How to Get One Billion Users on Blockchain: Part 1

Three key challenges (and how to overcome them)

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One day, the blockchain world will have one billion monthly active users.

Some days, “black swan” events — The DAO hack, the Parity incident, the Tether theft — make it seem as if that day may never arrive. On other days, the exuberance in the air (and on the charts) make it feel that that milestone has already happened, even if the actual end user numbers suggest we may be off by a few zeros.

If you have been around blockchain long enough, you intuitively know that “it’s gonna happen!” It’s just a matter of when.

When that day does indeed arrive, we will have succeeded in creating a decentralized alternative to the centralized superpowers that run our world today. Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon — collectively known as FAMGA — won’t be the only ones building “town squares” where people meet, communicate, and transact on the Internet. Digital culture, unstuck through the reset button of decentralization, will blossom outside of the Silicon Valley monoculture and become interesting again. I won’t speculate what Bitcoin or Ether will be priced would be on that day, but I can imagine we would have to add a few more zeros.

When that day arrives, it would be the surest sign that we have solved the top three problems that have, thus far, prevented the mass-market adoption of blockchain technologies:

1. Scalability

To get one billion users on the blockchain, decentralized protocols must figure out a way to to scale beyond the current transaction limits of Proof-of-Work or even Proof-of-Stake blockchain implementations. We’re a long way from this, but there are many smart teams working on techniques like state channels, side-chains, hierarchical child-chains, graph-based chains, etc. These are all baby-steps towards ensuring real scalability of both transaction volume and domain complexity.

Scalability techniques tend to make it cheaper to record what happened cryptographically on a faster ledger, which may or may not even be a blockchain, then, if needed, settle out later on a more trusted, but likely slower blockchain. Another technique is to split up the workload and data footprints along some dimension, while making sure that the overall security of the chain is not compromised. Until some — if not all — of these solutions are in place, a lot of smart technologists and product managers with the decision-making power to swing the open the gates for waves of new users are going keep their “wait-and-see” stance.

Without solving these scalability challenges, we can’t have more users.

2. Usability

If we want a billion users on the blockchain, people must be able to interact with decentralized apps, or dApps, and not feel dizzy, but empowered and in control.

Since the scope and ambition of dApps are often more all-encompassing and their rhetoric more bombastic than those of standard social media or sharing economy networks, reaching parity with traditional cloud-based apps is merely the starting point. The future blockchain user experience will be nothing like the current slate of crypto-wallets, centralized or decentralized exchanges, and the early user interface prototypes for dApps that scatter the landscape today.

In 2017, even blockchain land’s best user interfaces — which have largely focused on beautifying the cryptography—fall far short of being a cohesive experience that puts users back in control of their digital lives, while helping to orchestrate their participation in networks regardless of topologies, consensus models, and economic relationships.

Without transcending the blockchain world’s user experience shortcomings, there won’t be more users.

3. Security

This doesn’t just mean that the assets encoded on a blockchain are provably secured against malicious attacks, accidental losses, or forcible seizures. These are the minimum prerequisites that the blockchain world is still struggling to provide consistently.

More than that, users need a feeling of security, peace of mind, and dare I say, a sense of “trust” in the overall system. Instructing the user to write down these 24 words and not show to anybody nor in front any camera and don’t you dare lose it or it’s all your fault and you deserve it” doesn’t actually make people feel safe.

We need adaptable security principles that can make it convenient to hold and spend a few hundred dollars from a “wallet” versus safeguarding a few hundred million dollars worth of tokens in a “vault.” This ultimately translates into a user experience question: when is it enough for users to unlock something with one glance via FaceID, and when must they jump through multiple hoops—guarded by human judgement and/or machine intelligence—to unlock the treasures in the vault? Using the metaphor of a floppy leather wallet for everything is not helping to make these stark distinctions clear to the average person.

Without offering blockchain users actual as well as perceived security, there shouldn’t be more users on these networks.

Trusting a Trustless System

To gain the trust of a billion users around the world, the crypto world needs to start obsessing about the humans behind the blockchain addresses — their needs, their journeys, and their experiences — as much as about the consensus algorithms.

“I got this” is what you want to hear from every user after a little bit of experimentation, trial-and-error, leading to mini-victories. This is user empowerment in the truest sense — making them feel they can do more with the skills they just learned. The opposite of that is “I don’t get this,” which is usually preceded by jargon-filled guideposts and inconsistent feedback, leading to irreversible missteps. This incites a feeling of shame, even though it was most certainly not the user’s fault.

Buried behind the bright green lines of growing market caps are countless personal stories of times where things went wrong and you felt guilty or at fault afterwards. The blockchain space is not (yet) a safe space.

Let’s be clear:

  • It’s not your fault that you lost the bitcoins you bought 2 years ago.
  • It’s not your fault that you missed out on a token sale because you didn’t form the transaction with the correct “data” string the first time.
  • It’s not your fault when you tried to send to the right address on the wrong fork. Twice.
  • You should not feel guilty for sitting on a pile of app tokens without putting it to actual use, because the dApp you paid for is not ready for you yet.
  • You should not feel guilty about the growth in your wallet, even though you would prefer for those gains to have come from productive human activities rather than HODLing and doing nothing.

The trustless systems of the blockchain world has not yet completely earned your trust. But it needs to. And soon.

We Have Overcome This Before

There was a time where people didn’t feel comfortable entering their credit card numbers into a website. I still remember the days of filling out 30 fields in a HTML form, with little or no feedback, then clicking the gray “Submit” button: The page goes blank while your browser contacts some /cgi-bin/ URL, and you hope it comes back with a successful confirmation 15 seconds latter. Half of the time it doesn’t. Start over.

Fast forward: The Web eventually earned users’ trust, but only after hundreds of thousands of webmasters, developers, designers, and product managers worked tirelessly to establish conventions, tooling, frameworks, and design patterns to make the protocols of the Web welcoming to the billions of users active today.

If the energy around blockchains remind you of the rise of the Web, then you should be excited to know that eventually all these rough edges will be straightened out, and issues around scalability, security, and usability will solved brilliantly by the experienced makers that will jump into the fields in the next few years. The incentives are there for a massive talent influx of people wanting to build beautiful applications on top of the battle-hardened protocols of the blockchain world.

Great, right? One billion users on the blockchain is eminently achievable. The technology breakthroughs will come soon enough.

But to truly create the decentralized Internet we all want — we will need more than to aim for eventual mass market adoption. There is a significant hidden threat on the horizon; one that has played out many times in the history of computing. If we’re not careful, a new power could take over this ecosystem, capture its value, and turn it into something that makes a mockery of the utopia we dream of today.

That’s the topic of my next blog post on how the blockchain world can resist recentralization while on its way to a billion users.

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Chris Tse (@christse) is a technologist and designer who has been working to humanize blockchain technology since its early days. In 2014 he founded Cardstack, where he leads a team of blockchain architects and open-source contributors to build the experience layer of the decentralized Internet. He is also a co-founder of blockchain companies Monegraph and Dot Blockchain Media, and has more than a decade of experience leading R&D and innovation teams for Fortune 500 companies.