Scaling the Community: Five Takeaways From the Ether

Once upon a time, Ethereum was a vast unknown. A technological moonshot with an uncertain fate.

It’s easy to forget, but back in 2014 it wasn’t 100% clear whether the platform would even function in a sustainable fashion. In the run-up to Ethereum going live, someone published a site poking good-natured fun at its ambitious goals and absence of a actual live platform. It nicely captured the prevailing sentiment in those pre-Frontier days.

Fast-forward four years (approximately four decades in crypto time), and theory has been translated to practice…with astonishing results. While it hasn’t been the world’s smoothest journey — we’ve had our share of reentrancy bumps and multi-sig bruises along the way — nobody doubts whether this technology actually works. It’s a testament to just how far we’ve come.

Today our colorful decentralized ecosystem includes hundreds of functional DApps, a thriving developer and meetup community, strong underlying infrastructure, rainbow unicorns and dancing badgers, and quantifiable advantages over other blockchain platforms. The paramount question on our collective minds has morphed from “does it work?” to “does it scale?”

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic that scaling will work out on a technical basis; the sheer number of smart and dedicated minds working on state channels, POS, sharding, Plasma chains and their ilk is beyond promising.

However, amidst the lively debates, discussions, and hand-wringing over technical scaling, it’s important not to lose sight of its equally crucial counterpart: community scaling.

In this author’s humble opinion, Ethereum’s thriving community — underpinned by a handful of widely-shared values — is our greatest strength. While a strong and vibrant community isn’t a sufficient condition for the platform’s long-term success, it may very well be a necessary one. Without it, we may not have come this far. And unless we maintain and cultivate this strength, we run the risk of falling short of the technology’s full potential.

This raises the question: what exactly are those core values? What makes Ethereum a fun place to be? How can we preserve and maintain these characteristics as more individuals and organizations join the fold? What potholes do we face on the road to successful community scaling?

The recent “Shared Values” survey, which was conceptualized and distributed by Jarrad Hope of Status, can help us answer these questions. In an effort to find common threads, themes, and suggestions, I’ve taken a qualitative and decidedly non-scientific approach to analyzing the data. (For a very thorough quantitative analysis, courtesy of Mamy Ratsimbazafy, check this out.)

Full responses to the questions are here. If you have the time, take a moment to read through the responses and find your own conclusions. Also consider the fact that despite my best efforts, my own biases toward collaboration, diplomacy, and unity as the default status for humans may have clouded the following analysis.

So — let’s see what people are saying, and how they’re feeling.

Takeaway #1: We Want to Create a Better World

Anecdotally, a sense of optimism seems to permeate and inform much of the community. This is something that’s tangible. Attend a hackathon, Devcon, or other meatspace event, and you can feel it in the air. Many people seem to join the Ethereum world for one big reason: they believe this new decentralized technology has the power to improve life on our little pale blue dot of a planet.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives…every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there, on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” — Carl Fucking Sagan

Survey responses reflect this optimism; the phrase “better world” appears 9 times. Interestingly, equality (or a desire to address inequality) appears 20 times. This quest for a more egalitarian society is a notable departure from the Bitcoin community, which tends to focus more exclusively on expanded individual freedom stemming from an alternative to centralized fiat’s monopoly.

However, the two are not mutually exclusive; cypherpunk and libertarianism are well-represented responses to “What are 3 or more organizations, communities, social movements and/or ideologies that are (loosely) related to Ethereum?” Many Ethereans are proudly carrying the cypherpunk torch that gave rise to decentralized platforms in the first place.

One beautiful thing about this technology is its potential ability to promote income equality without trouncing individual rights. For example, Universal Basic Income (also mentioned several times in the survey) becomes much more plausible and palpable when united with a voluntary, global, transparent, censorship-resistant distribution mechanism.

There are also multiple shout-outs to Effective Altruism. This type of thinking is a solid fit with the possible advent of a post-scarcity world, as spelled out in Jeremy Rifkin’s eye-opening book, “The Zero Marginal Cost Society.”

