In our explorations of alternative financial systems so far for MONTAG's Modern Money issue, you may have noticed a soupçon of anti-capitalist sentiment, a light dusting of skepticism towards the current global financial system, or a zesty hint of chrematophobia.
What we have yet to explore is an accelerationist embrace, becoming as deeply, personally invested in capitalism as possible.
Meet Mike Merrill, the publicly traded person.
"Community through capitalism"
In January of 2008, Mike Merrill began selling shares of his life on the website/"personal decision making engine" KMikeyM.com.
Merrill calculated the time that his nights and weekends - the free time during which shareholders would be able to influence his activities for the forseeable future - as approximately worth $100,000, for an IPO of 100,000 shares. He sold his first 929 shares for $1 each, and the current price per share is $6.45 as of writing. With 11,235 shares currently held by 745 shareholders, Merrill still retains 88.77% of his personhood, but his shares are non-voting, giving the shareholders complete control over his decisions.
Shareholder decisions are publicly available and range from cosmetic choices such as whether to grow a mustache for the winter (rejected), to voting about voting, such as whether shareholders should have control of Merrill's dating life (approved), and possibly the most gut-wrenching, a proposal for whether or not Merrill should undergo a vasectomy (narrowly rejected by a margin of 69 shares).
Writers for Playboy and Vice have called the project "corporate cosplay", to describe how Merrill co-opts the language and aesthetics of private enterprise, but due to the day-to-day nature of the project's intrusion into his life, it seems more like a longitudinal performance art piece than merely costuming.
Merrill admits that he is sometimes referred to as an artist, and whether or not the project is a massive performance art piece, it calls attention to the ways that free time and personal decisions are implicitly monetized, as well as the definition and valuation of individual "success."
Another artist, Jennifer Lyn Morone, Inc., created a similar structure for corporatizing her life in 2014, but although both projects involve the incorporation of personhood, their motivations are quite different. As the founder, CEO, shareholder, and product, JLM Inc. seeks the autonomy that businesses are given which human beings living in late capitalism are often denied: legal ownership of the self, including all data generated by "health, genetics, personality, capabilities, experience, potential, virtues and vices."
Merrill, on the other hand, has reached a level of oneness with his corporatization that allows him to enjoy the freedom of not making decisions, making the invisible hand of the market visible through his shareholders.
He writes: "By 'buying shares' in Mike Merrill you are in effect giving me money. In exchange, I am valuing your input on my choices based on how many of those shares you buy. As this mini-economy grows, my stock price will become a benchmark for my success; the higher the stock price, the more optimistic my shareholders are."
If the shareholders are happy, Mike is happy, and vice versa. Observing the fluctuations in his OHLC chart, it's been a bumpy ride for Merrill and the shareholder community over the last 10 years.
MONTAG asked Merrill about some of these fluctuations, specifically a huge crash in the price in February of 2013, from trading near $10 at the end of January to $0.99:
"That particular drop was a bit of price manipulation. My girlfriend at the time was about to sign an Exclusive Relationship Contract that granted her options at whatever the price was at the time the shareholders approved that proposal. So she sold a few shares at a loss in order to force the price to dip, allowing her to buy 200 shares at a huge discount. Basically she crashed the market in order gain more control. At the time it seemed like a romantic gesture. Now I feel pretty neutral about it, as the relationship ended a few years later. We’ve since made the site so that you have to buy at the best available price, so that move is no longer possible."
It was after the coverage of the KMikeyM project on Radiotopia's Love and Radio podcast about how the project has specifically affected Merrill's romantic life, that we contacted Merrill in November of 2017 to find out how it affects his personal finances.
Even the decision to answer our interview questions was put to a vote, which passed with a unanimous Yes by 20 shareholders holding 1,763 shares.
