However much the internet has transformed over the years, one rule is inviolate—everything old on the web becomes new again, recycled and remixed in every manner possible. Case in point: the curious trajectory of the Pepe the Frog. Remember him? The innocent cartoon amphibian who was appropriated by the vilest corners of the internet, eventually becoming a prominent symbol for the political rise of Donald Trump and his shitposting alt-right fanbase? Well, even as earlier iterations of the alt-right have dissipated, their Pepe mascot has now come hopping back—and as a cryptocurrency, no less.
Yes, I regret to inform you that two digital mainstays that once seemed to be in irrevocable decline—high-value crypto baubles and far-right Pepe avatars—have recently teamed up to make an unavoidable return. No longer limited to faceless 4chan commenters, Pepe has become a famous cryptocurrency all his own, a “memecoin” in the style of Dogecoin, and his re-emergence as Pepe Coin has rattled a major crypto exchange—Coinbase—because $PEPE holders are fired up, organized, and angry. It’s a dumb, exhausting, hateful saga that nevertheless holds real implications for the crypto world as a kaleidoscopic convergence of almost every major economic trend of the post-Obama era: high interest rates, stock market instability, meme stocks, Reddit/Twitter investor armies, short sellers, fugitive entrepreneurs, crypto-market booms and busts, Elon Musk (yes), bizarre animations, and a dash of racism. Let’s dive into it, shall we?
So wait, you mean to tell me the alt-right frog meme is now … money?
It appears so. Last month, the coin now known as Pepe arrived on the crypto scene by way of Twitter account @PepeCoinETH, which introduced itself to the social network on April 4 with a Pepe graphic sporting a Trump campaign–style hat reading “Make Memecoins Great Again.” Clearly, a throwback to old days of Pepe-saturated Trump fandom. The cryptic account didn’t post again until April 14, when it launched a website, a Telegram channel, and a stream of 420.69 trillion coins. (Yep.) The site, with its green background and preponderance of Pepe heads (including one fashioned in the shape of a bull, to represent a bull market), advertised $PEPE as “the most memeable memecoin in existence” and proffered it as a viable alternative to other hyped-up, meme-derived cryptocurrencies: “Pepe is tired of watching everyone play hot potato with the endless derivative ShibaCumGMElonKishuTurboAssFlokiMoon Inu coins. The Inu’s have had their day. … $PEPE is a coin for the people, forever. Fueled by pure memetic power.”
Inus? Elon? What does it all mean?
So, you may recall a moment early last month when Tesla CEO Elon Musk, in his simultaneous capacity as head of Twitter, replaced the site’s logo with a doge symbol, in what was quite likely a reference to his consistent affection for the meme-based Dogecoin currency. That switch occurred on April 3, just a few days after Musk asked a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit accusing him of orchestrating a pump-and-dump scheme by artificially inflating Dogecoin’s value through dozens of pro-Dogecoin tweets he’d posted from 2021 onward. When Musk swapped out the Twitter bird for Dogecoin’s iconic Shiba Inu avatar, the value of DOGE skyrocketed once again.
As Jack Denton noted in Barron’s, the Doge logo perhaps represented Musk’s efforts to integrate more of the crypto economy into Twitter, as it preceded the announcement of a deal with investment company eToro to provide real-time stock- and crypto-price updates on the bird app itself. Nevertheless, the Twitter-fueled Doge surge didn’t last long, and investors who’ve long been frustrated with Musk’s erratic relationship with Bitcoin and crypto seem to have taken the Twitter-Doge move as their final straw. (That lawsuit was brought by aggrieved Dogecoin traders.) Hence, the teasing of a different memecoin as an alternative to the Musk-linked Dog market—just the day after the Twitter bird morphed into a dog.
Why are “memecoins” so important, though?
I mean, they’re not that important in the grand scheme of things—they’re much less valuable than more famous virtual coins like ETH—but they do serve as useful indicators of how crypto markets are faring, and what are the driving forces and investors upending the whole ecosystem. And, while Dogecoin and related meme-logo cryptocurrencies have been famous for a while now, the urge to pump more of these types of tokens into the crypto space probably has its roots in the “memestock” craze from 2021. Remember that? When denizens of Reddit’s popular r/WallStreetBets community catapulted the valuations of GameStop, Bed Bath & Beyond, AMC, and Blockbuster by organizing to buy up those flagging stocks, mainly as a means of sticking it to prominent hedge funds that had taken out short positions on those companies? Well, the boost in fame and power the subreddit’s investors enjoyed after that market madness persisted in the financial world, even after their official Discord server was briefly booted from the chat platform following a surge in new membership and, subsequently, hate speech. Anyway, key WallStreetBets players have gone from meme stocks to memecoins; Christopher Berrios, the founder of WallStreetBets’ private Facebook group, is one of $PEPE’s most enthusiastic backers.
