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Divided We Fail: The Irrational Insanity of Crypto Tribalism

Distributed computing can change the world for good, if we get out of our own way

Kent Barton
Apr 13, 2018 · 8 min read
Credit: U.S. Army via flickr/CC BY 2.0

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Let’s start with a simple and powerful premise: distributed computing has the potential to make the world a better and freer place.

Can this fast-evolving technology actually fulfill that grand promise? While early indicators are good, we also face a mortal enemy: ourselves.

That’s borderline tragic, because there are plenty of problems to solve. Consider these headlines from the last few weeks:

  • The U.S. added $1 trillion in debt in six months, and the total debt now stands at $21 trillion
  • Buckling under ham-fisted legislation designed to limit online sex trafficking, Craigslist has removed the ability for users to freely communicate with one another via personal ads, while Backpage was just shut down by the FBI
  • The U.S. has taken a protectionist turn, initiating a trade war with China and limiting the ability for goods to freely cross borders
  • Revelations of Facebook leaking data on millions of users, mirroring last year’s Equifax data breach
  • The U.S. CLOUD act has provided a new and novel way for the United States government to circumvent the Fourth Amendment

And that’s just over the course of a two or three weeks, within the U.S. Who knows what the coming weeks, months, and years will bring? The global trends are not favorable.

Now more than ever, the centralization of power and data poses serious issues for humans everywhere. Privacy, free speech, and the ability to act as an autonomous individual are increasingly under attack.

Faced with these trends, one would expect the broader crypto community to rally together in an effort to more closely realize the O.G. cypherpunk vision that gave rise to blockchain technology. Instead, the various groups that make up this vibrant ecosystem have tended to do the exact opposite, retreating into a narrow-minded worldview where the prevailing question has insidiously morphed from “how can we make the world a better place?” to “how can we defeat other blockchain platforms?”

This tribalism rests on shaky logical assumptions and distracts the community from the crucial work of building scalable technologies that people will want to use. Personal attacks and outright trolling make the environment uncomfortable or even untenable for newcomers. In some forums, overt censorship stifles the free exchange of thought. In extreme cases, some developers have even received death threats. And to make matters worse, the ultimate beneficiaries of this tribalism are the very same centralized powers we seek to disintermediate.

Against this backdrop of needless and counterproductive crypto conflict, let’s take a closer look, examining its roots, logical fallacies, and myriad negative impacts.

For better or worse, most of the online discourse in crypto takes place on various subreddits and Twitter. The former tend to perpetuate a narrow “us vs. them” mentality, while the latter often becomes a digital battleground where crypto influencers and their adherents duke it out with other groups, 280 characters at a time.

Calm, academic, respectful discussion is all too often substituted with emotional, personal attacks and overly simplified narratives. Consider how adherents from “opposing” groups tend to view these projects:

  • Bitcoin: A ponzi scheme
  • Ethereum: A centralized cult
  • EOS: Scammy vaporware
  • Cardano: Scammy vaporware
  • Bitcoin Cash: A malicious fork led by Satan himself

To an outsider, it must seem ludicrous to watch countless smart minds working on blockchain technology — developers, entrepreneurs, and other enthusiasts gifted with an ability to think outside the box and see a vision for a better future — descend into internecine bickering.

We’re all part of the same technological revolution. Yet here we are, wasting precious time and energy attacking ourselves. Meanwhile, the problems stemming from concentrated repositories of power and data grow more intractable with each passing month.

Bitcoin Maximalists continue to adhere to the notion that there can be only One True Blockchain, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Dozens, if not hundreds, of innovative projects have emerged that utilize blockchains in a way that goes far beyond the scope of Bitcoin, offering users advantages such as privacy protection, decentralized business logic, and self-sovereign identity.

If BTC is so antifragile, why are its maximalist adherents so concerned about the free market offering alternatives? The communities around BTC and BCH have wasted immeasurable time and energy attacking one another.

While less common, Ethereum Maximalism has been rearing its head as well. Faced with new projects in the smart contract space, some members of the community are repeating the very same mistakes as their Bitcoin counterparts. The likes of EOS and Cardano, in their own efforts to build a scalable decentralized platform, are cast as enemies who threaten the entire Ethereum ecosystem. Bob Summerwill, a community leader, recently highlighted how divisions can also emerge within an ecosystem itself.

If Ethereum holds so much promise, why is so much time wasted on denigrating other smart contract platforms? STFU and BUIDL.

This extremely pointed, almost religious tribal vitriol is something new in the world of technology. We’re all familiar with fanboys — Apple vs Android, console vs PC — but at the end of the day these arguments have all the seriousness of a debate about sports teams. Similarly, we don’t see adherents of Java, Python, and C++ attacking one another with a near-religious zeal.

The difference is that in today’s world of digital assets, members of blockchain ecosystems have an economic incentive in seeing those platforms succeed. This is on net a good thing; it engenders the network effect, and encourages people to actively participate in their favorite platforms. The downside is that holding a digital asset often biases the holder toward that platform. They focus solely on its own success, and see others as a threat to their financial well-being.