Altruism is also reflected in the high number of responders who mentioned Giveth (an organization dedicated to decentralized altruism), and/or its founder, Griff Green. Bitcoin has already produced an incredible precedent for charitable giving in the Pineapple Fund. Here’s hoping these powerful acts of generosity can serve as an example for all of us in Ethereum.

Rhys Lindmark typifies the underlying world-betterment sentiment that’s shared by many Ethereans:

“Two things (give my life meaning):
1. Meaningful human connection
2. Empowering others to have meaningful human connection. i.e. Trying to maximize how long humanity “”stays around”” (an infinite game of antifragility…the x axis of time) + maximizing happiness while we’re around (releasing folks from a scarcity mindset, moving them up Maslow’s hierarchy…the y-axis of happiness).”

Takeaway #2: There Are Many Schelling Points of Conversations

Ethereum critics often argue that the platform is centralized in its discourse, due to the purported cult status surrounding its creator. The survey responses indicate that there’s something very different happening in the space: engaging discussions are revolving around dozens of thought-leaders (for lack of a better term). This is evidenced by the wide array of responses to the “who are your Ethereum role models (other than Vitalik)?” question:

Check out Alex Van De Sande’s twitter for more interesting survey word clouds.

Given this wide range of respected individuals, one can infer that the just about anyone can influence and guide discussions in Ethereum; it doesn’t require that you’re with the Ethereum Foundation or a large organization such as Consensys. It simply requires a steady stream of innovative thought and well-articulated ideas. (The occasional meme doesn’t hurt either).

If you have interesting ideas but aren’t actively sharing them, what’s stopping you? Your audience on twitter, medium, and reddit awaits.

Takeaway #3: Onboarding and UX Need Improvement

A failure to bring new participants into the ecosystem was cited by multiple respondents as an area for improvement. Ethereum does have a steep learning curve, for users and developers alike. The former may have lot to do with a sub-par UX, which was also a common issue cited in the survey.

Why is UX a challenge? It’s not for a lack of awesome developers and front-end designers in the space. The reason stems from the fact that we’re working with an entirely new paradigm. It goes far beyond the UX challenges confronted by our internet pioneer forebearers in the mid-90’s. Back then, mainstream users didn’t understand the fundamental properties of TCP/IP and SMTP — but that was OK, because their Mosaic/Netscape browser showed them interesting things. They could chat in real-time with people in distant places, and their electronic mails arrived in prompt fashion. No stamps required. The value proposition was intuitive and self-evident.

A/S/L?

Similarly, potential mainstream users don’t need to understand what makes blockchains tick under the skin. However, the value proposition for DApps may not be as obvious unless users grasp the fundamental properties of distributed computing: default transparency, censorship resistance, and non-immutability. (A very basic understanding of hashing wouldn’t hurt either).

A humble suggestion for builders of DApps: beware the “curse of knowledge.” If your goal is to take your beautiful service to the mainstream, test it front of users who know nothing about blockchain technology. Do they understand how to use it? Do they understand why it’s so much better than the centralized alternative? Is it as frictionless as the tried-and-true centralized web and mobile apps that have already eaten the world?


On a more global note, Jazil Zaim also had an interesting and very relevant point about casting an overly-narrow net with respect to spreading awareness about the platform:

“Ethereum is failing to reach out to the masses about its potential. The team tends to travel to countries where people already have freedoms and it’s usually a bunch of developers showing up at Ethereum conferences. By targeting emerging markets and countries with repressive regimes, Ethereum could show the world that it is truly censorship resistant and it can’t be blocked by governments.”

Repressive societies are perhaps the most apt fit for blockchain technology. How can we educate, inform, and equip them with the tools that can make them freer?

Takeaway #4: We Are Utterly, Utterly Sick Of ICO’s

There are dozens of mentions of ICO’s in the survey, and they’re almost universally negative. Collectively, we seem to believe there is absolutely nothing interesting about ICO’s, and in fact they can be quite annoying with their mindless hype and lack of actual business models.

