The Millionaire Makers: What happens when 100,000 people create their own lottery?

Is there a darker side to a seemingly-utopian lottery invented by the internet? 

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In literature, nothing good comes of a lottery that is free to enter. Shirley Jackson’s fictional townspeople win a ritualistic stoning in her short story The Lottery, while the “reaping” in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games sees its child winners fighting to the death on national TV. In film, a twist in The Island (spoiler) revealed that a compound’s weekly lottery winners were in actual fact harvested for their organs. If I told you, then, that there was a futuristic lottery which was currently free to enter, in which the probability of winning was around one in 17,000 (compared to the National Lottery’s one in 14 million odds), you would probably not be too keen.

Yet remarkably, the prize for winning Reddit’s Millionaire Makers “lottery” isn’t death (nor is it forfeiting your organs or murdering a child under the instruction of Ant and Dec.) It’s cash. “I got about $2,500 (£1,870),” says the 25th winner, 29-year-old Seamus O’Halloran. “It’s an incredibly lucky thing to win.”

Millionaire Makers began in 2014, inspired by a comment on the site’s “shower thoughts” thread. “If a million of us picked a certain Redditor and all donated just $1, we would have the power to make someone a millionaire,” read the original post. Five days later, Millionaire Makers was born. The premise was simple: users leave a comment to enter (for free), a name is drawn randomly, and then everyone who entered donates a dollar to the winner. There have been 31 draws in the last three years but no one, as of yet, has been made a millionaire. The largest amount of cash ever won is just over $11,000 (£8,200), and the smallest just over $1,000 (£750).

Seamus was on his way to his friend’s house when he realised he had won. “I got to his house and just sat there on my phone rudely for probably an hour,” he says over the phone from his home in Minnesota. The money came in incrementally – PayPal notification after PayPal notification popped up onto his screen, before he retrieved his laptop from his car in order to keep up. “I was at my friend’s house at a dinner party, sitting on the couch on my laptop like a jerk,” he laughs.

Seamus

The number of entrants into a Millionaire Makers draw varies dramatically, and has been anywhere from 6,000 to 60,000 in the past. The odds are always changing, but they’re still far better than those for most lotteries and scratchcards.

Jacob Knippenberg is a 19-year-old American student who was the fourth ever winner of Millionaire Makers. “My initial reaction and reaction still to this day is being heartwarmed,” he tells me over email from France, where he is studying abroad. “I just find it amazing that a community such as this is able to combine and make something amazing for someone.” Jacob initially won nearly $8,000 (£6,000) in donations.

Over the phone, 24-year-old student Carl* tells me about winning around $1,600 (£1200). “I literally just hit two keys on my keyboard and clicked enter,” he says of entering the draw, “it was like… wow, hard to explain really.” I ask him if there was a catch, or any downsides at all, to the remarkably easy process of winning, and then collecting, the money. “No, none, none at all, none,” he says emphatically.

It has long been said that there is no such thing as free money. That the 102,000 subscribers of Millionaire Makers have come together to crowdfund a millionaire sounds far too good to be true, even if winners do only win a small fraction of the initial millionaire-making aim. Surely – surely – there is a catch?

*

Millionaire Makers isn’t a lottery – or so they say. For legal reasons, the subreddit’s FAQ takes pains to make clear that it is a “money pool” and all donations are voluntary and not required for entry. It self-declares that it is not illegal because all the sub does is help select a winner. “At most, Millionaire Makers enables users to break laws but we do not break any ourselves,” it reads.

The sub’s moderators (people who run the sub) also take pains to explain the code behind how a winner is drawn, so that no one can accuse them of foul play. A Reddit user named Paltry_Digger tells me, over email, that he has been involved with moderating the sub since the third drawing. “People might underestimate the work required to keep the subreddit running as volunteers. It’s necessary to draft the drawing post, create the post, livestream the drawing, start the drawing algorithm, contact the winner, make the announcement, all while moderating posts and comments,” he explains. On top of this, moderators aren’t allowed to enter draws themselves.

Any potential downsides to Millionaire Makers, then, have nothing to do with the mods themselves. Despite the utopian premise of the sub, it is often its subscribers that let it down. “People seemed to be looking for a reason not to donate,” explains Paltry_Digger, who says there was often negativity towards the randomly chosen winners. “If someone wasn't very active on Reddit, for instance, people would immediately accuse them of being an account created to game the system.” In fact, the majority of people who enter the draws do not donate afterwards, with tens of thousands of entrants often resulting in only a few thousand dollars for the winner (on top of this, some users donate $5 or $10 to make up for the fact other users aren't donating their $1). 

Some people go further than not donating, and actively try to scam those who win out of their money. Michael Tingle is a 35-year-old American who won around $3,000 via Millionaire Makers. “A myriad of predatory individuals pop out of the woodwork to try to steal the money of the winners,” he tells me over email. “I ran into several such scammers after I won, but was able to see through their tricks.” One person told Michael they wished to give him $50 and all he had to do was click a link and create an account on an unfamiliar website. “I very nearly did before reason kicked in and told me to stay away.”

