It was right after the glow-up and blowup of GameStop when Tristan Luke finally ventured into the markets.
A musician and copywriter, Luke, who’s in his fifties, had never invested much before. Then, in January, a swarm of day traders and individual investors piled into the struggling Texas-based video game retailer’s stock and drove it as close to the moon as it could go. Something clicked. “It gave me a sense that guys like me could invest in the stock market,” Luke tells Fortune.
Luke was soon staying up as late as 1 a.m. to research stocks and waking up as early as 6 a.m. to catch the morning news cycle. His interest in the markets first coalesced around what he saw as undervalued penny stocks, but he quickly found his way to the world of cryptocurrencies—an intimidating space, Luke admits, but one where a handful of coins stood out, including what was seemingly just another dog-themed meme token: Shiba Inu.
Drawn in by what Luke describes as the coin’s “maverick qualities,” the investor from Amherst, Mass., put some money into SHIB, as it is more widely known, back in the spring. It wasn’t his only holding: Luke’s crypto wallet also includes Ethereum, SafeMoon, Dogecoin, and others. But he was curious about SHIB, in particular, and how he—the same breed of investor who had lifted GameStop to once unthinkable heights—might be able to help it go higher. So Luke set up a petition on Change.org to “kindly request” that Robinhood, the brokerage that had acted as Luke’s own shepherd into the markets, list SHIB.
At first it gathered a few thousand signatures. Then 30,000. Then 50,000. Luke was “astonished” by the response, he says. By late October, SHIB went on a GameStop-like tear that pushed it higher by 777% over the course of just a single month. Granted, the token was still trading at a fraction of a penny—around $0.00007—but its colossal increase had pushed more and more people to Luke’s petition. By Nov. 4, the petition was about 10,000 signatures shy of its 500,000 goal.
What Luke had thought he created was just a simple petition. But, in fact, it had become a flag of sorts: The SHIBArmy, a title Shiba Inu coin fanatics, developers, and investors have bestowed upon themselves online, had found a call to action in its push to make the so-called Dogecoin killer so much more than just the crypto market’s latest punch line.
“Its social credit is where it’s strongest,” says Luke, who says he spent about $650 for about 144 million SHIB, which, as of Nov. 4, was worth about $7,227. “It just seems to be a thriving and ever-growing community of people who want to give this coin utility.”
Created in August 2020, SHIB carries many of the same hallmarks of other joke cryptos. Its mascot is a Shiba Inu, inspired by the same breed that has acted as the public face of Dogecoin for years, and the crypto is virtually unusable for buying things in the real world. And yet SHIB has swelled this year with far more lasting power than other meme assets. Its meteoric ascent has made it the 11th largest cryptocurrency as of early November, with a market value of $27 billion. At its heights, though, SHIB’s total value was larger than the stocks of companies like Pinterest, Delta Air Lines, and ViacomCBS.
Behind it all has been the SHIBArmy, a collective that has banded around the vision of SHIB’s anonymous founder, Ryoshi, for “decentralized spontaneous community building.”
“While none of us could have imagined it at the time, this was a concept that would start a revolution,” the SHIB creators wrote in an updated version of the white paper that outlined the token’s concept, which is aptly known as the “woofpaper.”
In the meme markets of 2021, alongside nearly every spontaneous and inexplicably spiking asset has been a flock of fervent followers right there with it.
Often banded together through Reddit, Discord, and Twitter, the investors have played a role in some of the most remarkable movements in the equity and crypto markets in recent memory. None is perhaps a better example than GameStop, which surged to $483 in late January before tumbling back down to earth. Its shocking rise, as U.S. securities regulators recently concluded, was the result of a flood of money piling into the stock, much of which came from individual investors and day traders following the likes of Keith Gill and other popular creators and celebrities who spoke about GameStop often online at its heights. Others to spike this year from an inundation of retail interest include AMC Entertainment, whose fans in the markets call themselves “apes” and injected the struggling movie theater chain with a flood of capital; Dogecoin, the original joke cryptocurrency that has soared over the course of the pandemic; and, most recently, car-rental company Avis Budget and home-goods retailer Bed Bath & Beyond.
