These days, everyone has a social media guy. It's a crucial component of marketing for any modern business, no matter what's being sold: books, cars, food, journalism. Illegal drugs. Since the online illegal drug market Atlantis Marketplace launched six months ago, it's set itself apart with brazen marketing tactics. But it abruptly shut down this week. Now that he's got some free time on his hands, the freelance online marketing expert who was Atlantis' main PR guy was willing to talk to me about hustling drugs in the social media era.
On Wednesday I Skyped with "Heisenberg 2.0," the 30ish Irish expat who for the past four months has run Atlantis' Twitter and Facebook presence and been the public face of a very private company. Atlantis was on the Dark Net, and, like the notorious Silk Road, used the Tor Network to allow its clients to anonymously buy and sell drugs like collectibles on EBay. (I'm unable to independently confirm Heisenberg's story, except for the fact that he does have access to the official Atlantis Marketplace Twitter account, through which I initially contacted him.)
Heisenberg seemed pretty bummed about his lost gig.
"It was a disappointment for me," Heisenberg said in an undisguised brogue. "You ever have a job where you get up in the morning and check your messages? It wasn't like a job. It was enjoyable."
Heisnberg isn't the only one disappointed. It appears that Atlantis' founders, supposedly two people who went by the handles Loera and Vladimir, made off with thousands of dollars worth of Bitcoins belonging to their former customers after abruptly announcing the shutdown for unidentified "security issues" on their Facebook page. Another former Atlantis "employee" named Cicero told AllThingsVice, “Atlantis admins shut down the site and ran away with the coins.”
"You ever have a job where you get up in the morning and check your messages? It wasn't like a job. It was enjoyable."
The career of an underground drug marketplace's social media guy starts pretty much the same way any other new-media career does. Heisenberg applied for the job after one of the Atlantis' founders mentioned (in a Reddit Ask Me Anything thread, of course) that the site was hiring a marketer. For the past few years, Heisenberg had done freelance social media work for above-ground companies, and believed he could bring his expertise to bear for a cause that he believed in—foiling the U.S.-led War on Drugs.
"I think solving drug abuse issues is more of a social issue and not a criminal issue. Sites like Atlantis, in my view, clean up the market," he said. He sent them an application, complete with a proposal for a viral video.
At the time Heisenberg applied, Atlantis was evidently struggling to compete with the well-established Silk Road market for customers on a Dark Net that had become crowded with ecommerce. A viral could be the thing to set them apart. The Irishman won the spot out of about 70 applicants and joined in June. He said he agreed to work for free as long as he kept ownership of Atlantis Twitter and Facebook accounts as equity, with an option of getting a share in profits later.
The video Heisenberg created, with the help of an independent producer, was an astonishingly slick animated spot that featured peppy ukulele music, like something out of a Chipotle ad. It was posted on June 26, and in the 72 hours before it was pulled from YouTube, it got over 50,000 views
"It was actually one of the easiest jobs I'd worked on in that the media was really willing to jump on the story," he said. "I sent it to a few reporters and seeded links in a few places but once people saw it hey ran with it."
Heisenberg's other key marketing innovation was a shift in targeting strategy. Previously, Atlantis' owners concentrated on poaching customers from Silk Road. But Silk Road customers proved extremely loyal, and Heisenberg was viciously flamed off of Silk Road's message boards whenever he tried to advertise. He realized that it would be much easier to expand Atlantis' own market with brand-new users—people who'd never see the Dark Net before. He said he stumbled on a surprisingly active community of people openly trading drugs on Facebook. They were unfamiliar with the Dark Net and the superior security it offered. "It was very easy to pull people from there," he told me. "I just put out our message to groups there, and people started coming who had never heard of Silk Road or Atlantis."
After changing the marketplace's growth strategy, he spent his time posting cheery messages to Facebook, trolling message boards to spread the word, moderating Atlantis' own message board, and engaging with people on Twitter. He called what he was doing "anonymous social media marketing."
Heisenberg's practice always had a jovial, outgoing style that seemed at odds with the shady nature of the project. Once, he tweeted that he was hosting an encrypted chat for journalists. I joined the room along with Forbes journalist Andy Greenberg, and found Heisenberg as ingratiatingly bland as any tech PR guy. In an article about Silk Road's boss, Dread Pirate Roberts, Greenberg quotes Heisenberg as saying Atlantis is "Facebook to [Silk Road's] MySpace." Still, the most recent estimates place the number of Atlantis vendors at 600—only half of Silk Road's.
Heisenberg says barely uses drugs outside of smoking the occasional joint, and was unfamiliar with the Dark Net and the drug trade before her took on Atlantis. But through his work he quickly learned the contours of Dark Net culture, where "everyone is paranoid of everyone. Although I have to say I find the forums a blast." He realized, for example, that it is a major faux pas to ask others on the Dark Net about the techniques the used to stay anonymous. "It's sort of like asking someone their dick size," he said.
"Everyone is paranoid of everyone. Although I have to say I find the forums a blast."
Because of this secrecy, he never learned much about the people behind Atlantis, despite working for them for four months: their real identities, nationality or even how many there were in total. (He believes five, based on their public statements.) The Atlantis people emailed him sparsely, rarely checking in on him other than to offer occasional praise. They spoke English well, but he never got a sense of who they were or where they were from.
"I could tell that they were possibly engineers," he said. "They were happy to just be the engineers in the background and let me run with it."
As Atlantis' profile grew—he estimates by the end it was doubling traffic every month—Heisenberg became increasingly uneasy about his security. He was essentially the face of Atlantis to the outside world and was thus the most vulnerable to being hacked or exposed by law enforcement. When he asked Atlantis' owners for security tips—taboo be damned—he was unsettled by how few safeguards they used themselves. One day, he was approached over email by someone who offered to pay him for information on Atlantis' owners. He suspects it was law enforcement.
So Heisenberg was not entirely surprised last Friday when he received a private message from Atlantis saying that they were shutting down. He believes that no single security flaw led to Atlantis' downfall, but that their public profile had grown much faster than their actual business, and the owners felt could no longer justify the risk. In other words, his marketing efforts were maybe a little too successful.
"Basically they said with regret that they were closing the market due to security concerns," he said. "They told me I was one of the best hires they ever made, and they wished me best of luck in the future." Before leaving, they gave him a small honorarium of "a few bitcoins," he said. (Cicero, the other moderator got around $200.)
Heisenbeg is planning his next move. He's now the de facto owner of the Atlantis brand: He still has control of the AtlantisMarket Twitter account (472 followers), and a blog that was about to roll out before the shutdown. He's considering starting an insider's blog about the Dark Net based on what he's learned so far.
After the shutdown, he even reached out to the Silk Road's Dread Pirate Roberts, Atlantis' arch-rival, as a sort of peace offering:
"I said: 'All my cards are on the table, this is how it is. I'm not brand loyal. I took this job because I believe in the bigger picture, the existence of Dark Net marketplaces, and I'm kind of disappointed in the Atlantis admins for not coming out with anything else about the shutdown.' He had a few questions for me, but I don't know anything else."
Heisenberg paused. "Maybe I'm just sort of trying to warm up to a role with Silk Road. I don't know."