Merrill wasn’t thinking about getting “better at being me” when, back in 2008, he started his one-man stock exchange, called KmikeyM (Merrill’s full name is Kenneth Michael Merrill). His initial idea, instead, was a little like an open-ended version of the crowd-funding Web site Kickstarter—but instead of backing one project, contributors would, in exchange for their financial investment in his creative career, get a say in which ideas he pursued, and how. Merrill points to the European digital-art collective Etoy as his inspiration: in 2005, that group sold “shares” to underwrite its activities. Merrill envisioned doing something similar, but with a market component that would allow backers to cash out; “investors” wouldn’t receive any dividends on profits, but they could theoretically make money if successful projects stoked demand for owning a piece of KmikeyM.
The idea of crowd-sourcing personal decisions did not occur to Merrill until after he disclosed to shareholders (via a dedicated site where he files regular reports) that he had moved in with his then-girlfriend. One shareholder promptly complained that the decision, which could easily impact Merrill’s creative output, constituted a unilateral management maneuver that put investor capital at risk. Where was the accountability? Merrill was so interested in this critique that he put before shareholders another decision he’d wrestled with: whether to have a vasectomy (no: 55 percent). KmikeyM’s emphasis soon shifted from creative choices to personal ones. “That’s the stuff people have responded more to,” Merrill told me.
Now for the buy side: Who are these people, and what do they want? Most of the first 1,300 or so “shares” were bought by or granted to Merrill’s friends—coders, artists, musicians, and so on, including Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans, co-founders of the band YACHT. Evans confessed to some original uncertainty about the nature of the undertaking. “You never know how serious he is,” she said. But it also made sense. For one thing, she said, “Mike tends to like the idea of his life as a creative project.” He has long expressed an intense interest in rules and systems (example: he wears only Brooks Brothers clothing), and an admiration for the benefits of financial and capitalist structures. Evans told me that, as KmikeyM has developed, she’s come to appreciate the power of the crowd’s advice. She maintained that because the value of shares rises and falls purely on the basis of demand, KmikeyM investors have an interest in making decisions that keep Merrill productive. “The economic side of it motivates people not to be flippant with their votes.”
As Merrill’s experiment began to attract attention from tech and art blogs, he issued a second offering of 2,000 new shares (via an online auction with a $1-per-share price floor). The upshot is that now outright strangers are involved in the voting, among them Douglas Stewart, a Web developer in Edmonton, Alberta, who has never even spoken to Merrill. Interested in both crowd-funding (he’s backed dozens of Kickstarter projects) and online mechanisms for betting on election outcomes and the like, he bought his first KmikeyM shares in August 2011. Stewart has since amassed 290 shares, making him the fifth-largest stakeholder in Merrill’s life. (He’s paid an average share price of $6.96; shares on this obviously thin market have traded as high as $20, and more recently at about $8.) He seems largely drawn to the idea that this may be a more efficient, and entertaining, version of what humans attempt to do all the time—seek objective advice—with the twist that the advice-givers have a financial incentive. “It’s one person being more serious about his own existence, in a way,” Stewart suggested.