The Bud Light Mango Mai Tais were beginning to take hold when Eric Hackney — 38, unemployed and ticked off by watching other people get rich — figured, What the hell? and laid US$500 on some crazy-sounding thing called ASS Coin.

“Screw it. Let’s go. Let’s see what happens,’’ Hackney thought.

ASS Coin: officially, that’s Australian Safe Shepherd, one of those obscure virtual currencies that have YOLO’d and FOMO’d their way from crypto in-jokes to soaring — and now sinking — monuments to these strange financial times.

And here’s the thing: In the midnight hour, in his Florida kitchen, thumbing through his high school yearbook and brooding over might’ve-beens, Hackney is more than another dreamer longing to get rich quick.

He is also a stand-in for one of the three key players in today’s laugh-or-you’ll-cry tragicomedy involving money of all kinds. The stage on which these actors strut: Decentralized Finance, or DeFi, Crazy Town of the Everything Rally. Here even Luddites can mint digital tokens — Shit Coins, in parlance of the trade — with a little off-the-shelf code. It takes maybe 10 minutes, no whiz-bang computers or complex math required.

And so it is that Eric Hackney, husband of Brittany, father of two, former bartender, became the owner of 20,000,000,000 ASS Coins with his US$500 investment.

The rich keep getting richer — on FAANG stocks, private-equity carried interest, SPACs, Basquiats, Canadian lumber, Palm Beach oceanfront, Greenwich hedge funds, you name it.

All the Eric Hackneys out there want is to wet their beaks a little, too, before everyone catches on to the joke.

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Eric Hackney in his cryptocurrency home office that he set up in a spare bedroom. (Zack Wittman/Bloomberg)

And so Hackney has assumed the winking role of The Buyer. He’s today’s thrill-seeking amateur, goaded on by social media, who’s prowling for profits on a Robinhood trading app, Mango Mai Tai or Woodford Reserve in hand. There are millions of them out there, surfing the wild currents of an historic swell in retail trading.

Over the past several days, greed met reality and giddy markets collapsed again. Crypto, SPACs, tech stocks, the ARK ETFs: prices of all kinds of assets are falling, some spectacularly so. From Wall Street squawk boxes to Reddit chat rooms, the question burns: Is this just a hiccup, or the beginning of something worse?

Hackney was there for that whole GameStop craziness back in February, when the Redditors briefly humbled the hedge-fund pros. He says he was up and then, in a blink, he wasn’t. He says he later made a bundle on Dogecoin, created in 2013 as a joke, until — pffft! Gone too.

And yet he plows onward, along with countless others who’ve been brought to this moment by confluence of forces including but not limited to SARS-CoV-2, iPhones, the pandemic economy, boredom, the Fed, YOLO, “stimmies,” FOMO, TikTok, zero-commission trading, Elon Musk, greed, “stonks,” “Saturday Night Live,” Twitter and more.

Joining The Buyer up there beyond the footlights has been The Creator — someone like this guy sitting in Thailand who just minted another digital will-‘o-the-wisp, SuperDoge. Call him Fab. Like many in this game, from the creator of Bitcoin on down, Fab prefers to remain anonymous.

A Canadian from Vancouver, Fab lives in Jomtien Beach, Thailand, south of Bangkok. There he’s been dreaming of building SuperDoge — with a cartoon Shiba-Inu-as-Superman mascot — into a global brand akin to Marvel Comics.  

Finally, a third player: The Promoter. Someone like the former investment bank trader who goes by the TikTok nom de guerre Pablo Heman. In his selfie-style, animated videos, Heman explains how to turn US$1,000 into US$1 million in a year trading cryptocurrencies.

The people who mint coins — The Creator — pay guys like Heman anywhere from US$5,000 to US$10,000 to plug their crypto. Shameless promotion is a hallmark of the Shit Coin hype cycle: Mint and promote, get in and get out — preferably ahead of all the people who just ran for the hills. At times this might seems like a good old-fashioned pump-and-dump in penny stocks. In the crypto trade, the maneuver is known as a “rug pull.’’  

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Pablo Heman (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

Together, these actors, The Buyer, The Creator, The Promoter, have strut and fret their hours. Some are out there even now, waiting for that next meme — another Doge Shiba Inu, another cryptic tweet from Musk — to revive the animal spirits and maybe, just maybe, hand them that big win.

Go ahead, laugh. Even accounting for Wednesday’s wild swings in crypto prices, one DeFi token, Meme, has soared over 3,000 per cent since August. Another, PooCoin, has doubled in a month. SafeMoon — which was recently endorsed by Barstool Sports’ Dave Portnoy — is up more than 56,000 per cent since launching in early March.

