Cryptocurrency has an odd and insular community.
It attracts anarchists, cypherpunks, libertarians, and cast-offs of all sorts and thrusts them into a world of entrepreneurs, financial professionals, and government officials.
Its leaders openly mock our modern institutions of finance, ridicule our policymakers, scorn our regulators, and belittle those who envision a world that doesn’t mesh with theirs.
Bitcoin maximalists deride no-coiners, shitcoiners, and developers who want to experiment with new ways to transfer property, create wealth, and manage commerce.
Crypto advocates make fun of businesses that want to track bananas using blockchain—nevermind that bananas are a valuable global commodity and the lifeblood of some countries’ economies.
Silly developers. Greedy businessmen. Stupid bankers. Evil politicians. Ignorant regulators.
We throw stones.
And yet we get upset that the wider world ignores us. We get mad that nobody listens to us. We hide our identities behind avatars, handles, and bitmojis.
Some of us can’t even mention bitcoin in casual conversation. Others can’t help but bring it up all the time—to shill their services or promote their brands, and sometimes to engage other people in genuinely productive conversations.
(But mostly to shill or promote.)
As a result, we struggle to articulate messages that resonate with anybody who doesn’t already “get it.”
It’s not just you
If you feel this way, you’re not alone.
Over the past month or two, I reached out to friends and acquaintances within the cryptocurrency community, as well as several relatively influential people who graciously responded to my contact.
These people came from all ends of the spectrum—developers and project leaders, financial professionals and fund managers, writers and bloggers, researchers and academics.
While everybody shared a somewhat different perspective, one thing is clear: many of us feel like we’re on an island. Cryptocurrency is far from mainstream.
Some love being part of a subculture that’s disconnected from the so-called “masses.” It’s fun, special, and a little naughty.
Many feel isolated and ignored. Not discouraged, but detached.
A common theme: we love talking about crypto because we get to do it so rarely.
Nobody gathers around the water cooler to talk about bitcoin on Monday mornings. Your kids never beg you to buy them Ethereum for Christmas. Your friends don’t ask you what you thought about the latest episode of Altcoin Daily or whether you agree with the most recent guest on Off the Chain.
Since we’re on an island, it’s hard for people to connect with us.
Especially when our strongest beliefs make no sense for the vast majority of people.
Bitcoin doesn’t fix as many things as you think
Imagine you own a decent car that runs fine. While you have problems now and then, they rarely cause more than an inconvenience—at least, nothing serious enough to worry about. That’s the cost of car-ownership. Everybody deals with it.
At the neighborhood holiday party, a guy named John approaches you. You’ve heard John tinkers around with cars but you’ve never seen him working on any. He’s an accountant from the apartment building down the street.
He tells you your car’s going to fall apart and you should buy magic car parts created by a computer program. These car parts can never be warped, tampered with, or manipulated—and they’re very rare, so their prices will go up.
You ask him how that’s possible. He says “it’s all math!”
You ask him where the car parts come from. He says “it’s an infallable algorithm!”
You ask him why the prices change all the time. He says “it’s early-stage technology, very small market—prices will stabilize over time.”
You ask him whether he uses those car parts in his own car. He says “no, they’re too valuable.”
The next day, you tell your mechanic about the conversation.
“John’s crazy,” he says. “I’ve serviced your car for years, it runs fine. Just needs routine maintenance. Those magic car parts are all scams and there’s no regulation. Prices always crash. Did you know criminals use them to launder money?”
Meanwhile, John’s Twitter profile has a pinned tweet that says “Magic car parts will reach $1 million by the end of 2020.” You can see he’s retweeting some guy who says “long magic car parts, short the mechanics” and sharing posts that seem to suggest we’re on the verge of a collapse in the car-parts market and the global parts-production system has run out of steam.
Even if John’s right, how likely are you to listen to him?
What if you didn’t know anything was broken in the first place?
Maybe you’re ignorant about how cars work, or simply content with the current system. Crazy John is not likely to change your mind, especially not when he looks like this:
Do you ever wonder if you might come across as Crazy John?
I do. In fact, I never bring up cryptocurrency unless somebody asks me about my books.
Of course I welcome the conversation but I realize most people will only care about cryptocurrency when prices go up.
They don’t worry about inverted yield curves and undercapitalized banks. Nor do they recognize violations of their privacy and human rights. And they really don’t have any problems with the authorities (though neither do I).
To them, blockchain seems like an odd abstraction, not an innovative technology.
Since they don’t know anything’s broken, they don’t see how bitcoin fixes it.
When money speaks, the truth stays silent
I’m guilty of posting “price go up” memes and trading charts now and then.
Everybody wants crypto to boom. That would validate the technology and make us rich.
As a content creator, I know I can jack up my stats with a fluff piece on the next big altcoin or by putting “bitcoin’s price” in the SEO toolbar.
But delve into the potential social and economic impact of cryptographically-secure, time-stamped distributed ledgers?
Some people working on altcoins told me that usually, nobody cares about the substance of what they’re working on until the prices go up. And as you recall during the 2017 boom, your friends never once asked you about bitcoin until the price went bonkers.
When everybody’s focused on price, nobody thinks about substance. Decentralized protocols, trustless networks, financial inclusion, smart contacts, verifiable transactions—all the really valuable stuff gets lost.
Everybody wants money and financial freedom. It’s a simple concept that feeds a basic human need.
Open, public, borderless, neutral, censorship-resistant financial systems? Um…what?
