Blockchain technology has spawned not only a new industry but also a set of subcultures within the cryptocurrency space. While these cultures have certain attributes in common, each group has its own individual characteristics that differentiate them from one another. This article is an anthropological overview by an author with absolutely no knowledge of anthropology. It can be used as a guide to those like herself who may inadvertently find themselves engulfed in a foreign culture, having mistaken one group for the other.
This article was inspired following an incident in which the author was abducted by friendly but obstinate SSID community members in Austria, absconded to Prague and forced to author a quasi-academic paper. Following that experience, the author concluded that if she could be a pseudo-authority on digital identity, nothing was stopping her from writing a pseudo-anthropological study.
This article uses the terms blockchain industry/cryptocurrency industry as a convention to describe the industry that has arisen around distributed computing and decentralization. Some of these communities do not strictly use a blockchain or cryptocurrency but are associated with the technological decentralization movement.
The cultures I explore in this article are:
- Identity Warriors
Unlike many cultures, which have grown organically in certain locations, the blockchain cultures were created by the natural gravitation of individuals to groups of like-minded and like-acting humans. Some of the attributes they have in common is that they are predominantly male, educated, and European or North American populations. Each group speaks a slightly different version of techno-jargon, detailed further below.
It is impossible to distinguish these subcultures by attire or other outward behavioral traits. Rather, one must be attentive to the content of their conversation in order to determine the group affinities. Individuals may bridge two or more groups, but certain groups have almost no overlap. However, adversarial groups do tolerate one another’s presence and enjoy heated debates after which each debater asserts he has won and not one member of the audience has changed their mind.
The Bitcoiner group includes, but is not limited to “Bitcoin maximalists” (a term coined by Etherean Vitalik, rather than the Bitcoiners themselves). Bitcoiners tend to be those who have been blessed with early entry into the world of Bitcoin, and as a result, they have more crypto-wealth than they could have imagined. While many of these investors may have diversified portfolios (most commonly Monero, for obvious reasons), they tend strongly towards Bitcoin for both obvious and less-obvious reasons.
The less-obvious reason is an adaptive mechanism in the human brain which blinds people to facts that may threaten their food supply. While Bitcoiners are too rich to have to worry about the food supply, they also have too much money in Bitcoin to fathom the decline of Bitcoin or any alternative economic theories. While the promise of crypocurrency is to transform they definition of money, and Bitcoin is a first step, Bitcoiners are somewhat unable to consider that there are additional steps possible. When you hold that much Bitcoin (or investment in crypto), and there are major tax issues in withdrawing that money, sticking to your position both intellectually and financially is the only option your brain can process. While I am almost as qualified in neuroscience as I am in anthropology, this pattern seems to be consistent with human operation. When you have invested deeply in something, it’s very difficult to change your mind about it.
Bitcoiners generally adhere to their own personal winning investment strategy which they will gladly share with you or at any conference where they are invited to speak. Many of these strategies are both well-proven and well-founded, because many of these people either come from the investment industry, or they spent a fair amount of time learning to invest. Some of these strategies are awesome simply because cryptocurrency / Bitcoin has done well. In any case, each presentation at one of these conferences will give you a conflicting yet potentially legitimate investment strategy you can try at home. Nobody says “don’t try this at home” or gives standard disclaimers about investment advice.
Bitcoiners tend to be excellent communicators and quite easy to understand. Generally, going to a conference with Bitcoiners is a hoot, because they are more interested in socializing than intellectual talks. They’ve reserved the VIP sections, someone has already paid for drinks, the food is great, and if you step outside, someone is lighting up and passing it around.
Generally, Bitcoiners tend to have a libertarian outlook and a trickle-down theory of economics which has proven itself false over the last few decades. However, they stick to this theory because it suits them to contend that since Bitcoin is not distributed by the central bankers, everyone has equal opportunity to earn Bitcoin. They have a sense that their favorite coin is the only real cryptocurrency, and that it will save the world. Their favorite currency might be Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Dash or Monero, but in any case, it is The One and the act of giving “the masses” the option to use digital cash is enough to cure inequality.
Based on the knowledge that mass adoption is the key to higher prices, as well as the belief that mass adoption will save the world, Bitcoiners are some of the most active usability advocates. They allocate time and resources to evangelism and development of technology to reach wider audiences with digital cash. Deep pockets and a sense of mission allow them to choose their audiences and offer conferences in remote places or wherever they feel like travelling next.
Ethereans are the neo-hippies of the decentralized world, carrying that revolutionary arrogance and deep intent to do what’s best. While the Etherean funding community is comprised of people who made their crypto-riches in a similar manner to the Bitcoiners but they don’t believe in the trickle-down theory of economics.
They believe in the Great World Computer, where All Truth Is Known. The Great World Truth Machine will govern people better than they govern themselves, by properly incentivizing appropriate behaviors. By tokenizing human values, such as environmental regeneration and reputation, smart contracts will allow the emergence of a better society. Code shall be Law, and AI will help us make better decisions.