“It’s more aggressive capitalism than we’ve ever seen,” Nic Carter, co-founder of researcher Coin Metrics and general partner at Castle Island Ventures, says of the flood of new coins. At last count, almost 10,000 new ones were minted this year alone, data from Dune Analytics show.

“It’s global. It’s 24/7. And it’s completely unregulated,” Carter said.

Here’s how Eric Hackney remembers his epiphany — the ah-ha moment in his long, tortured journey from the bar to GameStop to ASS Coin.

It was late January, somewhere around the time Molly Ringwald, The Princess, had just handed that diamond stud to Judd Nelson, The Criminal, and — cue Simple Minds — the credits to “The Breakfast Club” were set to roll. At home in Tampa, Hackney was slipping into a finger or three of bourbon as the movie was winding down. He and his wife lost their jobs last year when the bars and restaurants closed. He’s seen help-wanted ads but, really, US$9 an hour? Lately, he’s been trying his luck on Robinhood instead.

That night, Hackney was hunting for hot new things on the app. That’s when he noticed Dogecoin. It was up, big time — and climbing. He texted his friend, John.

Why is this happening? John replied. I don’t know what this is!

Hackney didn’t really know either.

Hackney says he bought some Dogecoin anyway, at 4 cents. In a blink, the price shot to 8.  He’d doubled his money.

Oh my God, he thought.

He texted John.

Get on this!

More than three months later, Hackney glanced at Robinhood again. He had long sold his Dogecoin because he hated the wild swings in its price. But seeing its surge to 70 cents in early May stung. He felt he’d missed the boat again. He turned on Coldplay and stewed in the dark. He vowed: never again.  

His wife tried to talk him down.

Don't you get it? she asked.

Get what? Hackney replied.

People nowadays like stupid shit. They don’t’ care. They follow the crowd.

“And I had an epiphany,” Hackney recalls. “I realized the money was, in fact, in the garbage late-night coins you would never consider hooking up with unless you were half in the bag.’’

He was talking about crypto like Papa Shiba, OMG, SafeMoon, Baby Shiba, SpaceCorgi, TacoCat — Shit Coins that makes Bitcoin and even Dogecoin look like good old-fashion dollars.

“It’s insane,” Hackney kept thinking, “but it’s reality.”

‘It’s DeFi … It’s BSC …. It’s SUPERDOGE.’

Beneath the homepage stands SuperDoge — self-styled crypto-superhero. In Superman blue, red cape furling behind him, he has the chiseled body of your favorite Kryptonian and the head of a leering, wolfish canine. On his chest, framed in yellow, is a big red “D.”

This is the cartoon-inflected world of Fab the Creator, who made the SuperDoge token. He used to be a part owner of 29 bars and restaurants in Phuket, Thailand. That number has gone down to 23 since the pandemic lockdowns, he says. Trading crypto, he insists, brought him back — and then some.

“I got a few 10x going and — Boom! I was back in the game,” Fab says.

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(Ismail Ferdous/Bloomberg)

After trading other people’s coins, Fab figured he’d create his own. It’s easy enough — someone this week made a new crypto coin inspired by Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal within an hour.

SuperDoge launched with a limited amount of coins available in a pre-sale, pitched as a chance for early buyers to get in before anyone else. Whoever clicked on the buy button faster would get it.

Fab and his team make money by earning 5 per cent of the total token supply over a six-month period. The other way to make money is to invest in your own coin early. So far, Fab has invested more than US$150,000 in his own coin.

A lot of these new coins have been whizzing back and forth on unregulated, automated interfaces like UniSwap or PancakeSwap, which match buyers and sellers without a centralized custodian. On those platforms, users can create a market and generate a coin with few hurdles and little effort.

“People are doing it because there’s an opportunity to make a lot of money very, very quickly,” says Carter of Castle Island Ventures, a blockchain venture capital firm. “It’s the promise of fantastic, multi-thousand percent returns.’’

“Of course, are any of these coins going to stick around and exist in three years’ time? Definitely not.”

If Fab gets his way, SuperDoge will be an exception, this week’s meltdown aside. He’s says he’s thinking big — like, global brand big. Comic books, an animated Web series, action figures, maybe a movie: this man has dreams. “We want to become the Marvel of the cryptocurrency world,” Fab says.