While things are gradually getting more interesting, crypto continues to primarily be the domain of younger males. Speaking very generally, your typical 23-year-old is more likely to adopt typical “fanboy” behavior as seen so commonly in the gaming world. Combined with economic incentives, this makes for an ecosystem that’s more likely to be characterized by narrow thinking and tribal attacks.

To put it more directly: young dudes are more likely to a. get fired up about things, and b. adopt a tribalist mentality. And there are lot of young dudes in crypto.

There’s something about human nature that makes us over-emphasize the differences between closely related groups. Is this the result of the ego yearning for individuality? The fearful lizard brain lashing out at anything representing a deviation from the familiar status quo?

That’s beyond the scope of this piece — but there’s no denying it exists. Sigmund Freud called this the “Narcissism of small differences.” As the trusty quasi-decentralized Wiki entry puts it, it’s a tendency for “communities with adjoining territories and close relationships that engage in constant feuds and mutual ridicule because of hypersensitivity to details of differentiation”

We focus on the relatively small differences, while losing sight of the big picture. (Hat-tip to Coury Ditch for the psychological insight.)

The short-sighted “us vs. them” perspective that drives tribalist thinking rests on the misguided and dangerous assumption that crypto is a zero-sum game, where the successes and gains of one platform must necessarily come at the expense of others.

The rapid increase in the value of digital assets belies this notion. Far from being a zero-sum environment, the blockchain world is characterized by rapid growth — both in terms of money and participants. Each platform has its own slice of the overall pie. Yet the pie itself is rapidly growing in size.

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Market Capitalization: All Cryptocurrencies

Consider the market cap of all cryptocurrencies today, versus one year ago. Even following a 70% pullback from the January highs, this figure is more than 10 times higher. As the rapid increase in this (admittedly imperfect) gauge of crypto adoption has shown, one project’s gains do not equal another’s losses.

Zero-sum thinking also overlooks the fact that there are myriad opportunities for collaboration and cross-pollination in the crypto ecosystem. Lost amid the chase for lambos and gainz, we’re ignoring the fact that the countless platforms and tools we’re building can be more than the sum of their parts.

Much like Voltron — pardon the 80s reference, your author recently read Ready Player One — the disparate and unique parts of the broader blockchain ecosystem could eventually unite to create something far more powerful. Cosmos, for example, is developing a platform that allows for blockchain platforms to communicate and interact with one another. The security of one platform could be combined with the speed and cost-effectiveness of another. Strength can play upon strength.

Zero-sum thinking also overlooks the power of cross-pollination. For instance, consider how ZK-snarks has been integrated into the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM). Privacy meets decentralized business logic. Similarly, constructive criticism and debate can move platforms forward and sharpen the thinking of those who build them. Is DPOS too centralized? Is Casper a game-theoretical minefield? Spirited discussion and science-based criticism from all corners of the blockchain world will help address these questions, ultimately leading to a better end result.

Crypto warfare does produce two clear victors: a) the centralized power structures that seek to perpetuate data monopolies, financial monopolies, and rent-seeking behavior, and b) governments that seek to stifle political rights and individual autonomy. (The two groups, of course, are often one and the same.)

“Divide and Conquer” has been one of the guiding principles of conflict-driven strategy since the days of Sun Tzu. It’s even easier when your opponent does the dividing for you.


Is it far-fetched to think that these groups might eventually seek to divide the crypto community by fomenting internal strife? It’s a page taken straight out of the KGB playbook — one that’s been played countless times. Could it be played on the blockchain community? You don’t need a tinfoil hat to think that might be the case.

Hypothetical centralized conspiracies aside, there’s much to lose — and nothing to gain — from superficial community divisions. By missing the big picture, we may be overlooking opportunities for technologies to play off one another in unforeseen ways.

Note that nobody is suggesting papering over differences. Just as narrow-minded tribalism is a pox on actual progress, mindlessly singing Kumbaya and joining hands is a path to failure. This is not an appeal to ignore differences, but rather to celebrate them and discuss them as human beings who respect one another. And meanwhile, blatant scams that harm the ecosystem — the OneCoins and Bitconnects of the world — should continue to be named and shamed. There’s nothing tribal about helping fellow crypto enthusiasts avoid malicious actors.

In short, tribal thinking will do nothing to make the world a better and freer place. Its only beneficiaries are the centralized entities we seek to disintermediate. This won’t happen if we continue to think of blockchain technology on a narrow, granular level, rather than seeing the whole picture.

The good news is that despite its annoyances, the us vs. them mentality isn’t an insurmountable blocker. Software continues to get developed. Projects and platforms grow. Evolution continues apace. There’s still a chance to get this right before we descend into a mindless morass of Trump-era trolling, name-calling, and ego-driven twitter fights.

Peer review courtesy of Chris Guida. Thanks Chris!

Written by

Head of R&D @ ShapeShift. Founder: Ethereum Denver.

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