Lane Rettig nailed this common prevailing sentiment, answering the “what exhausts or tires you about the community?” question:

“People shilling ICOs. Non-technical folks who haven’t created any value constantly grabbing the limelight and spouting things that aren’t inline with the ethos of the buidlers. There are too many conferences and events and most aren’t very high quality.”

These three offending aspects of the community are inextricably tied together. Anecdotally, the ICO hype seems to have died down quite a bit since its peak last summer. And for BUIDLers, this aspect of the ecosystem couldn’t be any less interesting or relevant; at ETHDENVER, I didn’t hear a single person discuss crypto prices or ICO’s. Attendees of EDCON and ETHBuenosAires probably had a similar experience.

If Ethereum’s only killer DApp turns out to be crowdfunding, the platform will ultimately be replaced by something better. (Fortunately, that’s highly, highly unlikely. Just ask the Cryptokitties team.)

Takeaway #5: Reddit Fatigue Is Setting In

For better or for worse, the majority of our public discourse happens on Reddit. However, some Ethereans are getting sick of a perceived increase in shilling, toxicity, and trolling. One anonymous responder captured a common sentiment:

“The online community is beset by trolls who I feel manage to have an outsized impact on the community. We need tools that can represent stakeholders better than whoever posts most frequently on Reddit.”

While things haven’t descended to the level of r/bitcoin (a formerly-cool place beset by groupthink, censorship, and trolling), we still need new alternatives to r/ethereum. Reddit’s upvoting system can discourage open discourse; post something that’s perceived as “negative” — for example, a critique of sharding — and watch the downvotes roll in. This mindless knee-jerk reaction can lower visibility for important critiques and criticisms of the technology we’re building.

It stands to reason that a decentralized platform should have multiple discussion forums, rather than one centralized nexus. Ideally, we need sybil-resistant alternatives. This is crucial from a governance perspective as well; for example, sock-puppet accounts can create the illusion that a certain proposal has more (or less) support than it really does. This problem is begging for a solution that combines the self-sovereign identity of uPort with forum registration/management capabilities. Who’s working on it?

The Stakes Are High

If Ethereum is going to realize its full, brilliant, world-transforming potential, it’s crucial that we get community scaling right.

Cultural change is inevitable as the ecosystem grows. But at the core, it’s not unreasonable to think that we can preserve the underlying sense of optimism and altruism — combined with a healthy dose of open, respectful debate and discussion— that makes Ethereum fun and exciting.

The “fun” element can’t be overstated. Ethereum is a giant judgement-free zone where you can feel free to be yourself, explore entirely new ideas for business and society, and generally push the envelope in a very encouraging environment. It’s a liberating experience.

Comparing Ethereum to Burning Man, Rhys distilled this underlying ethos:

“…we both value creativity, expressing your authentic self (and the reverse — no judgment), and imaging a new world.”

Piper Merriam also noted some similarities with the annual festival:

(Burning Man has a) central entity which orchestrates but doesn’t “control”, relies on broad community buy in and collaboration for the “thing” to be successful, outsider view often sees it as indulgent/wasteful/confusing.
DCMatt, Flickr / CC-BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Eva Beylin may have put it best:

…Ethereum is a rainbow of very bizarre, intellectual and interesting people that just want to build a world of acceptance & have fun.

That sounds like something worth preserving and expanding. And perhaps Ethereum — and blockchain technology in general — even has the potential to create a full-fledged societal movement. But…that’s a topic for another day.

Note: if you haven’t had a chance to lend your voice to the survey, you can do so here.

Also Note: While governance is a crucial aspect of community scaling, I’ve left it out of this article; it’s an area outside of my current expertise. Governance is a huge issue that deserves its own analysis — and in fact, was a major impetus for the survey. Anyone out there want to give it a shot?

Also Also Note: Consider the fact that the survey was solicited primarily from those who have been in Ethereum a relatively long time. This might skew the data . How would more recent converts to our ecosystem answer these questions?