How YCombinator alum Chris Castig is reinventing Discord for the blockchain

Léa Rose Emery
November 1, 2022
“A lot of web3 people want to just rebuild from the ground up. But I think the big opportunity is in taking these tools and applying them to existing systems.” — Chris Castig

Chris Castig has always sought to give other people a voice. An educator before becoming an entrepreneur, his first company taught people to code in 30 days. He speaks with Leo Nasskau about his new mission at Console, giving communities better tools to collaborate by “super-powering the chat” and using blockchain to disrupt web3's own darling: Discord. Lea Rose Emery tells the story.

“I think the big tipping point will come when web3 gets more mainstream adoption in the real world. Inclusivity and scaling it: these are the challenges it has right now.” Chris Castig is taking a huge step in that direction. A builder, educator, and entrepreneur, Chris is building Console, a platform based on web3 principles — but not exclusively for web3 natives — that’s built to replace Discord. His vision to integrate web3 technology with everyday tools is as impressive as it is broad, with roots that stem back to his own lightbulb moment for the power of decentralisation, as a musician and creator. 

“It's funny because right now we talk a lot about decentralization and web3 — and music was highly centralised,” says Chris, who started a music degree before switching to computer science. “You could only basically get it from one place. There were these supreme gatekeepers in music, and overnight this app came out: Napster.”

Napster was a revelation for the music industry and for Chris personally. “It's the first in a line of decentralised file sharing. All of a sudden my mind just shifted, and I could see there were other ways to send information or music.” 

With this discovery, he decided to learn to code, which came with a “lot of benefits” beyond those he already expected. The change happened naturally as he realised how much coding could help facilitate the life he wanted to lead while pursuing music. “At first I thought coding was this thing that happened in computer science classes, it was so serious. But then all of a sudden, I was able to be on tour or playing music anywhere.”

“Overnight this app came out: Napster.”

— Chris Castig

It’s clear that this autonomy remains a huge driver for Chris. He describes coding and living on his own schedule as “a way of decentralizing my work,”,and found a freedom that he wanted to give to others. In 2013, he was accepted into Y Combinator, the legendary startup school that incubated businesses like Airbnb, Stripe, and OpenSea. Joining Y Combinator had once been an “impossible mountain” in his mind, but they liked his approach and his vision to make coding accessible to everyone.

“I was an admirer of Paul Graham's blog (co-founder of Y Combinator). Then we applied — with my friend who then became my co-founder — and got in based on our idea that you could learn to code in 30 days.” It’s a time he remembers fondly and enthusiastically, grateful for the doors it opened and the connections he built. It was during this first entrepreneurial journey that he first was introduced to web3 and began to be inspired by innovators in the space. 

Chris is equal part entrepreneur and educator. He started his first company nine years ago before moving into web3 to participate in a “whole new revolution in the web.”

At the time, it wasn’t web3 — it was the “user-owned” internet — and Chris was impressed by those leading the charge. He notes people like Juan Bennet at IPFS and Brian Armstrong alongside the founding Coinbase team, describing them as “people who were thinking a few steps ahead”. What stood out to Chris was the idea of a permanent database, the decentralised ledger. “I could see the promise of having what I call a forever database. To me, that's what a blockchain is. It's this database that we have that we can store information on — and trust, because we trust code. We don't have to trust people. I was just like, ‘Wow, you guys are thinking of this whole new revolution in the web’.”

Chris had been teaching about blockchain since 2016, joining Columbia Business School as an adjunct professor in 2017 after developing his skills as a teacher at General Assembly. A fluid communicator, his enthusiasm is infectious. Making clear his belief in a “multi-chain” future, he stresses that he’s “not in any one camp”, though his passion for the simplicity of Bitcoin, the original technological breakthrough, is clear.

“I think [Bitcoin's] slowness, its rate of change — that’s its superpower.“

— Chris Castig

Console works on Bitcoin and Ethereum, and he is equally excited about building on both blockchains as well as expanding to others, but he speaks about the former with particular admiration, which he sees as an “underdog” despite its massive presence. 

