In October, Brian Jung, a 24-year-old YouTube creator, posted his first video analyzing Shiba Inu, a canine-themed digital token, which was soaring in value. At first, Jung explained to his viewers, he'd been "a hater" of so called "memecoins," favoring instead "fundamentally strong cryptocurrencies, with real backing and utility." But even if the whole thing started as a joke, he explained, there was no denying Shiba Inu's prowess. It was up more than 460% in the past month.
"If you put a hundred dollars into this investment about a year ago, well, let's just say you'd be a very rich person right now," said Jung.
For the next 18 or so minutes, Jung sat in front of a microphone on a minimalist set and held forth in a fast, authoritative voice on what was driving the coin's spike in value and why there was still time to invest. Along the way, he quantified the current amount of fear and greed in the altcoin market, narrated a recent Tweet from Elon Musk and noted that as "crazy" as it sounded, the token could be considered a "long term hold." After all, Shiba Inu was backed by a strong community on social media.
"One of my biggest learning lessons from this past year is that you cannot underestimate the power of the people," said Jung.
Another corollary lesson, increasingly apparent to anyone who follows the market, is that when it comes to the cryptocurrency bonanza, you can't underestimate the power of YouTube.
Jung, who would go on to make two more Shiba Inu videos within the week, is part of a new, prominent crop of hyper active video producers riding the roller-coaster of digital currencies into the mainstream while getting rich en route, or trying to. Day after day, they post recorded videos and livestreams about coins, digital wallets, meme stocks and blockchains. Many do so in a style of colorful, strongly caffeinated narration, reminiscent of video game influencers, talking rapidly and cracking jokes over crypto pricing charts instead of streams of Fortnite game play. Some are relatively sober analysts, offering cautionary advice on investments, but most are unapologetic hype-men - they are mostly men - who favor big, clickable predictions.
"Ethereum MASSIVELY Undervalued!"
"Bitcoin 15X Gains Coming, It's The New Gold!"
Their sway is growing, in part, because anyone who becomes curious about cryptocurrencies and hops online to do some research is likely to be pulled into YouTube's vortex. On a phone call, Jung explained how it works. "You hear from a coworker, 'Hey, you gotta get into Doge.' The first thing you do is Google it. Google owns YouTube," he said. Type "Shiba Inu" or "best memecoins" into Google's search engine and rows of videos appear featuring creators like Jung.
As a result, while crypto influencers tend to tweet frequently and may occasionally create videos on TikTok, YouTube is where the real fiat money is at. Jung said he now makes at least $40,000 a month from video ads and sponsorships. Viewership really takes off during wild swings in the market and when new investment crazes catch fire. The rise of altcoins, Robinhood and Reddit investing have all been a godsend. During the summer, when Bitcoin and other coins skyrocketed, Jung's monthly haul topped $200,000.
"The more volatility, the more eyeballs," said Ryan Scribner, a finance YouTuber from Miami Beach.
Compared to the platform's megastars, crypto and finance YouTubers have relatively tiny followings. Jung just passed a million subscribers this month. But their niche provides access to unusually high ad incomes. Last year, videos about the foreign exchange marketing and drop-shipping netted ad rates as high as $50 per thousand impressions, way above average prices, according to Scribner. In August, Google began accepting ads for crypto wallets, which is likely to pump additional money into the crypto-sphere.
Making endorsements can be even more lucrative. Digital coins thrive on chatter, so YouTubers are inundated with requests to review or simply mention a coin. YouTube has rules requiring sponsorship disclosures, but it doesn't have a great system for catching scofflaws. It's often impossible to tell when a YouTuber is providing savvy analysis, or just cashing in. Scribner gets daily requests from altcoins and exchanges offering $25,000 for a single mention, usually paid out in Ethereum. He ignores them all.
"There're scammers everywhere. So watch out, bro."
An educational or professional background in finance or economics is hardly a prerequisite for success. A YouTube spokesperson said the company treats videos about cryptocurrencies as a "sensitive topic," like personal finance, and promotes content from "authoritative sources," based on a number of factors, including the expertise of the creator, but declined to provide details. To steer clear of any legal gray areas, Jung, like other YouTubers, often starts videos by declaring that he's not a financial advisor. He sometimes vlogs wearing a hoodie bearing the same disclaimer.
Jung grew up in Rockville, Maryland, in a household that he described as "always struggling with money." At age thirteen, he started his first YouTube channel, which was devoted to "Call of Duty," the first-person shooter video-game franchise. Several years later, in his late teens, he began working alongside his father, a general contractor, ripping out carpets. Jung eventually went on to earn an associate's degree from Montgomery College, a community college not far from where he grew up.
In 2019, Jung began his YouTube career in earnest, switching from video games to credit cards, analyzing such thing as how to earn points and maximize rewards. Last year, he surprised his mother, a hairdresser, by paying off her bills. It was an uplifting moment that, naturally, he documented on YouTube.
During the pandemic, Jung shifted into making videos about the government stimulus, even though he didn't have much interest in politics. Soon he found his groove vlogging about crypto and meme stocks like GameStop Corp. and AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. Earlier this year, Jung moved out of his parent's house. These days, he receives a study influx of endorsement requests from every corner of the crypto world - Bananacoin, TomorrowWontExist, $CHAD. He turns down most of them.
"I can't even check my emails because it gets bombarded so much," he said.
One downside of all the money sloshing around is that it has set off a rampage of con artists, which YouTube and other platforms are struggling to contain. Jung has been impersonated on practically every social site by scammers using his likeness to flog one digital investment opportunity or another. He once tallied up at least fifteen accounts stealing his name on Instagram. In his videos, he often warns viewers about lurking, unsavory characters.
"They're in the YouTube comment section," he said in his first Shiba Inu video. "They're on Instagram. There're scammers everywhere. So watch out, bro."
Already, Jung has had to pay a service to scrub spam and fraudulent offers from beneath his posts on YouTube. Grifters once had his Instagram account deleted, but he was able to sort it out with the company. "Luckily, one of my subscribers works at Facebook," he said.
Lea Thompson, a YouTuber who runs the channel Girl Gone Crypto, said the problem of spotting and erasing impersonators is particularly bad on Instagram. "It is an absolute nightmare," she said. "It's like a game of whack-a-mole."
In recent months, scammers have started a new ploy: running splashy banner ads with the faces of popular crypto influencers directly beneath their videos - without their permission. Over the summer, YouTuber Max Maher saw it happening on his channel. There was an ad with his name and cartoon avatar reading, "My Arbitrage Deal!" Viewers who clicked on it were taken to a channel on Telegram, an instant messaging system, and instructed to swap currencies on a crypto exchange that eventually depleted their accounts.
Maher made a video detailing the scam and said he has reported it to both YouTube and Telegram repeatedly. "At this point, it's part of my daily routine. Brush my teeth, report it," he said. So far, he hasn't received any direct response.
"Our policies prohibit advertisers that attempt to scam people by using creators' names or images without their permission as an endorsement," a YouTube spokesperson responded in a statement. After Bloomberg News alerted YouTube, the company said it had removed the ads and the accounts behind them.
Despite the headache of dealing with swindlers, members of the YouTube crypto world are bullish on their future prospects. Recently, Jung hired a friend to help him build out his channel, and he's recruiting a research assistant to comb through the reports and stats that he studies before each video. So far, he's gotten over 200 applications - many from viewers who are already amateur crypto obsessives.
"It's like a dream job," Jung said.
THE WASHINGTON POST