The core Ethereum culture is one of contribution and welcoming of all humans into the distributed world, including n00bs. In fact, I haven’t heard anyone use the n00b terminology. You can be OG, though. Given that Ethereum is 5 years old, OG would presumably mean you were trying to create distributed systems before the birth of Ethereum.
The Ethereum community has been particularly successful in absorbing people without technology orientation, including lawyers, marketers, evangelists, and activists. Ethereans are frequently seen at P2P, collaborative economy, anarchist and radical economic events. Ethereans can code, but they also appeal to the current popular sentiment that a major change is coming. Projects within the community range wildly from green energy through new forms of democracy and finance that cuts out the middleman.
DAOists are an offshoot of the Etherean subculture, those who are creating new forms of democracy (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) on top of smart contracts, allowing people to participate in the decisions about the Code that Shall Become Law. DAOists are not limited to Ethereans, nor do they primarily believe that Code Is Law. DAOists talk about “soft governance” and “off-chain” capabilities that harmonize with DAO.
The original DAOist rhetoric revolved around the vision of a “post-competitive economy”, but when the actual systems emerged, so much of their operation was competitive that many DAOists reverted rapidly to preaching competition as an essential ingredient for reaching optimal solutions. Other DAOists walked off in disgust, either joining alternative projects or leaving the blockchain space altogether. The rift within the DAOist community shows up as a clear division between those individuals who regularly collaborate with other DAOists and those who have chosen a more branded approach, promoting their technology above others.
DAOists today can be found in EOSIO, Telos, Holochain and other crypto communities as well as Ethereans.
Monetizers don’t truly belong to the crypto subculture category at all. They’re just regular business people who see a business opportunity whenever a new technology emerges. Some of them even wear jackets and ties. I won’t go on to describe this group because it’s the same suits who have always been in the business and financial markets, just with a new set of buzzwords. By the way, these people are doing real business and having real success (on Hyperledger). The crypto culture wishes them all the best but they aren’t Blockchain people any more than they are MySQL people. New database, new jargon, same business.
Identity Warriors are people in the Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI or SSID) community. Unlike the others in this space, the SSI people have been around for 20 years, warning people of the dangers of surveillance capitalism even before it emerged. Despite the fact that they have been completely accurate in their descriptions and predictions, and that identity is the lynchpin for any application, the rest of the community proceeds to generally ignore their work. When presented with the SSI abbreviation, most blockchainers will ask what it means. The fact that this community is generally sidelined and 20 years of work ignored should be to the great benefit of the powers that be and to the data brokers, who can continue to benefit from the industry’s ignorance of the body of knowledge accumulated, and the insistence on pseudonomy as a preferable alternative to SSI.
Another strike in favor of the powers that be is that the SSI community, as an older community, has established norms and procedures, and is well seated in the W3C. As a result, getting any type of agreement requires long deliberation, tiptoeing around controversy, numerous secret coalitions, development of de-facto standards before agreement occurs, and the submission of proposals to standards bodies which further delay their official adoption for a year or two.
The SSI people speak in a more sophisticated jargon than the other communities, and it takes several days to understand even the basics of their discourse, even for those conversant in other dialects of engineese and crypto-talk. While, in many ways, the SSI people are the original cypherpunks and revolutionaries, they have aged to a point where their interactions are extremely intellectual and heady. The group is well-formed and they know and honor one another’s quirks and biases, and they do a good job of avoiding landmines with one another. To some degree, the behavior of this group feels a bit like an old married couple who know one another too well, and even in the midst of a crisis appear somewhat bored with one another, with a softness and caring thrown in as necessary to keep cohesion.
As with any family, new blood is injected into the SSI community with the entrance of new companies, younger people, and, to some degree, the blockchain-based companies that are associated with identity. The integration has been somewhat incomplete and inconsistent, with some blockchain organizations finding a fit with corporate and business organizations, and with the emergence of DIF, the Digital Identity Foundation, which serves the crypto-groups specifically. The relationship of the older SSI groups to DIF is cordial with some tension around specific members and policies. One of the major points of contention among the group is the centralization of groups such as DIF and W3C, which are the corporate-sponsored official representatives of a group that is loosely organized and primarily made up of activists and volunteers.
Holonauts (full disclosure, I have recently become one) are an emergent subculture that has been operating beside the crypto space for a number of years. Leading up to a 2018 crowdsale, the Holonauts emerged,talking about a new form of computing, including their own hardware and addressing systems foreign to any other project.
Ethereans looked like neo-hippies before Holonauts came on the scene, but Holonauts can out-hippie just about anyone. They travel around with evangelical messages about “living system wealth”, “current-sees” and feminine rather than masculine paradigms for computing. Some of them philosophize that there is no Universal Time and there is no Universal Truth, and rave on about the environmental damage caused by proof-of-stake and other types of Truth Machines. They even say that Bitcoin is a fiat currency. It is rumored that some Holonauts even live in Woodstock.
So there you have it, your personal guide to crypto subcultures. Do not be fooled by their similar appearance, propensity for biohacking or 3-day coding marathons. Each group has its own dialect and value systems, which they will gladly preach to you. Welcome to our culture, and enjoy.