Aaaaaalllll right, so are we seeing a crypto-exclusive version of the GameStop craze?
It’s a little stranger than that. So, the reason we’re talking about Pepe Coin today is because the currency’s value has really boomed since it came on the scene, trading on the Ethereum blockchain. After just one day, the low-value coin gained enough traders to reach a $1 million market capitalization; after a few more days, it racked up thousands more buyers and gained listings for trading on crypto exchanges like Huobi, Gate.io, and BKEX. It also gained attention from the crypto press as its market cap shot up to eight-digit values and Dogecoin’s price saw concurrent declines. The momentum kept up going into May, as Pepe Coin garnered 69,000 traders (nice) and gained a fresh hype cycle off a Times Square display. As usership surged, $PEPE’s still-anonymous founders decided that their Twitter avatar should ditch the MAGA-style hat.
By May 5, Pepe Coin had broken through, surpassing a billion-dollar market cap; earning listings on two of the most dominant exchanges in the space, Binance and Crypto.com; attracting attention from Cameron Winklevoss, co-founder of the Gemini exchange; cracking the list of top 100 cryptocurrencies in the market; and leaving Pepe Coin short sellers in the dust. Yet, as with all memes, the fun could only last so long.
A few events spelled trouble for $PEPE right after that Friday bash. According to CryptoGlobe, Binance warned investors throughout the weekend that “PEPE lacks any inherent utility or value support mechanism”; longtime token holders were also accused of insider trading following reports that 7 percent of Pepe Coin’s total was bought and juiced up by the very people who’d brought $PEPE to market. On Monday, a general crash depressed the value of various cryptocurrencies—but Pepe Coin was hit extremely hard, losing half its value. Observers advised caution when it came to $PEPE trades, noting that it was possible many coin holders were now cashing out in order to make real profits from the value gains. Plus, traders of other meme coins took advantage of the hype cycle to surge their own market caps, including for a SpongeBob token. (Yes, for real.)
On Wednesday, $PEPE enthusiasts went all-in to turn around a potential setback into a Hail Mary. In a newsletter titled “Behind the Memecoin Frenzy,” famed exchange Coinbase gave a rundown on the Pepe Coin enthusiasm, noting accurately in a single sentence that the cartoon frog “has been co-opted as a hate symbol by alt-right groups, according to the Anti-Defamation League.” Well, that set the frog squad off. This single mention, combined with the fact that Coinbase had not yet listed $PEPE on its own exchange, fueled calls for traders to delete their Coinbase accounts and shift all their crypto holdings toward companies that did support this meme coin. By Thursday morning, #DELETECOINBASE was a Twitter trend, and Coinbase’s stock value had dipped a touch, prompting Coinbase executives to issue a public apology and edit the newsletter issue’s webpage so as to remove the alt-right mention. Considering that Coinbase is in the middle of an intense legal tangle with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and is even thinking of leaving the U.S. altogether, the company probably didn’t want to deal with another online headache. Not to mention that on Tuesday, the Department of Justice sentenced a former Coinbase product manager to two years in prison in what the government hailed as the “first ever cryptocurrency insider trading case.”
Anyway, while Pepe holders were pleased with Coinbase’s backtracking on the alt-right thing, they kept up demands for Coinbase to #ListPepe on the exchange, and rallied their fellow frog lovers to clear up $PEPE’s reputation and make their logo a “symbol of LOVE and not HATE.” It was a victory, to be sure, but it wouldn’t bring Pepe Coin back to its initial glory.
You’re telling me there’s more??
I am. So, remember that whole backstory of Elon Musk’s love for certain coins? Well, he joined again in the party on Wednesday, tweeting out a meme that referenced the nonfungible token collection Milady Maker, whose anime-inspired illustrations were generated in 2021 at the height of NFT mania (and whose designer, incidentally, has a history of racist remarks). After Musk’s tweet, the floor price of Milady’s offerings on OpenSea nearly doubled, their trading volume increased, the value of Milady’s associated meme coin ($LADYS) went up up up, and a separate meme coin crafted in response to Musk’s tweet enjoyed an immediate surge. Other meme tokens like $SNEK likewise crept up in valuation. Meanwhile, investors kept shedding their $PEPE holdings, sparking further crashes in the frog coin’s value. Milady boosters took advantage of $PEPE chatter and hashtags to pump their own tokens, and one prominent Pepe Coin holder tweeted his desire to get out of the game because he didn’t care for how its investors were bashing Coinbase.
Thus, as one meme coin closes its doors, another’s seems to open.