Two of the biggest forces in tech today, Snapchat and Bitcoin, have collided thanks to an experiment by one of the most provocative companies in media, Vice. The New York City-based news group announced today that it would use Snapchat’s new Discover feature to debut a short film made inside a Chinese bitcoin mining operation.
Vice is one of a dozen mainstream publishers who are among the launch partners for Discover, an ephemeral content distribution platform that has been described by some as “media designed by digital natives, for digital natives.” All videos released through Discover are available for just 24-hours and can only be watched once by each user. In the case of Vice’s bitcoin film, it will subsequently be published to YouTube, where it will presumably be available in perpetuity.
“We’re super happy with how that content seems to be striking a chord,” Vice News head of platform Drake Martinet tells Bloomberg. “We thought there’d be some overlap; Vice is the leading Generation-Y media brand, and Snapchat, some of it, is a Gen-Y platform.”
For the project in question, aptly named “Life Inside a Chinese Bitcoin Mine,” the primary goal was to focus on the human stories of the people who operate the facility, according to Derek Mead, editor-in-chief of vice’s Motherboard division. Motherboard sent a team to Dalian in Northeast China where they documented a 24-hour period inside what’s described as the nation’s largest mining facility. It is one of six similar facilities owned by what Vice calls “a secretive group of four people.”
Only one of these four owners, named only as the General Manager of the facility, appears in the film, explaining to Vice that 50 percent of his personal net worth is currently held in bitcoin and that at its peak, in October 2014, the group was generating $ 1.5 million in mining proceeds daily.
The declining bitcoin price, increasing mining difficulty, and fluctuations in electricity rates have since compressed these earnings. Previously, each of the group’s six mining operations could easily generate more than as 100 bitcoins per day, but now the output is just 20 to 24 bitcoins, the GM says.
Inside the spartan facility located on the second floor of a three story building, the mine contains 3,000 mining units – special purpose computers built to rapidly crunch the cryptographic problems that make up bitcoin’s blockchain ledger system – and 12 large fans to help cool the space. Beyond this, there is little other than a few hundred broken mining units and few basic beds.
The mine employees live on-site while on-duty, a fact the GM deems necessary due to the need for 24-hour security and monitoring of the mining equipment. The primary requirement for these employees, who the GM says are well paid compared to most industrial workers, is a deep knowledge of computers – any bitcoin-specific knowledge can be taught on-site, he adds.
Asked if he thinks that now is a good time to invest in bitcoin, he laughs sheepishly, before responding, yes. The GM then compares the current transition toward bitcoin as an earlier financial shift in China from primarily a cash economy to one powered by credit and debit cards.
“We’re racing to answer a question on the Internet: Whoever does the correct calculation will be rewarded,” the unnamed GM says. “Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are the future we’re heading toward. It would make our life so much easier.”