Bitcoiners acclimating to life on the fringe
When I served as Global Policy Counsel of the Bitcoin Foundation in 2014, I was fond of saying that the inevitable “Bitcoin Revolution” would come in five, fifteen, or fifty years. Our task was simply to shorten the timeframe. Five years on, the Bitcoin Foundation is essentially defunct. Bitcoin faces stiff competition from other digital assets (including competing “bitcoins”). And we know that it will be more than five years before cryptocurrency reaches its potential. Part of what’s holding it back is the Bitcoin community itself.
Have no doubt about what’s possible: The economic and technical genius of securing a blockchain data structure with a cryptocurrency incentive system is unrivaled. The technology now exists for Internet-native recordkeeping systems, available to everyone, controlled by no one, immutable, and unstoppable, if the right (decentralized) conditions pertain.
Bitcoin is optimized for holding and transferring value via metaphorical digital “tokens” known as bitcoins. It could beat banks and central banks at their own game by delivering low-cost financial services to the hundreds of millions of people across the world who now lack them. It could increase human liberty and prosperity globally. It could secure the financial privacy of law-abiding people. And it could deliver monetary stability in the countries around the world that don’t have it.
Other blockchain applications, adopted voluntarily and run by communities of users, could perform the functions of many governmental and corporate institutions. They could do so with greater transparency and reliability, at lower cost, and with fewer political and organizational risks.
But that doesn’t mean that the genius is obvious or that Bitcoin and cryptocurrency will achieve their high potential any time soon.
Bitcoin is doing fine. It runs impeccably, resists censorship well, and delivers good rewards for miners and “hodlers.” But relative to its potential, it’s really just limping along.
Why? There can never be a complete explanation for a thing that didn’t happen. But a contributing factor may be the failure of the Bitcoin community to generate the positive social dynamics that lead to technology adoption. Human factors are especially important if the technology’s function is to control and transfer people’s hard-earned wealth. This is not an area where most people are going to leap without looking.
The Bitcoin white paper, published pseudonymously by one “Satoshi Nakamoto,” couldn’t cover the formidable array of issues that come with designing a new system for global online cooperation. There are endless interrelated technical, economic, power, and political dynamics. It’s like designing a new society from scratch. And unfortunately the loose team of coders who maintain the Bitcoin software have a strength in writing code, but far less aptitude for explaining what their goals are and why they’re good, what their security and growth models are, their sense of “cryptoeconomics,” or how they perceive and respond to various threats and impediments. Hence, the schisms — yes, plural — that have beset the Bitcoin community and others.
The huge task of uncovering and communicating all these issues is not all the responsibility of the coders, of course. With a few exceptions, the Bitcoin business community are collectively deer in the headlights of the profound change their full success actually relies on. There is a growing academic community, though, a healthy trade press, and a small assortment of journals and other efforts that may begin to backfill some of the social capital that would validate Bitcoin and cryptocurrency to broad audiences.
In the meantime, though, superficial “debate” about Bitcoin’s merits and demerits is occurring on social media. And it’s not going well.
This week, the leader of a Bitcoin organization called the Nakamoto Institute gave a talk purporting to advise others on communicating about Bitcoin online. “The Art of Bitcoin Rhetoric: How to Meme Bitcoin to the Moon,” is a thing to behold. Among his advice was to “bully the people who don’t agree with us.” On Twitter, journalists especially, he said, should get “the heavy hand of absolute trolling.”
“You were born to shill. Do it.”
It could all be tongue in cheek. The idea may be to mock extremely poor methods for bringing people to one’s side and thereby dissuade people from insulting and trolling Bitcoin’s many doubters. But it didn’t land that way, and post-talk discussion and behavior on Twitter suggests that this community is embracing its role as a fringe element. Some Bitcoiners seem to bask in grandiose beliefs about its present and future that don’t comport with the reality that Bitcoin is small and inconsequential relative to its potential.
I recently came across a video that showed the singer of a rock band stopping a performance to debate with an audience member about cultural appropriation. (Alas, I haven’t found the video again to share it.) The audience member claimed victim status and, based on that status, declined to explain to the singer, an apparent white male, what the issue was. In full-flowered intersectionality, I take it, the burden of explaining a problem such as cultural appropriation is not one the victim of it should have to bear. (It’s an Alice-in-Wonderland culture that I can’t pretend to understand.)
A small but vocal subset of the Bitcoin community seems to be adopting a similar stance — not victims per se, but too enlightened and righteous to have to do the work of educating “nocoiners” or “precoiners” about the merits of bitcoin.
Persuasion is more art than science, so there isn’t a way to be definitive about what grows communities and drives technology adoption. But I suspect that garish obnoxiousness is less persuasive than working kindly to bring along everyone who might be persuaded, and to neutralize through kindness those who won’t. Nobody is immune from fair criticism, of course. I have observed how some of Bitcoin’s most intense critics seem to structure their thinking around opposing Bitcoin’s most combative and obnoxious advocates. That is, they decide to oppose people they dislike, then create arguments to justify their opposition. Some become a little trollish themselves.
It’s a pity if it will be fifteen or fifty years before Bitcoin and cryptocurrency achieve their potential. I hope to be wrong guessing that it will take that long. But I think counterproductive behavior among some of Bitcoin’s advocates may be holding it back.