Coindesk’s top hack has gone rogue. After years of plying her trade in the murky cryptocurrency underworld, Leigh Cuen, former star reporter at our foul industry’s website of record, is ready to spin out on her own. And she might just have the chutzpah—and wildly enamored fanbase—to pull it off!
Nobody cared about Leigh Cuen’s work until she began tweeting.
“I was having a hard time getting interviews,” Cuen, 31, told me on a recent afternoon over Zoom, forking her way through a store-bought vegetarian curry, a creamy raita sauce and rice, the walls of her Brooklyn apartment pale behind her. “People had no idea who I was, didn’t give a fuck who I was. But one day I rage-tweeted about some feminist issues, and wrote a joke about Game of Thrones, which took off. I got a lot of attention, and a person trying to get hold of me got back to me.” (The Game of Thrones tweet is sadly lost to the void—Cuen said she “purged” her old tweets in 2018.)
She groped for another forkful, and I followed suit, eager as always to impress. (My own “curry” was really just a glorified pasta and tomato dish, with chilli flakes, living as I do, in exile, in a squalid flat in Rome above “Fine Felice,” a massage parlor where I occasionally “freelance.”)
“It was very strange,” Cuen mused. “That Game of Thrones joke had nothing to do with crypto. I started being a little more … uncouth, saying what I think.”
That was 2017. Now, if you’re reading this, and are at all familiar with crypto, you probably have heard of Cuen. Indeed, she recently reached such a height of popularity—JK Rowling herself asked Cuen to explain Bitcoin—that she decided to abandon Coindesk and strike out on her own.
“You will see my byline again, for sure. I’ll pitch them,” she said, taking care with her words. “But they won’t be my main focus. I’m working on stuff that was just really difficult while working full-time at Coindesk.”
I don’t understand bitcoin. Please explain it to me.
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) May 15, 2020
Is it hubris? I mean, 22,000 followers might be 22 times my own loathsome count, but it is hardly an international franchise. Still, it is a daring move, a new stage in a strange and ballsy career that led Cuen from the backwaters of mid-tier foreign correspondence into the disturbing and vile world of cryptocurrency.
She has since transformed into a sort of a crypto cult figure, as beloved as she is loathed, the subject of obscene confessions of love, industry plaudits, harassment—an extraordinary amount of attention and abuse, even for a woman in a manchild’s world.
So, now that she’s leaving, how next will she wield her terrifying influence?
(She’s trying something obscure with poetry and Substack, but we’ll get to that.)
Reminder: I offer freelance media consulting & if you feel outraged by the current landscape an hour of media literacy training is worth just as much as an hour of basic computer science lessons. You'll be much less frustrated when you understand the nouns! pic.twitter.com/XiKgKmYfNX
— Leigh Cuen (@La__Cuen) October 15, 2020
Her humble beginnings
It’s little surprise she’s striking out on her own. Born in 1989 in Orange County, California, Cuen has demonstrated a cold, pragmatic approach to business since she was five. At that age, she recalls telling her parents—her mother was an attorney, her father a cop—that she wanted to be a poet. “My mom told me I’d make better money as a journalist,” she said. “So I said, OK, I’ll do that, then.”
And so, on she went to study journalism at the University of San Francisco. She spent a year abroad in Israel, returning there after college to work as a freelance foreign correspondent. She got a job at Mic, a briefly popular New York-based blog targeting “young people.” ( EJ Dickson, an editor for Mic at the time, told me she remembered Cuen for her keen story sense. She mostly recalled that the young Cuen penned something about “witches casting spells, via emoji.”)
Live footage of a freelance journalist comparing her legal fees to her earnings: pic.twitter.com/jyMRHMEqSK
— Leigh Cuen (@La__Cuen) October 21, 2020
Cuen moved on again in the spring of 2018, and joined Coindesk, the cryptocurrency industry’s splendid de facto paper of record paper. [Ed. Alright already…] She climbed the ranks by ruthlessly pursuing stories that nobody else seemed to care about. She wrote about the exploitation of sex workers—as a freelancer she had worked out that people paid more for those stories, but also “found how taboo it is, how people dehumanize and dismiss anything related to the subject”—and about the Middle East.
She found her own “niche within a niche within a niche,” recalled Nikhilesh De, a reporter, who is, unbelievably, still at Coindesk, and who started a few months before Cuen. “She didn’t spend months writing up ICO press releases like I did,” he added. “Immediately, she zoned in on what was interesting to her—and sort of rose above that.”
Women of Twitter! Have you been spammed on Venmo by (fake) sugar daddy scams? I want to hear from you. pic.twitter.com/BkE2ea7YRR
— Leigh Cuen (@La__Cuen) October 13, 2020
A crypto Twitter star is born
But it was her peculiar approach to Twitter that built her into the T-list celebrity she is today. Her distinct Twitter personality—trigger-happy in saying what she thinks, narcissistic, scolding, a wellspring of bottomless depravity, borderline megalomaniacal—has always struck me as different from the somewhat understated, charming and eloquent person she is.
