This article was supposed to make me a very wealthy man. Maybe it still could.

When I uploaded a JPEG of this story’s first page to Stealcam, I sought my taste of the recent profit-fueled bonanza that led a single cosplay photo to fetch a price of $2,662 worth of ETH, and a page of romantic fiction to go for $343.

These aren't normal images, however. You can’t see what they are before you buy them, and they can also disappear at any moment—forever. That’s because anyone can buy them off of you whenever they’d like, without your consent. Unless, of course, you’re willing to pay an even higher price to win them back. 

Welcome to the latest Web3 experiment vying to upend media.


Steal to reveal

In late March, a duo of pseudonymous Web3 developers known as Shrimp and Racer soft-launched Stealcam, a decentralized media distribution platform that aims to unite the content sharing process with blockchain tooling and the frenzied, financialized ethos of crypto.

What started as a quiet experiment in gamification quickly ballooned into a high-stakes ecosystem teeming with artists, softcore pornographers, venture capitalists, imposters of all stripes, and at least one wealth-curious reporter.

One such early Stealcam prospector, D0unbug—a pseudonymous software developer who posts cosplay and gym pic selfies on Twitter—was told by Racer that it might be a great fit for e-girls. D0unbug doesn’t know if she considers herself an e-girl but figures most people probably do. She gave Stealcam a shot, albeit with low expectations. 


“You never know how long things are gonna last in Web3,” she told Decrypt. “I wasn't sure if it was gonna be a long-term thing, or a grift, to use that word.”

D0unbug paused her Twitter posting and uploaded 12 selfies to Stealcam instead. Within days, those pictures traded between Stealcam users dozens upon dozens of times, routinely for over $2,000 in ETH apiece.

Stealcam operates on a simple premise: Anyone can upload anything to the site—so long as it can appear as a single image. The image then becomes an NFT living on Ethereum scaling network Arbitrum, and users can’t see it unless they steal it.

Want to see D0unbug's image? It'll cost you nearly $4,000 worth of ETH on Stealcam. Image: Stealcam

The first user to steal a pic gets it for free; the person after that has to pay .001 ETH (under $2 at writing). Every subsequent thief has to pay 10% more than the last one did.

Let’s say you pay 0.8 ETH ($1,475) for what you thought would be a selfie of your favorite e-girl, but in fact turns out to be a picture of a carrot. If that image is stolen from you for its next asking price of 0.88 ETH, then you’ll be repaid in full. The surplus 10% difference is then split: 45% to the previous owner, 45% to the image’s creator, and 10% back to Stealcam.

Of course, there is the outsized chance that no one steals the image after you do. In that case, you truly did just pay almost $1,500 for a picture of a carrot. That’s the crypto ethos at work.

Eager thieves

D0unbug has thus far netted over $8,000 in creator payments on Stealcam, making her the second highest-paid creator in the site’s short history. That degree of high-impact activity was not what Racer anticipated when they invited D0unbug to the newly launched site in March.

“We were imagining a really high price for a photo being $10,” Racer told Decrypt, “so seeing some stolen back and forth for hundreds or thousands of dollars is kind of mind-blowing.”


The site’s current top creator, the pseudonymous conceptual artist Shl0ms, has made almost $10,000 in the last month, selling pieces that may or may not be art, and may or may not be desirable investments. 

“As an NFT artist, there's a lot of pressure to keep a high quality of work,” Shl0ms told Decrypt. “But [with Stealcam] there’s sort of this implicit agreement that whatever it is, you’re gonna be happy, and no one's gonna be pissed off that someone else paid however much for some stupid picture. That really reduces the pressure to create and share stuff.”

Shl0ms’ first Stealcam upload reached a price of 7.17 ETH after being stolen 70 times. The artist doesn’t want to ruin the fun by revealing what the image even looks like—that’s a secret best kept between him, the piece’s 70 past owners, and whoever’s currently stuck holding it after shelling out $12,209 worth of ETH for it.

Not everyone making their mark on Stealcam, however, has an existing fanbase to leverage. Ben DeMeter, a Houston-based copywriter and graphic designer, never previously released any art collections before finding Stealcam. But then he started hearing tales of young Stealcam creators striking gold.

“Other marketplaces that exist for [Web3] art are kind of already settled, and have giant artists that are already on there,” DeMeter, who now goes by ArtGhost, told Decrypt. “It's hard as a new artist to get eyes on your work on any other marketplace. But Stealcam’s wide open.” 

A recent ArtGhost piece traded on Stealcam. Courtesy: ArtGhost

ArtGhost resolved to become Stealcam’s first native artist. After a crash course on artificial intelligence, he began uploading AI-assisted abstract art pieces to the site daily, and diligently promoted them on Stealcam’s nascent, 90-member Discord server. Already, he's climbed into Stealcam’s top 20 creators, netting about $1,500 in profit from his 46 pieces.


“I hope that as the platform gets bigger," ArtGhost said, "people will remember that this was the first real art collection that ever dropped on Stealcam."

The experiment expands

How big can the site grow? That question has already turned the heads of venture capitalists like Li Jin, co-founder and general partner at Web3 investor Variant Fund. Variant is constantly on the hunt for Web3 projects with the potential to upend existing paradigms in media and social media; Jin thinks Stealcam could be one of those projects.

Why? Because unlike the numerous Web3 social media projects currently banking on how much people care about words like “decentralization,” “transparency,” and “community,” Stealcam’s value proposition is tied to the one word that put crypto on the map in the first place: “money.”

“I don't think that many people care about ideology," Jin told Decrypt, "but income is a universal need."

Jin, who wrote fanfic in high school, recently began uploading pages of a Montana-set wilderness romance she wrote onto the site. Those single pages have already routinely traded on Stealcam for between $250 and $415 a piece, lifting her to 16th on Stealcam’s creator leaderboard.

But money isn’t everything. Jin believes that for Stealcam to succeed, the site has to foster genuine connections between creators and their respective fan bases along the lines of a patronage network, to prevent profit alone from becoming the site’s guiding principle. 

“Otherwise, it's easy for just a purely speculative network to collapse in on itself,” she said. 


Stealcam hasn’t collapsed yet. But it may be deflating. New Shl0ms pieces on the site—which just last month were typically selling for at least $400 each—are now going for about $70. D0unbug stopped posting on Stealcam entirely after her selfies capped out at lower and lower floor prices.

“People didn't want to risk buying in too late,” she said. “It ended up becoming a hot potato game.”

She’s considering coming back, once Racer and Shrimp revamp the site for mass launch later this year. But is the magic already over? Are Stealcam’s rivers of untold riches already running dry? 

When I uploaded the first page of this story to Stealcam, I expected either hundreds of dollars in novelty-induced profit—I am the first journalist to use the site, or at least so I told people—or an abysmal failure.

The result was somewhere in between. My image has been traded 13 times since then, most recently for .021 ETH, or almost $40. But trading on the image has since slowed to a likely permanent halt. All in all, I’ve netted about $18 in profit. 

A tiny, shiny fleck in my miner’s pan; proof that there’s still gold in these waters. Just not as much as in the stories I heard.

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