On Feb. 4, BuzzFeed published an article that revealed the identities of two of the most influential personas in the crypto world, known as “Gordon Goner” and “Gargamel.” They are the pseudonymous co-founders of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, one of the most expensive and prestigious collections of nonfungible token—or NFT—avatars.
The group, now incorporated as Yuga Labs and seeking venture capital, has been reportedly valued at around $5 billion by investors. But the founders, identified as Greg Solano and Wylie Aronow, wished to stay pseudonymous and allege they have been “doxxed” against their will by BuzzFeed.
BuzzFeed used public documents about Yuga Labs’ incorporation in Delaware to identify the co-founders. But the term doxxing—which refers to publicly revealing information about someone, often to endanger them—does not really fit what happened.
Identifying the founders of one of the world’s most valuable crypto companies provides transparency into the operation of an influential company. Revealing their identities—powerful people in influential positions, even if they wish to remain anonymous for personal reasons—is not doxxing, it’s public interest journalism.
What is the Bored Ape Yacht Club?
The Bored Apes, named after its drawings of different cartoon apes, are now the second-most valuable NFT collection by average sale price, according to crypto website The Block. Nonfungible tokens are a way to store data on a blockchain. They typically point to digital images, game characters, or social media posts—a way to verify the authenticity of something native to the internet. NFTs of artworks have boomed in the past year, rising in price and popularity since the artist Beeple sold a $69 million NFT collage at Christie’s auction house in March 2021. Since then, the NFT market has ballooned into a $35 billion industry according to the investment bank Jeffries, and its on pace to become an $80 billion industry by 2025.
The supply of Bored Ape NFTs is limited: There are only 10,000 Bored Ape avatars—or unique pictures of apes—in existence. While each may sell for $25,000 on average, some have sold for millions of dollars available in the cryptocurrency Ether. The founders receive the original price paid for the apes, plus a cut of each successive sale.
The Bored Apes also have a contingent of celebrity collectors: Justin Bieber recently purchased a Bored Ape for $1.3 million on the peer-to-peer marketplace OpenSea, and Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon recently discussed their apes on The Tonight Show.
Not only is having an ape in one’s Twitter profile picture a contemporary status symbol—indicating someone was really early to the project or spent a lot of money on one after it became popular—it’s become a real business.
Yuga Labs, the company behind the Bored Apes, is in talks with the venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz for an investment that would reportedly value the firm at $5 billion, making it more valuable than established pre-IPO tech companies like the creator platform Patreon ($4 billion), the artificial intelligence lab OpenAI ($2.9 billion), and the online education firm Masterclass ($2.8 billion).
How BuzzFeed found the Bored Apes co-founders
The NFT space is an unregulated pseudo-financial industry where people typically invest for speculative purposes, often hoping to make money. While there are plenty of NFT offerings that are not schemes designed to steal people’s money, scams and rug-pulls (where project founders flee after the initial sales) are commonplace.
Bored Ape Yacht Club, however, has been incredibly successful. It has become so popular its avatars are frequently sold at the esteemed auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s alongside blue-chip art.
But in order to do business with venture capital firms, the co-founders needed to set up a legal corporation, so the company Yuga Labs was incorporated in Delaware with an address linked to Solano. BuzzFeed found these public filings and connected the dots. When approached by BuzzFeed, Yuga Labs CEO Nicole Muniz confirmed that the founders were, in fact, Solano and Aronow.
What is doxxing?
Doxxing is the act of intentionally releasing personal information about someone online “often with the intent to humiliate, threaten, intimidate, or punish” the person identified, writes David M. Douglas, a scholar at the University of Queensland in Australia. Douglas says that deanonymizing people is justified if it is in the public interest, the rationale for doing so is clearly explained, and the people responsible are themselves not anonymous.
Doxxing was a frequently used intimidation tactic during the Gamergate controversy, in which anonymous users targeted female gamers. But discussions of doxxing have also arisen when journalists for Gawker revealed the identity of a Reddit troll and (while likely incorrect) Newsweek revealed the creator of Bitcoin.
By contrast, BuzzFeed determined it was in the public interest to know who was in charge of a new company purportedly worth $5 billion seeking funding from prominent investors. The Bored Ape Yacht Club founders’ identities were unlikely to stay private because their business filings were public and easily identifiable. As publications do in these cases, it determined that identifying them would not cause serious danger for people—in this case, ostensible multi-billionaires with the means to protect themselves—who may control one of the most valuable companies in the world.
This is generally how business reporting works. Journalists seek information about powerful businesses and the people who run them and publish it for the public benefit. Reporters make judgment calls about whether identifying an anonymous person helps the public, if it’s likely that the information will stay private if otherwise unreported, and whether reporting it could seriously endanger them.
But that’s now how Muniz, the CEO of Yuga Labs, saw it. In an interview with D3, she claimed releasing the co-founders’ identities was “very, very dangerous,” namely because the crypto industry has “attracted some nefarious characters.” Certainly, owning a stake and influence in a $5 billion company can attract threats and danger, but this is not unique to crypto or the Bored Ape Yacht Club. And neither co-founder took great pains to remove personally identifiable information from public business listings.
“Extreme wealth can make you a target for criminals, no doubt,” said Los Angeles Times editor Jeff Bercovici in a tweet. “Most wealthy people deal with that by hiring security. If these guys thought they could avoid threats by concealing their identities so poorly, they were wrong, and BuzzFeed did them a favor by demonstrating that.”
Where crypto meets the real world
The crypto world likes to believe it inhabits a parallel universe: It has its own decentralized money, its own decentralized organizations, and its own ideas around what is public and what is private. For example, all transactions of a public blockchain like Bitcoin or Ethereum can be tracked, a permanent append-only ledger of all changes. But the identities of those behind the transactions are hidden behind cryptographic addresses. Only through connecting a person or business to that address can reveal who is behind it.
But secrets are hard to keep when you run one of the most valuable entities on the internet. The Bored Ape Yacht Club’s co-founders attempted to cross over from the crypto world to the real world. In the United States, firmly located in the real world, privately owned businesses are required to have public listings in the state in which they are incorporated. Any serious attempt to conceal the founders’ identity would have likely involved Cayman-based shell companies or Swiss bank accounts.
The result was predictable. The anonymous co-founders of a $5 billion tech company incorporated in Delaware became immediately identifiable. But, BuzzFeed published information about the co-founders, believing correctly that you cannot hold a large tech company accountable if you don’t know who is in charge.