeth, who stalks Shropshire's waterways.  Both of these terrifying water spirits live to drag youngsters to a watery lair. These monsters pan the world, from the native Penobscot people of Maine, with their child-luring swamp-woman Skwaktemus, to the Inuit's Qalupalik, a green-skinned water witch that reaches up from below the ice to snatch wayward and disobedient children.

These stories are geographically distant but carry essentially the same message: “Stay away from the water”. Predatory creatures embody a very real fear. The unimaginable nightmare of our children in real peril is blunted by the presence of a monster.

Children need stories as much as adults do; stories make sense of reality when reality is hard to understand. Stories are told to be re-told, to be embellished, to raise heroes and to make monsters.

For people of the Dark and Lonely Water generation, including me, it's easy to assume that today's kids have lost the art of storytelling. We say social media has diffused, has numbed, has snuffed the flame of imagination. Yet perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we just got old. On the contrary, the stories the younger generation tell each other are just as rich. Monsters are still being made. This world of ours is still being understood.

There is real danger out there. There are real monsters. But now they come in new forms, they lurk in new lairs.

Today, the internet is the new hunting ground of the monster. Grooming, trolling, cat-fishing and scamming have become the MOs of the vile in our society and, as if in direct response, legends and myths have sprung from the same place.

Creepypasta, 4Chan and /nosleep are breeding colonies of legend. Forums and social media have taken the place of the skipping-rope chants and the childhood whispers. Young people still know Bloody Mary, yet Black-Eyed Kids and the Goatman have usurped her from her throne. Nefarious rituals and games like Hooded Man or Elevator to Another World have been born of the internet age, submitted as stories and experiences. Like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in the 70s, they have touched a common nerve.

The most iconic of these net-dredged horrors is Slenderman: born of a paranormal Photoshop competition, his legend has transmogrified into an internet Tulpa, the power of which played a significant part in the decision of 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser to stab their friend Bella Leutner 19 times. He is strengthened with every share, every fan image, every account of his being. It is no wonder that he has become flesh in the hearts and minds of those who need him, who want to escape into his world.

The readers of the forums that bear these eldritch fruits know the content isn't real. Yet disbelief is intentionally suspended. As it says on the /nosleep board guidelines “Everything is true here, even if it's not. Don't be the jerk in the movie theater [sp] hee-hawing because monkeys don't fly.”  It's disrespectful to negate the skill or the talent that it takes to write a story or make an image on Photoshop. This leaves space for storytelling. We need stories.

These stories stir something inside us, lend a bellow to the flames of our imagination. Images, anecdotes and instructions - they are monsters we have the power to control. Online, we can pass on the whispers, we have the ability to interact with the shadows. Online we can be the purveyors of this mythology. We can tell each other stories. We can control. If we make a monster, it is ours. Most importantly, we can escape from reality and immerse ourselves in our monsters.

Not just monsters lurk online, there are games and rituals, rich in their own mythology. The illicit Ouija board in the parks and graveyards of my own childhood are dwarfed by the trans-cultural crucible of today's games. With the ingenuity of Koji Suzuki's cursed video in Ring, far eastern influence and technology are pervasive throughout. Japan can boast the ghost-summoning Satoru-kun, and the White Kimono game. Both are alleged to summon spirits, Satoru-kun specifically with a mobile phone. There are many more of these games sprouting up from all over the rest of the world eg.- Mexico's ' El Juego Del Libro Rojo' (Red Book game) and Portugal's Ritual da Televisão (Television ritual) and nearly all carry grave warnings.

These nebulous games, like the internet's monsters carry their own stories. Peruse Reddit and you'll find accounts and speculation from those who claim to have played and been changed or had their lives altered by what they've done. The comments below the hundreds of accounts begging for advice are a mix of sincerity and concern.

“Dude, luck only lasts so long, and even longer less when you tempt things you know nothing of.”

“OP, you messed up big time. You're always supposed to follow the rules of the game as completely as you can!”

“You idiot! Ghost games are not for play! Especially japanese ones, they are dangerous”

“Get some sage. Burn the sage, and wave it into every corner of every room in the house... I would recommend putting salt across doorways and window sills, anything that would be an 'entry' into the house, but it sounds like you may have summoned it inside the house”

Everything is true here even if it's not.

But how can we know for sure? Do we really know that the user didn't summon something terrible from the void they opened with one of these games?

That's what makes them so compelling. That's what makes Slenderman, Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer so iconic. Like that friend of your mate's brother who went mad after he did an Ouija board down the park, we are still whispering, we are still embellishing and interacting.

The internet is open, unchartered landscape, there are no rules of the real world in which to weave mythology and the quest is to be the creator of something that wriggles from our grasp and is embraced, formed and made flesh by a collective consciousness. Are we in some way thankful for these creatures that bring us together over oceans and time zones?

Phones and tablets in the hands of our children are frightening to us: they are the unknown, the window into an abyss. Yet from that abyss, we are like our ancestors, toasting heraldry and horror, and making new myths.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books is out now.