By Hamza Shaban
Seated in a purple gaming chair, a matching mini microphone in her hand, the woman on the screen breaks down the day's financial news.
"Hey, babes," she says breezily, "let's talk about potential bear market scenarios."
CryptoWendyO, as she's known to hundreds of thousands of viewers on TikTok, YouTube and other platforms, proceeds with her latest dispatch on the ground-shifting world of digital currency. The vibe is relaxed and pragmatic - part commentator, part coach - a striking contrast to the boisterous crypto bros who dominate the space with their "never sell" and "to the moon" evangelism.
On this day she cautions her audience - many investing novices - that the crypto projects they hold dear might not be around in the days ahead. "Just because they plan to change the world, doesn't mean they have the capabilities to actually do so."
CryptoWendyO is among a new class of influencers narrating the wild turns of global markets, where online personas such as TheBlockchainBoy and BitBoy Crypto promise to demystify cryptocurrency for the masses and are redefining how young audiences get their financial news and analysis.
But like many women with significant online reach, CryptoWendyO says she is the target of relentless abuse and harassment, much of it animated by sexism and misogyny. To protect herself, she does not use her real name in her public work, though she has agreed to allow The Washington Post to use her middle name, Rochelle.
The swift rise of crypto-finance influencers coincides with the explosive growth of cryptocurrency, where the rush to cash in has created a $1.3 trillion market. This past week underscored the market's extreme volatility, as hundreds of billions of dollars in value evaporated on news of China's crackdown on bitcoin mining operations, then quickly recovered. But digital coin holders span interests and motivations. Some are drawn by the libertarian spirit that would do away with centralized financial intermediaries, such as banks and money transfer companies. Others identify with the communities of entrepreneurship and innovation tied to blockchain technology, the record-keeping systems that underlie cryptocurrency networks.
But many financial world luminaries, including billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, corporate executives, and government officials remain skeptical, citing the rampant speculation in cryptocurrency markets and the asset's high energy requirements as reasons to keep away. Still, interest from institutions and individuals is building, fueled in part by personalities such as Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and such political figures as the governor of Texas, the mayor of Miami and the president of El Salvador.
Streamers like Rochelle offer a cryptocurrency on-ramp to novices and in-the-weeds analysis for more seasoned investors. They serve as a conduit for information, a trader's guide and virtual entertainment, breaking down arcane topics or dishing on the drama playing out on price charts.
In three years, CryptoWendyO - who publishes weekly trading shows on YouTube and posts several videos to TikTok daily - has amassed a sizable audience: 146,000 followers on Twitter, 70,000 subscribers on YouTube and 149,000 followers on TikTok. About 43% of her TikTok audience is female, which speaks to her ability to draw a more balanced viewership within a space thought to be dominated by male influencers.
Her videos on YouTube and TikTok range from tutorials on how to secure cryptocurrencies offline, analyzing a token's price movement, to sharing different trading techniques. Her followers say they appreciate her demeanor and accessibility.
"Nobody is better than Wendy at explaining these technical tools," said one YouTube commenter about a video on a price-analysis technique.
Another wrote, "Love these quick updates Wendy, please feel free to make many more of these, it really helps a lot, your calmness creates more calmness for me too, Kudos."
She also runs a daily news show, highlighting the big events and happenings of the moment with bits of commentary: "Our first story goes to the most annoying person in crypto: Elon Musk," she said in a recent post, a reference to his ability to send bitcoin or other digital asset flying or falling depending on the tweets.
Her most-watched video on TikTok, with more than 500,000 views, describes how to play the crypto markets after an investment grows, dubbed the "moon bag."
"When you invest in something, you pull out your initial investment, you pull out your profit, and you have this bag of cryptocurrency tokens you own free and clear, like house money," she said. "So if this thing goes up 1,000 times, you're rich. If this thing dumps to zero, and goes away, which it probably will because it's crypto, you don't have any financial tie to it."
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Rochelle says money was a constant worry growing up. Her father died when she was in elementary school, she said, and she spent much of her childhood living in a two-bedroom townhouse with her great-aunt and grandmother, where she shared a room with her mom and two sisters. It also was a source of torment at school, where she says she was made fun of for being poor.
"I didn't have anything the other kids had. And I look back at that now and tell myself, 'Never again,' " she said. "My past trauma is something that drives me because I will never go back to not having control."
Now in her 30s and raising a young daughter, Rochelle views her work as an educational imperative, a path to make finance more inclusive, as well as a way to document her own path to financial independence.
"Crypto has improved my quality of life, and I believe everyone deserves the same," she said. "I am bullish on decency."
Much as it did in late 2017, cryptocurrency is having a moment - or, rather, generating waves of sudden price swings that feed into a vortex of speculative trading that now includes the so-called meme stocks of Wall Street. Traditional financial institutions are advancing plans to partner with cryptocurrency exchanges and offer crypto-related financial products. One 401(k) provider is even allowing employers to offer cryptocurrency as part of their retirement plans.
The number of cryptocurrencies has nearly doubled in the past year, to more than 10,000. But bitcoin is the most valuable and best known, so much so that everything else is categorized as altcoin, including ethereum, litecoin, polkadot and dogecoin. The total market value of digital currency has more than quadrupled since last summer.
But the staggering sums of money trading hands has attracted a slew of con artists and schemers. From October to March, when the price of bitcoin and other tokens swelled to prices never seen before, consumer complaints skyrocketed, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
More than $80 million has been lost to cryptocurrency investment scams in recent months, affecting nearly 7,000 people, the agency said in a report published last month. The number of reported frauds is 12 times that reported in the same period a year prior, and the losses are almost 1,000% greater.