Then you have people who make money from the status quo. For many businesses, blockchain technology can open huge new opportunities. Cryptocurrency unlocks the potential of blockchain.
But good luck getting them to appreciate that.
Many businesspeople see crypto as a threat. Not only does it open all sorts of regulatory issues, it also upends their business models. It’s hard to see the opportunity when the risks are so immediate.
Turning $10 into $1,000? That’s a much easier concept (and much more appealing).
But how far does that really get us?
Dan Conway wrote a great book documenting his journey from a frustrated corporate hack to an Ethereum millionaire. Along the way, he gets ridiculed by people outside crypto, treated like crap by people inside the industry, and fired in part for writing about his passion. His family and friends tell him to sell his crypto. His wife fights over what to do with the money. Everybody challenges his convictions.
You can find his book on my Reading List. It’s reminder about how hard it is to make “easy” money.
More than that, it gives voice to loneliness and fortitude—the inner strength it takes to persist when nobody cares about what you’re doing or what you believe in.
Dan told me when it came time to test the packaging, branding, and messaging for the book’s promotion, he discovered the only thing people really cared about was that he made millions with cryptocurrency. It was the only message that got people interested in his book.
He changed its title, cover, and marketing so people would read it.
Education will not fix that. Bitcoin will not fix that.
People be what they be.
Some of that is our fault
Developers and entrepreneurs are working on all sorts of projects designed to make bitcoin more useful, accessible, secure, and user-friendly.
Good! Those efforts will yield amazing discoveries and cool new implementations.
Do we need to get so pissy about people trying to do something different with altcoins? Does everything in this space need to revolve around the bitcoin standard, “price go up,” and code-as-law? What message does that send to everybody outside our community?
Maximalist goals defy behavioral economics and human psychology. Common memes about monetary evolution clash with historical and anthropological discoveries about how people use money.
There’s a reason “hard money” always fails.
Many people understand this intuitively. You won’t win them over by telling them how they’re wrong.
Bitcoin is too valuable to be co-opted by tribalists and maximalists. New blockchains are too valuable to be dismissed as shitcoins, bags, and scams (though many are). Not every person who wants to do something nice for you is trying to scam you—and you can always choose to ignore them instead of harassing them for contacting you.
DeFi doesn’t need bitcoin. Bitcoin doesn’t need DeFi (and probably shouldn’t have it). It’s ok to believe both, either, or neither of those statements. We don’t need to get into spats about it on Twitter. Constructive criticism rarely fits into the 280 character limit—especially when it’s just hate and ignorance dressed up as debate.
When we self-segregate and assault each other’s beliefs, we cut ourselves off from each other. Our judgments drive people away.
Worse, all these different beefs and contradictions make it hard for the average person to understand crypto, let alone care about it.
You don’t get to choose crypto’s fate
Cryptocurrency is simply a technology. Ultimately, people will decide which technologies work and which do not.
(Sometimes, for reasons that mystify us.)
In the end, we may end up using bitcoin for everything. It’s also possible we get some other result. Can you predict the future?
No, of course not.
State facts and the truth as you see it. Stay true to your convictions. Advocate for what you believe. Work on projects that matter to you.
And leave it at that.
If you listen to those who disagree with you, you may learn something valuable.
Or maybe not, but shouting down others will not make you any more correct than you already are. In the end, time will determine who’s right and wrong.
I speak only for myself
I’m sure my perspective is skewed.
Before I found my current job, I spent a lot of time in retail, food/drink services, sales, and politics. I saw people do horrible things. Beyond that, I saw how strongly people will cling to their beliefs and choices regardless of the facts or consequences.
Truth is hard to find and usually isn’t very compelling. Science advances one funeral at a time.
People will convince themselves of anything to justify their actions. Sometimes, I wonder if we’re doing the same thing when we post S2F charts and buy the latest bitcoin books.
We can’t do anything to convince people of something they don’t want to believe. All we can do is make cryptocurrency accessible and useful.
Show people how it matters, don’t tell them why it does.
I like to think my book, Consensusland, plays a small role in showing people how crypto matters (and why it will take a while to catch on). People tell me it opened their minds about this technology.
How deep is that impact?
I don’t know. I guess we shall see. All I can do is try.
Education doesn’t work
Does that mean we need to distance ourselves from “no-coiners” and wait for a bull market to get people interested? Hunker down for the next few years until some killer app or great implementation catches on?
Do we need more advocates or more developers? Both?
Are we better off keeping quiet and letting crypto speak for itself? After all, if this stuff is as good as we think it is, everybody will come around eventually.
Or will they?
Based on my conversations, I do not think education will work.
No matter how “simple” you make your message, it will do little for a general public that’s mostly confused, ambivalent, or skeptical (if not hostile) about cryptocurrency.
People need to have a reason to care. Only then will they care to learn.
Booming prices certainly give people a reason to care, but I’m not convinced anybody who puts $100 into a Coinbase account will take bitcoin more seriously, especially when it inevitably crashes afterwards.
What will make people care?
In the coming months, I’ll explore this question, drawing from my own experience and the experiences of the people I mentioned earlier. My opinion may surprise you.
To all who offered their time and thoughts to me, I am very grateful. We have an amazing community.
Relax and enjoy the ride!
Mark Helfman is a top writer on Medium for cryptocurrency, finance, and bitcoin topics. His book, Consensusland, explores the social, cultural, and business challenges of a fictional country that runs on cryptocurrency. In a past life, he worked for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Subscribe to my newsletter: