It’s a hard and brutal truth to accept, but Sam Bankman-Fried single-handedly nuked the opportunity for crypto. This really hit home for me watching a recent BBC Panorama documentary about the collapse of FTX. I watched it hoping a talking-head might suggest SBF’s actions had undermined the positive potential of crypto. I didn’t expect the majority to mention this, but there’d be at least one advocate in the mix.
But not once did the idea of crypto as good ever turn up. And while I’ve had this feeling for a while, the documentary made it crystal clear: We are cooked, done for, to the mainstream. And if you’re no longer likely to be part of the mainstream culture, then where else can you go, but back to your roots, to subculture.
Crypto is a subculture that got out of hand — but I also believe that crypto will survive to the extent it accepts its status as a subculture. But to get back to our subculture roots, we need to extricate ourselves from a poisonous dynamic: Our reliance on the social media platform X.
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Marshall McLuhan’s famous insight that the medium is the message means that the media we use shapes the content we consume. Or the other way around, the content we consume obscures the media we use. The history of crypto is one shaped by its social media, and today we appear trapped in a toxic relationship with one in particular, X (the artist formerly known as Twitter).
When Bitcoin launched in 2009, the discourse around the first cryptocurrency happened on what was already an ailing platform, the bulletin board discussion forum. Bitcointalk was not Athens, far from it, but the discussion forum format did enforce a slower pace and a more traditional call-and-response dialogue tree.
By around 2015, crypto had mostly transitioned over to Reddit. Reddit’s format enabled crypto projects to establish their own niches. The most overarching subreddit, /cryptocurrency, superficially suggested a cohesive movement, while the posts often saw projects sniping at one another in the comments. Reddit as a medium ramped up the antagonism and rivalry by both enabling segregation into echo chambers and then, to pour oil on the fire, gave us one giant messy Parliament, where everyone could mutter under their voices while representatives from the other side gave their speeches.
The current stage was the move toward X.
X is a medium that has had three main corrosive effects on crypto. First, X brought all the absurdity and drama of crypto culture to the eyes of the mainstream. X is not an isolated discussion forum or relatively obscure subreddit, but a global public square where all our shenanigans are magnified. Silly, over-the-top claims about the metaverse could now be shared for likes by an Average Joe looking for an easy dunk. Second, X algorithmically rewards adversarial content. Influencers hell bent on building a following have turned topics as mundane as what consensus mechanism is best into viable careers. You could spend your time analyzing interesting nuances between mining and staking, but it’s far more lucrative — quite literally since monetization — to spin a conspiracy theory or two for your audience. Third, X as a platform seems almost entirely indifferent to stemming the relentless flow of fake giveaways, airdrops and shady links polluting everyone’s posts.
For most people, this is all they see of crypto, and it shapes their attitudes, hardening them to the thesis that crypto has failed. Not that crypto has potential if it can just get rid of the scammers, but that whatever crypto was supposed to be, what it actually is is Scam City. The medium is the fake airdrop under your friend’s post.
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Moving away from X, there’s a more subtle point about the mediums we choose to communicate with. If we ourselves insist on using Web2 social media platforms rather than our own, then why would anyone really buy into our ideas around decentralization, permissionlessness, the ownership economy, etc.?
Because these platforms exist. We already have Lens (similar to Meta), Console (similar to Discord) and Farcaster (similar to X) on Ethereum. These exist now as perfectly functional Web3 alternatives.
These are our mediums and they offer an escape route. However, psychologically, a transition away from “Crypto Twitter” and its millions of users to any one of these much quieter Web3 platforms would be admitting that crypto is a subculture once again.
But this might be exactly what we need for crypto to succeed.
We have to build out our own Web3 platforms, hopefully eliminating the worst excesses of the Web2 platforms we are currently dependent on. Then maybe, just maybe, when people come across us again, they’ll find a group of people living according to their values and be able to see the good in those values for themselves.
Dr. Paul Dylan-Ennis is Lecturer/Assistant Professor in the College of Business, University College Dublin. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Absolute Essentials of Ethereum” with Routledge.
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