Birthing all these new coins doesn’t take a lot of money, especially by Wall Street standards. But there’s a key ingredient the savvy Creator tends to splash out on: hype. Fab says he spent US$150,000 over 20 days on influencers, marketing and advertisements to promote SuperDoge in the weeks after he created it. It also cost about US$25,000 to list the coin on an exchange. 

The goal is to create that wonderful, aching fear-of-missing-out and generate as much hype as possible. It’s been a recipe for quick profits and now quick losses, as well as what everyone agrees can be some unscrupulous behavior.

Fab says SuperDoge is legit and donates 2 per cent of every transaction to partner charities. It has its own website, and several accounts on social media. Even before launch, the coin was promoted through advertisements on Facebook and 4chan, and efforts were made to reach investor groups on Telegram. Fab hired TikTok and YouTube influencers, paid for tweet promotions, and partnered with news outlets.

After shooting higher following its launch in late April, SuperDoge has now fallen back to Earth.

Enter The Promoter: Heman, 38, who has amassed over 370,000 followers on TikTok.

“So, what is happening with Doge, Akita Inu and Shiba Inuuuuuuuuuuu,” Heman tells his followers while howling in a video, a trend among owners of the doggy coin across social media. He cuts to a shot of him jokingly wiping tears away, as he explains what Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin’s  donation of more than 50 trillion in the joke coin Shiba Inu means for the crypto world.

Heman charges anywhere from US$5,000 to US$10,000 dollars to promote content on his account.

Just how much they are willing to pay promoters like Heman provides one indication as to which coins are more real than others, if “real” is an operative word for Shit Coins. In the unregulated world of DeFi, money buys influencers, who drive news cycles, which help pique interest, which drives up prices and trading volume.

“If someone is paying good money for 10 influencers to go on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter to be pumping this thing, then that means there’s a real big backup behind this coin,” Heman says. “It’s like the tip of the iceberg. What you don’t see is the 90 per cent underneath.”

Until recently, Heman held a portfolio of traditional investments in stocks and real estate. He started his TikTok in January, and the hunger out there for cryptocurrency analysis prompted him to get into the game. He started gambling — his word — a couple of hundred dollars a go, mostly in obscure coins. He says his portfolio is up 1,063 per cent since February, and about 70 per cent in the past 30 days alone, at least until the rout arrived.

“Basically, I thought, why not put 100 or 50 bucks on one of those, they might just take off,” Heman said. “You can only say so many times to your audience that this is pure gambling. They come back and say ‘I’m up 500x or I turned US$3,000 into US$100,000, it’s a very common story.”

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Ramy Bekhiet (Ismail Ferdous/Bloomberg)

In DeFi, all the old barriers to entry have collapsed into nothing. Ten years ago, creating a viable token meant persuading a centralized exchange like Coinbase or Binance to list your coin. But DeFi is, as the term suggests, decentralized. And you thought no one was in charge of Bitcoin.

All of which raises the possibility that outright scamsters can and have moved in from time to time. The classic maneuver is the rug pull: launch a coin, pay people to promote it, and once the crowd piles in and the price jumps, get out as fast as you can. Fab and others say one red flag is coins for which liquidity isn’t “locked,” a setup that makes it impossible for The Creator to cut and run. SuperDoge is locked.

Not so long ago, pros would’ve laughed you off Wall Street if you told them that ordinary people would soon be staking real money on WallStreetBets-inspired meme stocks, SPACs plugged by YouTubers, TikTok-enthused Shit Coins and the rest. This week, the skeptics look smart. The punters? Not so much.

Then again, the events of the past year have turned small-time investors — often dismissed by the pros as the “dumb money” — into a powerful force. For better and worse, Robinhood, DeFi and all the rest just might have changed things for good.

“We are sick of the traditional financial system,” says Ramy Bekhiet, 27, and an engineer by training. He used to watch TV and play video games after work. Now, he works from 7 a.m. to about 3 p.m., and then starts his second shift: trading from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Since 2017, he’s built a portfolio of Bitcoin, Ethereum and XRP that did well enough to help him buy a house in Ewing, New Jersey — with five bedrooms, two-and-a-half baths, two living rooms, a sunroom and a basement.

He’s also poured money into Dogecoin, Shiba Inu and Elongate. Market swings like the one on Wednesday are an opportunity to buy more crypto at a discount, Bekhiet said.

In his home, two open laptops and 32-inch monitor glow atop his dining room table, as well as a ring light to shoot videos for his TikTok account. Off to the side, across from the kitchen, by the thick, drawn curtains, an ironing board is tucked into the corner. Welcome to the 21st Century trading floor.