In early January, a sticker pack depicting photos of Irene Zhao, a prolific Singaporean web3 entrepreneur and Instagram model, began circulating on Twitter. The stickers featured Zhao in various evocative postures and levels of dress, each superimposed with catty, memey slogans like “Damp it” and “Excuse me!?”
The stickers were catnip for the crypto masses.
Intern started a sticker pack as a meme for our Telegram community, today we realised the pack already reached 900 installs in 4 days. 🤔 pic.twitter.com/wbfE0eHkoK
— SO-COL ☀️ (We’re hiring~) (@socol_io) January 12, 2022
The striking Zhao had long been at the center of a kind of online deity-worship cult in which male superfans, known as “simps,” lavish attention on her in the vain hope of getting her approval. Though “simp” began as a somewhat misogynist term demonizing men who were simply kind to women, it has since found popular use as a self-deprecating put-down by superfans of influencer types on patron-friendly platforms like OnlyFans, TikTok, and Twitch.
Zhao recently took the simp dynamic and turned it up to 11. After her stickers attracted the attention of a shrewd pseudonymous developer, she went on to launch a tokenized version, giving away 1,107 for free. Many of those early buyers resold the NFTs, generating some $300,000 dollars in ETH, held in a treasury that then formed the basis of a new decentralized autonomous organization, called IreneDAO. The DAO functions as a Discord chat server accessible only to the NFT holders, who get voting rights over the use of the funds.
Call it, perhaps, the simpularity: Simping, but on web3 infrastructure.
How does it work? Essentially, IreneDAO is an experiment with a user-owned alternative to rent-seeking web2 platforms. As Zhao put it in a Twitter thread, it was better than the Web2 model she had previously labored under, which required her to shill products for revenue, resulting in the alienation of fans and the loss of a sense of ownership.
“The traffic flow & attention on Web2 are ultimately owned and enjoyed by the centralized platform, not to the creators,” Zhao wrote. “They don’t get rewarded for what [the creator] produces, but rather the amount of traffic he draws to the platform and the attention span he ‘takes up’ from the audience.”
With IreneDAO, she said, fans become financially involved in the microeconomy built up around her.
“Imagine you’ve always liked [basketball player] Jeremy Lin’s game since he was in high school, and own a piece of his clip of him dunking on somebody 15 years ago,” Zhao said. “Now, how much would it be worth at the height of Linsanity?”
It’s genius, really. Zhao has taken a seemingly unlimited resource—the endless adulation of fans whom she will never reward romantically—and monetized it.
But it gets better. By selling simps tokens, they are bound to each other, and to her, in financial common cause: to boost the value of the DAO and accrete as much value as possible to its cult-leader-goddess. Though web2 platforms like OnlyFans already allow simps to congregate in shared financial interest, IreneDAO lets them imagine themselves as shrewd internet investors!
Still, the business model is yet to be perfected. According to Josh Baek, Zhao’s business partner (Zhao herself did not respond for comment), Zhao has so far chosen to reinvest the earnings from the token sale back into the DAO, in the hope of supporting her nascent project SO-COL (Social Collectibles), which aims to be a platform for other social media influencers to create similar DAOs for their own simp armies.
You are the best. pic.twitter.com/zpHQEz7qqs
— Irene Zhao (@Irenezhao_) January 20, 2022
Zhao is no dictator; the use of the treasury money is basically at her fans’ discretion, a kind of worker-bee hive dynamic. If you take a look at the IreneDAO Discord, you’ll see her fans have already submitted a proposal for a constitution that would reward Zhao with a portion of the DAO’s revenue. (Submitting a proposal requires ten token-holding simps, a kind of simp minyan.)
Baek emphasized this aspect of “building,” telling me that IreneDAO’s offering goes beyond the kind of thing that is dangled before faithful fans on platforms like OnlyFans (though Zhao “feet pics” are reportedly being awarded to IreneDAO members). He said the real upside is the social aspect: that the use of stickers (for example) in the DAO allows token-holders to coalesce around a kind of shared ingroup-signalling and bond over the collective decision to monetize their devotion to a Singaporean internet model.
“Virtue signalling is important in web3 culture,” said Baek. “If you're not doing that, you're in the outgroup.”
It’s true: Look in the chat and you’ll see a load of anons sharing those stickers and repeating the IreneDAO / SO-COL backronym: “Simplicity, Integrity, Meaning, Purpose.”
I just realised this sticker is not inside the IreneDAO NFT. NGMI. pic.twitter.com/g72Yhznd8y
— Irene Zhao (@Irenezhao_) January 17, 2022
“You’re bound by that web3 degeneracy, that web3 fraternity culture,” Baek said. “If you know, you know.”
This take was initially somewhat repulsive to me, in the vein of many crypto-investment communities: a kind of token-incentivized simulacrum of “community” in which people don’t share genuine interests, but are financially motivated to act as though they do.
But then I looked properly at the Discord and saw that, beyond the stickers and catchphrases, there is a vaguely genuine community building something vaguely interesting, if extraoardinarily niche. The “simping” isn’t even that visible, and Discord members include crypto asset manager Eric Wall, who told me he is advising Zhao on monetization, and billionaire hedge fund manager Mike Novogratz, who isn’t exactly going around asking for feet pics! (Unless he is.)
From the perspective of the Discord, IreneDAO functions less as a deranged sex cult than as a kind of networking club with the central figurehead serving almost as mere pretext.
Indeed, for the most part, IreneDAO appears to be populated with smart, moneyed entrepreneurs who have seen the potential explosive value of a simp-related web3 business model. There’s a sad, circular dynamic at play, with IreneDAO’s C-suite class members engaged in the same metaphysical struggle as their target demographic: perennially out of reach of their desire’s object, waiting in vain for the simps to arrive.