One afternoon some years back, I was texting with my friend Andrew about our reliance on social media for informing our IRL social and cultural lives. Neither of us was thrilled about it. “There must be this set of people who are so advanced and so fascinating, they’re not even on the internet. And we need to get to that level,” he wrote. “Like, somewhere Bjork and David Lynch are stepping into a party in a mountain lodge that is only accessible by blimp, and they’re saying hello to Batman, who is real. How did they know where to find the blimp? How did they know where they were going? They’ve transcended the internet, and I don’t know where they’ve ended up instead.”
“Oh, sure,” I texted back absentmindedly. “The cryptonet.”
My phone rang almost immediately. It was Andrew. I picked up. “Please tell me you just came up with that right now,” he said.
“Well, yeah,” I said.
Long pause. “I only wonder whether some other cool person somewhere else in the world is having this same exact thought at this exact moment,” he said. Another pause. “And it frightens me that there might be.”
That was the beginning of Cryptonet Theory, which admittedly isn’t really a theory. It’s more like an in-joke that got out of hand, or a known truism with some magical realism and superstition mixed in. Cryptonet Theory has evolved over the years: Initially, the premise was that the cryptonet is a means of communication used by people within a certain advanced network, and also comprises the physical spaces these people gather in. This sometimes led to misunderstandings when I shared the concept with friends. Some folks quickly got hung up on the means of communication, and started imagining carrier pigeons or messages delivered via pneumatic tubes, or whatever. That was never really the main thrust. When Andrew and I first came up with Cryptonet Theory, we were much more focused on how a person gains access to the cryptonet, and how anyone can tell they’re there, than we were on the communication piece. Maybe when you’re on the cryptonet, it doesn’t even register to you that you’re communicating via the cryptonet. The cryptonet is not that overt.
Yes, You Can Get on the Cryptonet (Potentially)
Cryptonet Theory eventually settled into the simple idea that advanced and fascinating people have always had ways throughout history of finding each other. The entire history of the internet is a mere blip on the timeline of the cryptonet. You gain access to the cryptonet either by being advanced, or by tagging along with some advanced person. Once you’re on the cryptonet, no one’s going to kick you off. You’re on until you drift away from it, and if the opportunity presents itself, you can hop back on again.
I want to point out that the pivotal word here, since the genesis of Cryptonet Theory, has always been “advanced,” as opposed to something like “elite.” To be “elite,” you have to first be recognized as such by others. To be “advanced,” you just have to be ahead of the pack in one category or another, and no one needs to recognize you for being advanced in order for you to be advanced. You can pay or promote your way to elite status, but you become advanced by honing your best talents and skills. In other words, the cryptonet is closer to a true meritocracy than the false meritocracy of fame ever could be. But it’s still not a pure meritocracy — there are too many possible points of entry. You can ride in on someone’s coattails. You can gain cryptonet access when someone overestimates your abilities. If you ever suspect you’re on the cryptonet, don’t let it go to your head.
A New Angle for an Old Idea
Obviously, one of the reasons Cryptonet Theory is more of a running joke than a serious concern is that — just as Andrew feared — of course other people have had this idea already. Whenever you hear anyone griping about how getting famous is more about who you know than what you do, you’re seeing shades of Cryptonet Theory. And there’s a more exhaustively researched take on similar ideas encapsulated by what’s sometimes called the Famous Friends theory. In 2018, Paul Ingram and Mitali Banerjee published the findings of their study of the social networks of early abstract artists, in which they proposed that having “a large and diverse network of contacts” was a better indicator of whether an artist would become famous than the actual quality or innovative nature of their art. Ingram was evidently on this trip for years before the paper’s publication, teaching about how art curators network long before Cryptonet Theory was a thing.
It makes sense. This is just kind of the way things work in this world. We become recognized for our work in part through the merits of our work, and in part through being elevated by our networks. Or in other words, yeah, it is about who you know, and it always has been. It’s counterproductive to push against it, or to become cynical about it. Working artists in all disciplines know how much mileage you can expect from an unsolicited submission of pretty much anything. (It’s… not much mileage.) If you’re an artist, and you have the power to meet more people, you should probably try meeting some people. Just keep in mind the caveat that you’re going to meet a lot of people who can recognize a self-serving bad-faith actor within 10 minutes of meeting them, so you should, like, not be one of those. Bring something of worth to the table, and be genuine about it.