Cuen posts wildly personal tidbits from her life and alluring photos of herself, beneath which sad strangers will inevitably post scores of desperate comments, professing their love and courting hers.
“I regret the vast majority of my tweets,” she said. “I’m very embarrassed about them. The vast majority of my thoughts, just spewed out without grammar, are stupid. My jokes don’t land, there’s dumb word choices …. there’s a reason we don’t just say anything that comes into our mind. There’s a reason that we have editors.”
Even so, Cuen’s tweeting is far from an impulsive projection of her id onto the telecosm. It is the expression of a fine-tuned, proven formula, calculated to maximize engagement and attract sources who would otherwise remain unreachable. It is, she said, a skill she learned from the sex workers. “They taught me so much,” she said. She learned, for instance, that complaining about “fuckbois” is resonant for not only women but also men, for whom it awakens some sort of chivalric impulse.
P.S. Please make a computer that can read my mind & do everything I want automatically but also has perfect privacy & requires no updates, ever. It is just a genie. Please make a genie. pic.twitter.com/Tk3hGSYWOm
— Leigh Cuen (@La__Cuen) October 14, 2020
Now, she has an army of fans who can be readily converted into sources. Even the loners who reach out to her on Twitter, she said, serve a purpose: She recalls an infatuated anon who once contacted her and wound up giving her a scoop. “Once I got past his attempts to ask me out,” Cuen said, “he was very insightful!”
For good or ill, Cuen said, she has developed a winning persona as the “angry vagina” of the cryptocurrency world, and she must stick to it. She is, she added, seen as a rarity in the space: a liberal, leftish woman who makes the industry’s male, libertarian majority feel “progressive” just by following her. Women, she said, also appreciate her candour.
Yea & beyond cheating (committed relationship) I think casual relationships (anything more than a 1 night stand) involves a burden of responsibility to set honest expectations. Even if you’re not cheating because the partner knows, if other partners don’t know that’s a lie too.
— Leigh Cuen (@La__Cuen) June 28, 2020
So why wouldn’t she leave the ghastly backwaters of Cryptoland, and drag her fans to grasses greener?
The swirling cesspool of crypto’s ‘community’
Crypto was, as Cuen recounted, a foul place.
“I’ve experienced things that were unnecessary and … unique,” she told me. “It was relatively common for people to basically stalk me online and then email my bosses. All of these really arbitrary things about my personal life … It could range from someone saying I’m a sexual predator, to emailing my bosses to say that I’m under investigation for a crime which I definitely did not commit.” (She declined to provide details.)
“During my first bull run,” she went on, “they somehow obtained my mom’s phone number—my mom has a different last name than me and lives in a different state—and my mom had phone calls from random people in the crypto space, trying to promote their token. It was insane. That was bonkers. Just like every single part of my life became fodder for either an attack or an attempted abuse.”
One day she was away on assignment and, under the pressure of it all, cried in her hotel room, she said. But, by God, she sucked it up and soldiered on.
I believe evolution is biological & money is political. The concept of money evolves along with social changes, but it has little to do with the laws of physics, in my opinion. pic.twitter.com/RdDTp5Axrd
— Leigh Cuen (@La__Cuen) October 19, 2020
“She really keeps her composure,” said Allie Knox, a cammer who became close friends with Cuen during her Mic days. “She’s like ‘oh blah blah bullshit sweetness PC answer,’ when I would have been like, ‘I’ll fuck your daddy and take your inheritance and leave you with a studio apartment you fucking snot-nosed brat.’”
“Can you imagine being a strong willed, good looking woman in an industry full of incels?”
An exit strategy
It would be easy (and self serving) to say that it all got too much for Cuen, that she hated crypto, that she left in a huff.
Instead, she said, it was the narrowness and lack of freedom of beat journalism that left her disillusioned. (“She was too smart to work at a crypto-only site,” sniffed John Biggs, a former editor at Coindesk, and at The Block, and come to think of it, at TechCrunch, who now openly despises cryptocurrency and anyone he has ever worked for.)
And so, at the end of last month, Cuen announced that she was decamping from Coindesk.
Please pardon a briefly earnest thread about CoinDesk. I feel lucky to have worked w/such a talented team. From now on, y'all should pitch @zackseward w/news updates. I'm also excited to see @iamsandali & @baidakova continue covering how bitcoin offers real value. pic.twitter.com/yXbHO15Aho
— Leigh Cuen (@La__Cuen) September 30, 2020
She joins several other reporters who recently left the site in the wake of a leaked report detailing the usual gripes of journalists.