"Some say there's a Wild West vibe to the crypto culture, and an element of mystery too," said FTC program analyst Emma Fletcher. "Cryptocurrency enthusiasts congregate online to chat about their shared passion. And with bitcoin's value soaring in recent months, new investors may be eager to get in on the action. All of this plays right into the hands of scammers."
The investment schemes come in a variety of forms. Some perpetrators peddle tips and secrets through online forums, luring potential investors to malicious websites, the FTC said. Others pretend to be celebrities looking to give away tokens once victims send over an initial deposit. The FTC said people reported losing more than $2 million to fraudsters impersonating Musk.
Another category of cunning fraudsters tug on people's heartstrings: Crypto "catfish" have targeted people online with the promise of a new romance only to suddenly start chatting them up about a hot investment opportunity, the FTC said.
CryptoWendyO has seen the work of pretenders up close. For a time, her Twitter bio warned followers, in all caps, that she would never direct message them.
"There is a massive impersonator issue on all social media, but specifically in crypto," she said. "I do not offer any paid services, and most of my impersonators want you to join their paid groups and ask for private keys or funds. They do this in YouTube mentions and send my audience DMs. It's such a terrible thing, and I do my best to warn my audience. The only thing I can really do is keep reminding them, and hopefully these centralized platforms take better care of their users."
CryptoWendyO makes money through trading, investing and consulting work. Depending on the market, she makes five to six figures per year, she said. She doesn't offer any paid subscription services and says she discloses any business relationships when discussing a brand or product. Like other crypto and finance creators, she stresses that she is not a financial adviser and that potential investors should do their own research.
Jimena Huaco, who oversees the personal finance curriculum at Champlain College in Vermont, where financial literacy is an academic requirement, said young people have taken more of an interest in investing. Just a few years ago, she said, most believed the stock market beyond their reach, reserved only for people with financial advisers or tens of thousands of dollars to invest. But that perception has given way to eagerness and pointed curiosity, as the buzz surrounding easy-to-use trading apps such as Robinhood and stories of dogecoin millionaires have taken hold.
"The rise of this phenomenon of mobile brokers and apps and the advancement of technology has made it a lot easier and convenient," Huaco said. "And they now have this idea that they can make a lot of money very quickly, but the education is not matching and keeping up."
She added: "There are pros and cons. It might have also increased access to populations who may have thought that investing wasn't accessible to them."
Ramona Ortega, the founder of My Money My Future, a digital platform that aims to help multicultural millennials invest and build wealth, encourages potential investors to empower themselves by becoming their own experts. But she cautions that getting the fundamentals down is crucial - including understanding one's own risk tolerance and setting up a diverse portfolio of investments alongside a 401(k) and emergency fund.
The coronavirus pandemic and the volatility in the market has driven a surge in investing. "All of sudden people are asking 'What's a short?' People are asking about crypto and NFTs," Ortega said, adding that self-directed investors are also seeking out nontraditional sources for financial advice, as many women and people of color feel overlooked by legacy financial services.
"For a lot of women, they are looking for advisers who look like them and understand their money behaviors - they don't want to feel stupid, they don't want to feel shamed, and they don't want to feel like someone is looking at them in a certain way, with a lens of criticism."
Erhan Korhaliller, chief executive of EAK Digital, a public relations firm and talent agency that manages crypto influencers, including CryptoWendyO, said she stands apart for her work ethic and her approachable public persona.
"For young people so used to this information overload, crypto really fills that part of our brains because it's a never-ending news cycle. And it's emotional because there is money involved," he said, emphasizing the rapid pace of tech development. "These YouTubers and streamers are narrating that for you."
Korhaliller, who is based in London, says CryptoWendyO is more measured and deliberate than many of the personalities in the highflying realm of crypto trading. "She has a very different flavor than crypto bros. You know, 'Buy now! We are going to the moon!' " he said. "You want to listen to people you can relate to. There needs to be a voice if you don't fit into the crypto bro profile."
Like other prominent women on social media, however, Rochelle has to wade through a torrent of abuse. "The threats and harassment have been terrible," she said. "I have had physical violence threatened against me at events; people have messaged me telling me they were going to rape me; they hoped I died like my father did and stated they would hurt my young daughter."
She added: "I have pretty thick skin due to my past trauma, as I am a survivor, but no one should have to hear those type of things."
Despite the poisonous elements of leading a professional life online, she said that building connections with people through streaming sustains her. She also wants to inspire other women.
"Anybody who wants to vibe with me, just come vibe with me. If you've got positive energy, you want to learn, you want to grow, let's do it."
Ben Armstrong, another prominent crypto streamer who runs the BitBoy Crypto channels, and who met Rochelle in 2018, said it's disturbing to watch a friend suffer through the vitriol, but he has had to resist the urge to leap to her defense online, which he says can exacerbate the situation. "It's really frustrating and you feel kind of helpless watching it," he said.
Instead, Armstrong, who lives in Atlanta, and has 2.7 million followers on TikTok and 1.1 million subscribers on YouTube, says he can use his sizable platform to address the toxic issue of harassment without having to elevate any particular aggressor.
Armstrong touts CryptoWendyO's diligence and her skill in breaking down high-level concepts to a mass audience. Her ability to relate to other women and mothers is a welcome and refreshing perspective, he said.
"Crypto has for so long been a chauvinistic, good ol' boys club, and it's great to see those walls coming down."
The Washington Post