- Ariel LeBeau
- Austin Robey
- David Ehrlichman
- Dexter Tortoriello
- Drew Millard
- Eileen Isagon Skyers
- FWB Staff
- Greta Rainbow
- Ian Rogers
- Jessica Klein
- Jose Mejia
- Kelani Nichole
- Kelsie Nabben
- Kevin Munger
- Khalila Douze
- Kinjal Shah
- Lindsay Howard
- Marvin Lin
- Mary Carreon
- Matt Newberg
- Mike Pearl
- Moyosore Briggs
- Nicole Froio
- Simon Hudson
- The Blockchain Socialist
- Yana Sosnovskaya
- Yancey Strickler
Thu Jun 16 2022
Few words are as divisive as “crypto.” Say it and half the room walks away out of principle, a smaller group hisses in disgust, and a last group leans in, some closer than feels comfortable if you’re honest.
Crypto is a lightning rod. A line in the sand. Technological rock ‘n’ roll that splits internet generations. But why? What exactly are we denoting when we use the word “crypto?”
Hearing someone explain crypto can feel like being trapped in a bewildering dream with no way out. The politics associated with it are no simpler: It’s simultaneously hyper-capitalist, with an extreme focus on market prices, and quasi-socialist, offering communities of people programmatic distribution of ownership and voting power.
Crypto is seen as a scam machine. Any Very Online person is routinely exposed to the latest crypto duping, with its freshest scams gleefully aggregated in Web3 Is Going Great, each incident dumber than the last. Even the stuff that isn’t a scam seems tasteless at best, and idiotic to most people. Few look at a Bored Ape and see six figures of value. They see six degrees of delusion.
I became interested in crypto and the underlying technology — public ledgers called blockchains — back in 2017, shortly after stepping down as Kickstarter’s CEO. I was writing a book that argued against the financialization of society and called for a more pluralistic culture embracing a wider range of values, like community, resilience, loyalty, and trust. My research into potential paths that might result in such a society led me to the ways that a blockchain could be a tool to do this. The same plumbing that allowed tokens to exist could also be used to distribute and create goods according to any form of value — financial or non-financial. (To cite a pre-Web3 example of this idea, in 2014 Adele experimented with distributing tickets to fans based on an algorithmic measurement of loyalty rather than who could have paid the most. This was done using proprietary Web2 tools, but I imagined similar experiments applied more broadly using a public ledger.) For someone studying incentive structures and the perils of hyper-capitalism, blockchain-related technology felt like one of the few practical paths towards a “better” (my definition: a more pluralistic, less financially driven) world.
Crypto maintained that reputation until not that long ago. It even made it into science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s exceptional Ministry for the Future as part of an imagined carbon emissions solution. But cringe tweets, rug pulls, and a Ponzi-loving, get-rich-quick crowd changed the tenor so much that earlier this month, Robinson gave a talk in which he, according to someone who watched it, said he regretted having included crypto in the book, calling it “a fraudulent scam.”
Defenders of crypto (Matt Damon included) typically insist that every new technology faces opposition at first, but that in the long run, it pays to be an early adopter. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to support these claims. But it’s also often true that how a technology starts out being used and its eventual most popular use cases can differ. For example, it was 30 years after the invention of film that someone first tried telling stories with it — before that, film was mainly used as a demonstration of the technology itself, and had little meaning to the average person. It was only after a technology-medium fit appeared that it became compelling and its promise was realized.
At a time when crypto markets are plummeting, it’s worth considering whether the same could be true of blockchains and their associated technologies. Today we equate everything related to the blockchain with crypto. But while “crypto” may be the first application that uses a blockchain, what comes after crypto could be more important.
For the last 18 months, I’ve been deep in the world of what’s sometimes called “Web3,” co-founding a startup with technical foundations in blockchain-related functionality. As I got deeper into the space — attending events, going through an accelerator program — my perceptions and understanding evolved. One revelation came when I understood how three terms that people often treat as synonymous — crypto, blockchain, and Web3 — are distinct concepts.
- Crypto, short for both “cryptography” and “cryptocurrency,” refers to digital and virtual currencies expressed in the form of tokens that are managed on a blockchain, including NFTs, governance tokens, and utility tokens.
- A blockchain is a publicly managed database that allows for transparent transactions and applications. It’s the underlying technology that makes both crypto and Web3 possible.
- Web3 is a universe of products with blockchain-related tech as their plumbing and that often include features like NFTs, tokens, and other objects that would appear in a digital wallet.
Going down the rabbit hole into this world can be confusing. As I ventured in, I kept reminding myself to stay focused on what I knew was real, rather than what people wanted to be real. There was lots of talk about technical infrastructure that was concrete, as well as prognostication about how, for example, DAOs were going to reinvent the world. I learned to pay attention to the former and ignore the latter. After 18 months of learning and filtering with that lens, there were three changes made possible by blockchains that I couldn’t unsee:
1. The decline of platform lock-in
The blessing (for the company) and curse (for the customer) of most Web2 businesses is lock-in — your most important data stays on the platform where you created it. The market power of the Meta/Facebook universe relies on these dynamics. In contrast, Web3 data, for the most part, is platform-agnostic. Most actions taken on Web3-native tools result in some token or recognition appearing in your digital wallet — a secure folder that’s permanently yours and interoperable with other sites and platforms.
