While highly technical and revolutionary, the cryptocurrency field has nonetheless seen its fair share of social conflict. The most prevalent example thereof is the fight over Bitcoin’s scaling debate, which has led to pervasive online trolling, hostility, and tribalistic division. This conflict has led to a developmental impasse, and as a result Bitcoin’s average transaction fees have risen past $4.
Dash Force News spoke with Emin Gün Sirer, professor of computer science at Cornell University and co-director of the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Smart Contracts, about the rise of hooliganism in cryptocurrency communities.
Dash Force News: What’s cryptohooliganism?
Emin Gün Sirer: Cryptohooliganism is the senseless process of picking sides and fighting online battles based on tribal affiliation, in what should normally be a scientific endeavor.
We have seen this process play out when it comes to governance of cryptocurrencies. Simple parameter selection problems get turned into drawn out multi-year battles, as the two sides push for entrenched positions, brigade, denigrate, and attack each other.
The term comes from hooliganism in soccer, where the fans have no effect on game strategy, yet feel like they need to cheer very loudly, and at times pick fights with opposing fans, to establish their identity. The entire sport suffers as a result.
Is this prevalent in cryptocurrency, or moreso than in more normal professional fields?
EGS: We do not quite see the engineering world split into camps over what kinds of bridges are best. Other, more mature, disciplines realize that technical design decisions require a scientific process, and have evolved internal processes for handling conflicts and disputes.
It is, however, incredibly common in cryptocurrencies. It perhaps has something to do with the fact that money and investments are involved. But it also has something to do with lack of vision. That is, the more likely someone falsely believes they are playing a zero-sum game, the more likely they are to engage in cryptohooliganism and attack competing ideas and competing coins.
And this toxic attitude is aided and abetted by companies looking to get their way and put pressure on others. I’ve seen CEO’s actively encourage trolls they perceive to be sympathetic to their cause.
Does this act have a real effect on the technology and its ecosystem, or is it merely grief, stress, and hot air?
EGS: First of all, grief, stress and hot air, by themselves, have a huge impact on open source projects in particular and on the whole space in general. I see first hand that new students are rightfully reticent about jumping into a community dominated by toxic figures. This is partly an explicit goal of the most toxic trolls, who tend to be the least secure and the least technically talented: they want to keep other, more talented individuals out of a certain territory.
Second, a toxic environment takes a toll on everyone. We have seen talented Core developers, like Peter Wiulle, complain about lost productivity due to non-ending battles such as Bitcoin’s blocksize debate, and this is despite the fact that most of the worst trolls are pro-Core. Like a toxic cloud, it affects everyone; if your side sprays the air, your own people have to don gas masks.
And finally, it definitely affects the technology. Witness the lack of progress Bitcoin has made over the course of the last two years. Research is far ahead of what’s in the code right now. Not only is there a transaction backlog, but there’s a backlog of ideas piled up behind the never ending blocksize debate.
Certainly there is an opportunity cost associated with fighting instead of specifics. Care to speculate about where cryptocurrencies might be if not for cryptohooliganism?
EGS: It’s impossible to guess where we might be in terms of price, but it is easy to discuss the technological ramifications.
First, we would have a united user community generating new ideas and pursuing adoption, instead of an inwards-oriented, divided group. This would attract more people into cryptocurrencies.
Second, we would have deployed a scaling solution, along with a scalability roadmap. If we developed these in a scientific manner that gave all participants a voice, then people would know that they can build a startup on Bitcoin without worrying about the technology evolving underneath them to block their use cases. There would be much more VC funding in the overall space, and much more innovation.
Third, recall that Bitcoin has always had two Achilles heels, not just one. Namely, scalability and security. Cryptohooliganism around scale has kept out all progress on security. “Sorry For Your Loss” events are all too common, people lose money to hackers all the time, and Bitfinex lost substantial sums from what they thought was secure multi-sig storage. We know how to address these problems, and could be making headway towards addressing them,
Is this just the way the field is destined to be? Or is another way possible?
EGS: I’m hopeful that the field has much more room for growth, and that, in time, the toxicity will be replaced by optimism and cooperation. The zero-sum thinking that drives some coin holders to attack other coins, and most recently, to invite regulators into the space, will clearly backfire. The bad narratives that the weak and confused people often repeat, such as “I’ll do something antisocial now, because a trustless currency should not be trusting me to exhibit good leadership” have already been shown to fail, and have been largely derided. Gresham’s Law says that, as good money and good people come into a space, they will drive out these behaviors, or at least push them into their own confined circles. So I’m hopeful, as always, about the future.
People are beginning to realize that cryptocurrencies are indeed financial instruments, but they are also tech products that require multiple trustworthy teams behind them to succeed. Further, they are communities that need healthy processes for self-governance. Money systems are primarily social systems.
We have seen Ethereum get things right, and propel itself meteorically, mostly by virtue of building a good community. Yes, they have great technology, and multiple independent teams working on evolving it, but most importantly, they have a functioning community.
In contrast, communities that look to shock jocks for guidance, that treat professional trolls and the people who prop them up as developers or leaders, are bound to trip up on their own narrative. We have seen Bitcoin maximalism fail in every conceivable way, and the angst that the maximalists face now stems from their own desires conflicting with the very hooliganism they propped up for years.