Money, Likes, and Memes Are All the Same Thing

How the token economy has replaced cash with Twitch emotes and Instagram likes

Ian Eck


Photo: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

TTech companies have assumed a form of power once reserved for nations, banks, and Chuck E. Cheese. As designers of gated, gamified economies, they serve as brokers for our attention, our desire for attention, and those willing to pay for slices of that attention. And like any exchange, we need symbols of tradable value at the center: tokens.

The coin, the dollar, the line of credit — money historically has been our favorite token, but the attention economy deals in likes, followers, and notifications as the tradable atoms of value. Social media has mapped our human impulses of creation and consumption onto these virtual tokens to form the latest gears of our capitalist engine. And if you want to know how these new types of economic gears work, it’s helpful to look at tokens and token design more broadly.

Tokens are profoundly powerful, necessary, and weird.

The word token stems from the Old English tacen, meaning “sign, symbol, evidence,” with associations to the Proto-Indo-European root deik, meaning “to show, pronounce solemnly.” Tokens are symbolic objects that are discrete, scarce, tradable, and community-driven (and…