A world where more spaces are built on the rails of Web3 is one where platform lock-in will greatly ease (but certainly not permanently vanish), as is well-explored in this excellent Dirt essay by Friends With Benefits’s Eileen Isagon Skyers. Zora founder Jacob Horne’s exceptional “Hyperstructures” essay is another great exploration of how different digital spaces look in the post-platform world.
2. Distributing ownership and influence outside an organization
The value of most Web2 platforms comes from content created by people: For example, the value of YouTube is the culmination of the millions of videos uploaded by people all around the world. Despite that fact, short of purchasing a company’s public stock, creators are almost never the owners of the platforms they use. While some creators have found indirect ways to capitalize on their followings through partnerships, “influencing,” and ad revenue, in all previous incarnations of the Internet, it was rare to see platforms directly reward community members and creators in any real way, at least beyond tote bags and form letters.
Platforms certainly didn’t profit-share with creators or bind themselves to community-informed decision-making. It wasn’t considered good business. It actually wasn’t even considered at all! But platforms and networks built on the rails of blockchains are able to distribute tokens of ownership to anyone they wish, whether they’re a founder, a full-time employee, or a valuable community member. Imagine if Bandcamp had been a Web3-native company — could part of the proceeds from its recent sale to Epic Games have been distributed to the artists, fans, and labels, as well as the employees and founders, that make Bandcamp so great?
3. Permanent agnostic archiving
Our online lives are more fragile than we think. The story of my life is expressed at ystrickler.com, a personal webpage of unstructured data that will disappear the moment I stop paying Squarespace to host it. After I die, what happens to this story? Will it vanish? Can I autobill my legacy into eternity?
We shouldn’t need to rely on infinite credit cards or the Wayback Machine to tell future creators and generations the stories of our work. Because a blockchain is a giant public ledger, it allows for agnostic permanent storage and provenance that will become even more important the older and bigger the Internet gets. (Just try looking for the glory days of MySpace or Vine online — both long gone). Not everything should be permanent, but a lot — including the catalogs of things creators have made — should. As Vitalik Buterin notes in a recent essay exploring non-financial use cases of crypto, “blockchains are just a really convenient place to store stuff.”
These three primitives are central to a number of Web3 projects. They’re also central to Metalabel, the start-up I co-founded, which provides knowledge, resources, and tools for creative collectives, and helps new and existing collectives to collaborate, and release work into the wider world.
We’re not building around these primitives because we want to launch a crypto token that goes to the moon. We’re building Metalabel with these primitives because it’s hard for us to see why we would, in 2022, make a web product that would trap a creator’s work in a walled garden, that wouldn’t offer utility beyond our walls, and that wouldn’t share value with the people who create it. These are radical and important goals — radical in a way that many crypto skeptics would agree with if the plumbing were different. But because those same technical fundamentals have been chained together in the specific field of crypto, the mood today is to shun it all.
Blindly dismissing any project that touches a blockchain because it shares the same plumbing as crypto is like missing the forest for the logging industry. So long as everything that touches a public ledger is vilified as a scam and part of some dystopian future, the number of responsible people and teams who feel inspired to thoughtfully explore projects that see beyond the constraints of our Web2 systems will be limited.
To change that, we need a better way to talk about this space. We need to distinguish between crypto as a specific set of experiences and products, and the wider possibilities that can and will emerge from shared public ledgers. With time and maturation, different categories of products and use-cases can emerge. Crypto, as we define it today, may end up being the first exploration of a larger structure of public blockchains underlying shared infrastructure, post-platform experiences, and a more collectively owned and governed digital universe than we have today. Meaningful cultural projects, like Water & Music and Songcamp; collections that are open and allow for community-driven creativity, like Loot and Nouns; and initiatives that are funding public goods, like Gitcoin, show that blockchains unlock meaningful new ways to collaborate and share ownership and rewards.
To say there’s an “after crypto” isn’t calling for the end of crypto or to discredit projects in that space. It’s to say there are potentially groundbreaking and perfectly valid reasons to create tools built around public ledgers that aren’t only about crypto. Our thinking needs to evolve.
The artist and writer Mat Dryhurst often says to blockchain critics: “Tell me what you’re voting for.” If you’re against all blockchain-related tech, then are you arguing for the current state and ownership structure of the internet? What are you arguing for, rather than against?
It’s a good question to ask. With Metalabel, we’re for creative collaboration. We’re for community ownership of platforms. We’re for creating meaningful, permanent catalogs of our work. We’re for a pluralistic culture where many values and ways of valuing creativity and human activity are understood as legitimate and deeply embedded in the worlds around us. We’re for using technical and social infrastructures that help create value for ourselves and for communities.
We could be wrong about all of this. There’s only so much any of us can be certain about. In 70 percent of the simulations, Web3 might end up dystopian. But just because the current version of the web needs fixing shouldn’t close us off to trying to build another.
Yancey Strickler is cofounder of Metalabel, Kickstarter, and The Creative Independent, and the author of This Could Be Our Future: A Manifesto for a More Generous World.
Thanks to Rob Kalin, Austin Robey, Anna Bulbrook, Jasmine Wang, Alex Roth, Alex Grin, Justin Kazmark, Rafaël Rozendaal, and pete3rpan for reading drafts of this essay.
Graphics by Fiona Carty.