How Can I Tell if I’m on the Cryptonet?
The other glaringly obvious thing about Cryptonet Theory is: Of course advanced and fascinating people have ways of finding each other — when they’re already prominent. Prominent people want to connect with other prominent people. In discussing Cryptonet Theory, a friend of mine suggested the cryptonet was how famous people of the 18th or 19th century forged relationships and carried out long correspondences across borders and even oceans. And it’s like… no, those people found each other because they wanted to. They had the means to find each other. Again, the cryptonet is not that overt. Look, artists, academics, politicians — they’re all schmoozers, or at least they have to try to be. The famous recluse is an anomaly. Even, say, Emily Dickinson was a prolific letter-writer, living in an area that was extremely happening in the literary world at the time. But part of why Cryptonet Theory appeals to people is that it’s just tempting and fun to think that famous people are part of some club, and exist in a roaming VIP area that follows them wherever they go. And it’s fun to imagine gaining VIP access, and to imagine the cryptonet might take you there.
But let’s dial back the VIP angle. We don’t want to veer any closer toward elitism; the cryptonet is definitely not about celebrity. Part of what makes Cryptonet Theory more than just a passing thought is that it challenges you to think about whether you’re on the cryptonet or not. Not long after the theory started to gel, I went to a rock show at the legendary original Queens location of the DIY artspace Silent Barn, where I ran into a group of four or five young artists and writers visiting from Bogota. I proceeded to spend three days running around NYC with them, while conducting a whirlwind romance with one of them. They had stories of getting into shenanigans backstage at some number of indie-star-studded music festivals in Colombia. At one point we all went on a whim to see the band Wire at Music Hall of Williamsburg, and I can’t remember specifically how we got in, but I’m pretty sure no money changed hands? I told Andrew about all of it. He immediately decided I had been on the cryptonet. Maybe I was. Or maybe these are just things that happen sometimes when you live in NYC and you make a habit of leaving the house.
When I lived in a DIY space in Brooklyn, where I threw semi-secret rock shows on the regular, a guy who rented in a different part of the building left a note on my door with his number. He wanted to pick my brain about putting on small-scale events in his space — which he eventually did. During one of our conversations — in his section of the building, which was normally inaccessible from mine — he showed me a small recording studio his friend, who had just relocated to NYC from Austin, was building out. I recognized his friend’s name as that of the guy who created my favorite Farfisa organ demo video on all of YouTube. My bandmates and I had just been talking about that video a few days earlier, as our keyboard player was becoming a Farfisa acolyte. Were we all on the cryptonet? Or is this just what happens when you live in a weirdo art-loft building with high turnover?
I have a friend who, for a while, played in a band that occasionally played large music festivals. He came back from a tour with tales of engaging in “feats of strength” with members of the band of Montreal, and of one of the guys from the Brian Jonestown Massacre threatening to punch one of his (my friend’s, that is) bandmates for saying he looked kind of like one of the dudes from Radiohead. Maybe my friend was on the cryptonet. Or maybe he was simply playing a music festival alongside a ton of “cult status” musicians who had a lot of time on their hands.
It might be difficult to separate being on the cryptonet from just having a really good weekend. A good weekend can be really exciting, right? It’s easy to assign greater significance to how it all happened than it really deserves.
But that’s kind of the point of Cryptonet Theory. It’s human nature to recognize patterns in what are more likely totally random events. Finding patterns feels satisfying to us. It’s also fun to take a line of thought and twist it around and around to evade being disproven. That’s what Cryptonet Theory does. Whatever you think the cryptonet is, it’s never just that. In the end, all you have is your perceptions: your perceptions of what it means to be “advanced,” and your perceptions of what’s normal or abnormal for your day-to-day life. Cryptonet Theory is all tied up in fantasy fulfillment. The cryptonet is basically what you want it to be.
See you out on the cryptonet. I don’t think I’m there right now. But I have a way of finding my way back to it every once in a while.