Michael

When I reach out to another winner to ask if they’re willing to be interviewed about Millionaire Makers, they say: “No fuck them.” When I ask why, they say they only received $1,500 out of the $3,000 they won, blaming the mods. As no other winner has had a problem with the subreddit's moderators, it seems likely this winner was scammed by another user.

Aside from the occasional scammer, the biggest problem with Millionaire Makers is actually that it’s currently on hiatus. The last draw was half a year ago, and the sub is waiting to draw the next winner while Paltry_Digger and others struggle to find more people to moderate the site. “Don’t get me wrong, the positivity outweighed the negativity, as demonstrated by the number of people who still donated,” he explains. “That being said, constant negativity regarding the winners made it much more difficult to continue moderating.”

Yet Paltry_Digger did post on the sub just two weeks ago – to deliver a very important message. “Paging past winners: Many of you still have LARGE bitcoin balances!” he wrote.

*

People who donate to Millionare Makers' winners do not have to give dollars. Seamus was blown away by the fact people all across the world donated to him, and notes that he received PayPal donations in Swiss francs and Norwegian krone. The winners also receive any number of cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, which has exploded in value in recent weeks. Despite seeing a sharp fall towards the end of the year it is still worth much more than at the beginning of 2017. Having not cashed out the Bitcoin donations after they initially won, one winner had at the time of writing $53,000 worth of the currency in their account.

Jacob now also has a large Bitcoin balance. Aged just 17 when he won Millionaire Makers, he would not have been legally allowed to buy lottery tickets in his home state at the time. Thanks to the sub, he was able to pay for his first semester’s worth of his university fees, and now plans to start his own company.

Jacob

“I’ve believed in cryptocurrencies from the start so getting donations in cryptocurrency was amazing,” he says. He used some of his winnings to buy more Bitcoin. “It’s currently around $210,000,” he says of his total winnings, thanks to Bitcoin’s worth.

This is a life-changing amount of money, and the Bitcoin boom means an old joke on the subreddit – “Let’s make a thousandaire!” – no longer really works. Another past winner has a Bitcoin balance of $11,600, with more still having a couple thousand each.

“The fact that people collaborated to give thousands of dollars to a random stranger on the internet still stands as one of the more intriguing use-cases of Bitcoin, in my opinion,” says Paltry_Digger. “Now we’re much closer to actually having made millionaires.”

*

Just because there are no catches for the winners of Millionaire Makers, it doesn’t mean the whole system is as utopian as it first seems. Every winner I speak to is young and male, and all but one are white. This is reflective of Reddit’s demographic and not an issue in itself, but each winner readily admits they didn’t really “need” the money. “Ideally, it would represent a more diverse crowd, but that all depends on who is exposed to the drawing,” says Paltry_Digger. “Being on Reddit, it ended up with the core demographic.” Traditionally, a portion of a player’s entrance fee into lotteries such as the UK's National Lottery goes to “good causes”, while Millionaire Makers conversely seems to benefit just a few people.

“That’s probably a much better idea…” muses Seamus when I ask if the money wouldn’t better be raised for those in need. “It’s nice to have but I definitely have other ways to accumulate this money and support myself. Had I not done this I would’ve just made it another way, and there are people that can’t do that.” Then again, the whole point of Millionaire Makers is that the goodwill behind it is being used in an intriguingly new way. “Not that there’s anything wrong with another charity but it won’t catch anyone’s attention,” summarises Seamus.

“I believe every winner has had their lives improved by the money they’ve received, even those who have outwardly stated that they don't need the money,” says Michael, the winner who was nearly scammed. “I understand the people who think the money should be donated to the needy instead of random people on the internet… [but] Millionaire Makers is an interesting social experiment more than it is a specific philanthropic endeavour.  Nobody has to donate, and if they don't like the looks of a winner or think that they don't need the money, they don't have to donate a cent.”

Jacob, the winner who wishes to start a company, says he can give back once he is working. “Is it better I complete my studies and earn a lot of money that can be taxed and paid back into the system or donate everything I've received now and not have the same opportunities to meet new people and better myself for the future? Just because the money didn't go somewhere better now doesn't mean that it won't in the future.” And of course, every Millionaire Maker winner I speak does pay it forward in one crucial way – by donating money to all of the people who win Millionaire Makers after them.

As well as building a new computer, Carl used the money to take his little brother on a trip to Prague shortly after his 18th birthday. “That amount of money can definitely change a lot of things from someone,” he says, explaining that his brother had had a tough year. Seamus was able to buy his mother a large framed print of one of his photographs for Christmas, while Michael helped to build his wife’s farm with his winnings.

Despite never making a millionaire, nor being a perfectly utopian system, Millionaire Makers is a remarkable phenomenon. It has vastly improved the lives of its winners – who achieved the impossible capitalist dream of earning money for nothing. It doesn’t fit with everything we neatly know about the world – nor the internet  – which is what makes it all the more phenomenal.

 “Everyone was just like ‘holy shit’,” says Carl of his friends’ response to his winning. “Sorry about my language... but that was literally everyone’s reaction.”

* Name has been changed

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.