1. Incorporate Self
The first thing everyone wants to know about the financial reality of the KMikeyM project is whether Merrill is making any money on it. He made it clear in a 2012 proposal about whether to invest the shareholders' money in stocks and bonds that all of the money was currently held in a low-yield savings account. We wanted to know how his stock price affects his personal finances, if at all, and exactly what happens when you buy a share of Mike. Merrill responded candidly:
"In 2013 I was on the Today Show and hundreds of people came and bought shares. To buy shares you have to deposit money and I’m not a company, you’re just buying votes to control my life, so all the money goes into my account. I then have to report it as income and pay taxes on it. I’m still about $14,000 in debt to the IRS for my taxes in 2013. But the IRS is great about allowing me to have a payment plan, so I pay $215 per month minimum.
I feel like a fraud in that I represent some version of financial intelligence when really I’ve just been flying by the seat of my pants, being buried and then crawling out, over and over again. I present as the epitome of the Warren Buffett wunderkind but really I’m just a fucking idiot who ended up 14K in debt to the IRS because I don’t know how money works. But I learned a little from that experience!
While the project has been a financial burden it also has allowed me to do things I wouldn’t have otherwise. The shareholders allowed me to live on the sale of shares for a few months while I was starting a new company, and obviously I’ve had opportunities like being able to walk on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange that I would not have had otherwise. I feel pretty lucky to have this community of people who are working on this project with me.
It’s weird to have money in my account I can’t spend. Shareholders have deposited money and can withdraw it at any time (just yesterday someone liquidated their position and I sent them $956.46). I only make money when I sell new shares into the market, which happens once a year."
While that vote (to invest in stocks and bonds using Betterment) was rejected, we asked whether Merrill explored any more elaborate alternative investment systems, and his opinion on cryptocurrency. Merrill says he loves it, and has been touting it since 2013. "One of my favorite things about it is the desire by pundits to declare that it is revolutionary or a total fraud. It’s neither of those, or maybe it’s both? I think everyone should buy like $20 of some cryptocurrency and then send some to a friend, just to understand how it works."
So while the response was positive, don't expect a KMIKEYM-Coin ICO any time soon.
We also asked Mike about some other specific votes that may have impacted his personal finances: the 2009 proposal to launch another web project called "Money Blog," with the intended goal to make $1,000.00 off of the site; a 2017 vote on whether to engage in brand ambassadorship for the hot sauce Wet Wizard, a vote about whether to subscribe to Spotify or not, and a vote on whether to employ a personal finance coach to eliminate personal debt.
The personal debt project is still ongoing, and Merrill wrote that he has paid off almost $17,000 of credit card debt with the help of Oh My Dollar's Lillian Karabaic.
Money Blog, "was an early attempt at embracing the ecommerce trends of the internet and while it was a failure the idea of it is still very compelling. On the one hand you have Amazon trying to sell everything to you from one single source, and on the other hand you have these specialized stores trying to seek you out via intense targeting campaigns hoping to hook you into a purchase. Even though it’s big vs. small it’s not good vs. evil. A lot of times the small sellers are a 1000 times more sleazy and dark than the company that eats everything."
When asked whether through his experience with Wet Wizard, he would call himself an "influencer," and if so, who his audience would be, Merrill stressed that while he respects the work that influencers do and loves working with brands and companies ("I like the idea of being 'friends' with a brand on social media and treating this strange artificial construct like a real person."), that his relationship with his shareholders is nothing like entertaining an audience: "I don’t have an audience, I have shareholders. It’s a different kind of relationship. It’s still one to many, but I take my shareholders into account on every decision I make, even if I don’t put it up for a vote."
We are your friends
The intimate relationship Merrill has with his shareholders bled into many of Merrill's answers. We asked Merrill what he could tell us about his top shareholders, the people who hold the most sway over his life decisions, who go by the names aaronpk, Josh Berezin, and Douglas Dollars on the trading site.
"I always describe Aaron, my biggest shareholder, as an ethical technologist. He’s a developer who chooses to work on fundamental issues of ownership and identity on the web. He is the developer of the KmikeyM software and he also built weejee, a group decision making platform designed to replicate some of the benefits of KmikeyM. Aaron and I have a friendship that is based on a shared love of projects, and I’m in awe of his ability to create just about anything you can imagine in software.