From the Dutch tulip craze of the 1600s to the dotcom bubble, investors have long been followers of one another, often moving in a herdlike manner.
“It’s a natural shortcut that our minds take when making decisions,” Morningstar behavioral researcher Samantha Lamas says of the herding mentality, which she equates to someone using Google to look up the reviews on restaurants to determine where to eat. “It can be further exacerbated during times of uncertainty, and that’s basically the world of cryptocurrency right now. It doesn’t seem like people know exactly what’s going on. They just know that people are somehow making money, so they want to get in on the action.”
The exact reason behind SHIB’s rise—like any other meme asset—remains a mystery.
Rank-and-file members of the SHIBArmy, which includes everyone as there is no one leader behind SHIB, have been pushing to build new projects around the cryptocurrency, like ShibaSwap, a decentralized cryptocurrency exchange, and the Shiboshis Social Club, an online community for holders of 10,000 Shiba Inu coin non-fungible tokens. And the SHIB ecosystem has been expanding with the rising popularity of LEASH, a store-of-value token that is designed to increase in value over time because of its limited supply.
“I see a new decentralized financial ecosystem that will change the world to be a better place,” Shibarium, a self-described representative of SHIB working on external communication, told Fortune over Twitter. “It is an ecosystem or a project that is being built by [people] for [people].”
Holders of SHIB have also been burning it at a seemingly escalating rate. So far, about 41% of the initial supply of SHIB has been destroyed, according to Shibburn.com. In doing so, the burners have boosted SHIB’s value by slashing the amount of tokens in circulation. And then there is Luke’s petition. Robinhood has rebuffed the calls to list SHIB for now, with CEO Vlad Tenev citing on the company’s latest earnings call a need for more regulatory clarity. “We’re going to be very careful,” Tenev said. But whether SHIB’s rise is linked to any single one of those factors, a confluence of them all, or something else entirely remains unclear.
Of course, there is a chance that it all comes tumbling down, too.
While SHIB’s rise has minted millionaires out of everyday investors, cryptocurrency markets remain inherently volatile, subject to the ebbs and flows of investor interests by the day. In the case of SHIB, concern has started to grow in recent days about some of the power that the token’s biggest holders have over its fluctuations. Just 10 whales own nearly three-quarters of the Shiba Inu coins out there, and there have been signs that one may be close to selling.
In the 24 hours leading up to this story’s publication, SHIB had fallen more than 20%.
Dogecoin has been the victim of a far more dramatic fall earlier this year, dropping some 64% since reaching an all-time high in May. Others have suffered fatal conclusions. A cryptocurrency inspired by the Netflix hit series Squid Game was subject to a rug pull just a few days ago—leaving most investors wiped out after the crypto had posted a 310,000% jump that captivated a large swath of individuals on the way up.
Michael DeFilippi, a proud member of the SHIBArmy, knows all of this.
The Florida 36-year-old, who works in real estate, first put a little more than $1,000 into SHIB at the beginning of the summer, seeing it swell in value to somewhere around $6,000 today. And sure, the spike in SHIB has taken even DeFilippi by surprise, but he’s not yet taken any gains. For DeFilippi, it will take SHIB reaching close to 1¢ for him to consider cashing out. “I only have $1,000 in it,” he says. “It’s not a big deal losing that when the reward clearly outweighs the risk.”
Since investing in SHIB, DeFilippi has, like Luke, looked for ways to help the cause. So he reached out to the petition creator and has been helping craft some of the updates to it. He’s not the only one, either. Luke says he has heard from investors all over the world about their love for SHIB and their aspirations for what the token can be.
And while many in the ranks of the SHIBArmy have talked of changing brokerages over Robinhood’s slowness in adding the token as a listing, Luke says he is fine with however long it takes. “I trust them to do it in the time that’s appropriate for them,” he says.
It was just a kind request, after all.
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