“It sounds like a cult,” a Bloomberg editor told me once in early 2018, after I explained to her the experience of interacting with Martin Shkreli’s online fans.
We were standing in a common area of Bloomberg’s Manhattan skyscraper. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a woman leading a tour group through the building, which was a regular occurence. She was describing the data company’s notable pieces of art, the relics of its 30-year history (a museum-quality display case holds archaic computer terminals from the 1980s and 1990s), as well as the symbolism of its many fish tanks.
I wanted to point out that the editor was casting a stone while literally standing in a glass tower — named for the powerful billionaire who built it, who was unironically worshiped by the entire financial industry. Instead I replied: “Well, sort of. It’s not as organized.”
Liking SMIRK? Sign up here to get more.
Actually, to be more accurate, Shkreli Land had no organization whatsoever. While it was not unusual for notorious characters in the internet age to amass online fan clubs, the Shkreli fans seemed to be uniquely unruly and anarchist. They lacked the unified purpose and direction of, say, the #FreeBritney movement that advocated for pop star Britney Spears to be released from her conservatorship, or even the Elizabeth Holmes fans who showed their support by attending her trial dressed like the Theranos founder.
Martin would simply open a funnel — his daily live streams on YouTube, his Discord channel, or his Twitter (when he still had it) and see what he could catch. The people who hung around regularly, interested mostly just in getting to know Martin, formed a kind of society.
There were no initiation rituals, no handbooks and no leaders. If there was any hierarchy, it seemed to be based on whoever had the most access to Martin at a given time, and that was incredibly fluid. If Martin got annoyed with online followers, he would flick them away like a bug, block them temporarily or maybe totally disown them.
In one of the more “cult-like” aspects of his following, Martin would often dip into the ranks of female “regulars”…