I’ve known Josh since I was 14 years old. We grew up together in Alaska and I suspect he knows me better than I know myself. My friendship with Josh is very active and he’s likely the smartest person I know, so I turn to him often when I’m facing a dilemma. I trust Josh to call me out when I’m doing something wrong.
Douglas Dollars and I have never met in person. He could be a serial killer trying to take over my life like the Talented Mr. Ripley… I have no idea. I mean, I know a little about him him because like me he puts a lot of himself out on the internet. He’s actually a great example of the greatest power of the KmikeyM project. It acts as a beacon of like-minded people and gives them a way to interact not just with me, but with each other.
On the other hand, he’s one of my biggest shareholders and I have no idea about his actual motivations or how he’ll vote. This is a man who has more say in my life than my family. There is some fear around that, but mostly excitement. I want to find all the Douglas Dollarses in the world!"
(Through a little bit of cyber-stalking, MONTAG found more information about the elusive Douglas Dollars, but that's a story for another article.)
Merrill's vulnerability - how his worth is determined by other peoples' literal investment in him, whether these people have his best interests in mind or not - turns out to be the most fascinating part of the project. After a March vote called Misuse of Executive Power revealed to the stakeholders that he was in the process of buying a house without their input and was seeking alternative solutions to make big life decisions, and later in 2017, making the choice to accept a job and move to Los Angeles without prior shareholder approval, it seemed like the KMikeyM project was on the decline.
We asked Mike if he saw himself moving away from letting shareholders make major life decisions, or if his relationship with them would deepen again, and whether he saw the project as sustainable ten years on:
"I was in a bad place for a while and I credit the shareholders for bringing me out of it. I had separated my life into these two distinct halves, my personal life and my KmikeyM life. The problem was I wasn’t really happy with either of them, but bouncing between kept me occupied for a while. When the shareholders started objecting to the house purchase it was the first sign I had really screwed up, but I still wasn’t able to fix it. As things got worse in my personal life I got depressed and was really searching for some solid ground. I’d been fantasizing about moving to Los Angeles for years and took the plunge at a time when I was ready to just throw in the towel on KmikeyM. I was in a bad spot.
But with a fresh start in a new city I was able to also re-engage with my shareholders. It’s not perfect yet, but the last eight months of being here I think my relationship with the shareholders is the strongest it’s been in four or five years. It feels good, and based on the uptick in the stock price it feels good to them too."
While we could leave the KMikeyM story on that happy note, with everyone feeling slightly better about their lives and stock prices soaring, it feels important to again touch upon what seems to be the moral of the whole project: giving in.
In the words of Mike Merrill, "You can oppose capitalism, that's great, people do that to various levels of success, but why fight it was sort of my question, why not just engage it all the way?"
Merrill is a fan of catharsis, of leaning in to the unpleasant for the moment of release. When we asked him about the Spotify subscription vote, he recalled in detail how he found a song that makes him cry (semi-ironically, a cover of No Woman No Cry).
"The first time I heard this it came up from the algorithm while I was alone in my apartment. It just stopped me and I stood there listening to it while feelings of sadness welled up inside me. Since I was alone I just let myself start crying. When it ended I was trying to figure out what about it made me feel that way and I couldn’t think of anything specific.
Later that week I was stuck in traffic in LA and as an experiment I put the song on repeat and it still made me cry. Over and over again I listened to it while barely moving in traffic and was at times sobbing and weeping and I started to find a pattern in which parts really hit me and how I anticipated those parts and even when I knew it was coming it was just like an overwhelming feeling of sadness.
That experience was pretty exhausting."
But isn't it all exhausting? The rat race. The fight for autonomy against corporate entities that want to control or predict your every move. The constant questioning of self-quantification, the time you have no control over, and whether the time that you do have control over is being used to the fullest. Whether you're succeeding, and figuring out what success even means.
Mike Merrill may have figured something out about giving up, relinquishing control, and staring unblinkingly into the maw of capitalism - and about what it means to be a person in the 21st century, hurtling towards the future.