Cuen demurs when asked if editorial concerns at Coindesk spurred her own departure. “[I] have no comment on leadership choices,” she said, referring to various complaints about new management, “other than to say they may have far-reaching impacts on the broader industry that aren’t easy to quantify. ” I have no idea what that means.
Regardless, Cuen plans to continue writing for Coindesk on a freelance basis. (As I occasionally do, for a degrading pittance, at the abhorrent Decrypt.) Indeed, she said, she likes the crypto industry.
So much so that, roughly a year ago, she began, rather conspicuously, to court one set of cultists, the house-pet-eating ‘“Bitcoin Maximalists,” over the other set of cultists, over at Ethereum. She began writing a series of “autopsies” of various Ethereum-related companies that, in 2017, she had written gushing, “gullible” articles about. She wondered whether Ethereum was a “scam” in a much-maligned headline—the piece itself was actually pretty nuanced—and was heckled at a conference. She moved still more strongly to the Bitcoin faction.
She even abandoned her vegetarianism, dabbling in the high-fat keto diet—a favourite of the Maximalists which, taken to its extreme, involves eating mostly steak. The unhinged Bitcoin economic theorist, Saifedean Ammous, put her up to it at a dinner. “He kept putting steak tartare on my plate,” Cuen said. But, as the curry shows, she’s back to her old, vegetarian ways. Which no doubt inflames the Maximalists. “I was very upset that I could actually feel the difference, but quarantine really shattered any self-discipline I had left when it comes to food.”
But her excitement for Bitcoin remains. “It’s the only [cryptocurrency] that actually has a real-world use,” she said.
A substack for your thoughts
Not too long ago, our Cuen wrote a piece titled “How to Fix the Media Industry” that was commissioned with great fanfare by Balaji Srinivasan, a virulently outspoken and frequently platitudinous Bitcoin evangelical who once worked at Coinbase. (Cuen asked for the $1,000 reward to go to charity—it still hasn’t arrived, she said.)
I don’t expect you to apologize or anything but want to repeat this makes me very uncomfortable. Reporters working w/you may be complicit in a harassment campaign. When people try to hack accounts that *is* unsafe. Even if it’s not you, these posts play into such targeting.
— Leigh Cuen (@La__Cuen) July 4, 2020
Perhaps the experience emboldened her to make her next move. Perhaps not, I am far too dull to have asked her the question, but either way she ditched her comfortable, salary-and-benefits gig and is now a full-time freelance writer. She hopes to make her living with a paid subscription feed on Substack—a platform popular among other disenfranchised journalists. (You can subscribe here for $30 a year, or $5 a month, if you like!)
NO MORE THAN ANY OTHER PUBLISHER. EVERY PUBLISHER HAS SOME LEVEL OF BIAS. pic.twitter.com/WTChYLJRUb
— Leigh Cuen (@La__Cuen) October 14, 2020
Cuen also plans to make money answering queries from companies in the cryptocurrency world. She stresses it won’t be fatuous “sponsored content” but rigorous, truthful answers to questions posed to her. “If they ask me to write about their business model and it sucks,” she said, “I’ll say it sucks.” She could be inventing a whole new form of advertising: Anti-promoted content! Discontent! Ha!
Also: she hopes to complement her business plan by selling poems, some of which have already sold for as much as $60, she said. And why not? Cuen’s verse is oddly stirring: it’s arcane and wistful—and très Toobinesque.
To give an example (emphasis added):
Come to my side, I will open the gate.
We have always been connected.
Unlock me with your tongue. Plug
with bolts of tenderness. Our
is the light of truth manifest.
I was once the prisoner of
a little pond.
You are the sapphire ocean.
Come, merge with me.
You will find your spark deep
buried in a white seashell.
Stretch out your hand.
I will open the gate.
It works for me. Better yet, Cuen says that such poetry is extremely popular with her potentially paying followers, whom she says like it particularly “graphic.”
Not any time soon. But (*drum roll*) people who contribute to my cosplay fund will get to see the pics from my thirst trap NFT experiment. https://t.co/csKUhIq1LR
(Write your handle in the memo or DM me so I can save you on the list for special thank you notes. ) pic.twitter.com/LkhOVXtk6b
— Leigh Cuen (@La__Cuen) October 22, 2020
So far, the Substack, poetry, and journalism, combined, are barely making rent, she said. Fifty limited editions of a poetry collection sold out, but at a loss. The freelance work isn’t paying enough. The Substack subscribers are feckless. “A dude will pay fifty to sixty bucks for an erotic poem,” she said, “but will bitch about paying five dollars for an essay that answers his question that took me two weeks to write.”
One wonders whether a poetry/Substack/freelancing trifecta was what Cuen’s mother envisioned when she told her daughter she’d make “more money as a journalist.”
If all else fails, at least, I hear they’re hiring over at The Block.