“I think its slowness, its rate of change — that’s its superpower,“ he says. “Every day Bitcoin continues to exist, it gets stronger because no one's hacked it. It gets stronger because we put more money into it. We trust it more; we do transactions. Then the layers come in: Lightning and Stacks specifically allow you to harness that power of the underlying Bitcoin — of Bitcoin as a forever database.”

He sees a similar phenomenon happening in the Ethereum ecosystem, which has its own Layer 2 scaling solutions like Arbitrum, Polygon, and Skale, but points out the differences in the underlying structure. “The two chains are making different bets.” A key difference between the two blockchains is how they treat smart contracts, with Ethereum adding greater complexity into its code to make it easier for developers to build smart contracts on top of it. “Over in the Bitcoin camp, it's a different architecture. They're saying ‘let's not touch that code, because the more you add complexity to it, the more opportunity there is for it to get bloated or to get hacked’.” 

Log in with wallet. Console is deeply integrated with decentralised digital identities to ensure safe, secure, an productive chat communities.

Security and simplicity are obvious priorities for Chris — and for Console. The idea of Console is a deceptively straightforward one for how disruptive it could be. He describes it as a web3-native alternative to Discord, but leveraging web3 principles of decentralisation, security, and open source software. When it comes to fruition, it’s easy to see how it could shape web3 in the way other deceptively simple innovations shaped web2. 

“I love open source software and I really loved what WordPress has done for the world,” he says. “Literally, 40% of the internet is open source WordPress websites. So it's had a dramatic effect on democratizing publishing, democratizing people having a voice. It's allowed individual people to have blogs.”

What WordPress has done for individuals, Console hopes to do for communities. Right now, Discord is the “biggest club in web3 internet, but if you zoom out, there’s a lot more people in the world we could bring into this”. Rather than being an overwhelming space, Chris wants Console to be collaborative, to elevate voices from around the web. “My hope for web3 is that we're able to create these tools that could be used to make real change in the world, whether that's at the city level, whether that's at home, whether that's at the business level.”

Of course, it’s easy to talk about the principles of web3, to throw around empty rhetoric without specific goals. Chris is clear on where he — and Console  — are heading, and what principles he’s using to guide it. “To me, it’s three things: it's decentralised, it's ownership —of your data and your identity — and it’s open source.”

Console is premised on the idea the tools we use to communicate online should require us to give up control of our digital identities.

Security is inherently a high priority when building decentralised and open-source projects. While Discord is vulnerable to hacks, Console will put identity first, authenticating it onchain and thus making it more secure from malicious actors. Chris believes that this will promote greater awareness of what identity really means, pushing the discourse around how you secure it into a more prominent place in the future. 

“Identity is this crucial piece of web3 that I don't think many people appreciate yet,” he says. “What does that even mean? ... If you go to Instagram and you create your name, you give your email, you get a password. That data is stored over in Instagram’s servers, where they own it.” As he points out, any Instagrammer who has been locked out of an account can quickly feel what it’s like to lose control of your identity and your platform.

Chris remains characteristically optimistic. “On the bright side, there are a lot of really smart people thinking about decentralised identity. ENS are doing an amazing job with anyone that owns a .eth name. There's also .btc, there’s also .sol.”

“I think the big opportunity is in taking these tools and applying them to existing systems.”

— Chris Castig

By leveraging on-chain identities, Console aims to create more comprehensive user profiles without compromising on security. “Think of chat as our core interaction — Console is chat,” he explains. “How do we use existing data in the world to improve the chat conversations that we're having, to make them more meaningful, to make them more efficient, and coordinate better?

“That's the question we are asking ourselves and there's already a lot of data on the blockchain that people are contributing. So at Console, we're not building our own voting app and we're not building our own treasuries. We're using external projects and we're thinking of them as modules, we're pulling that data in and we're super-powering the chat.”

How this will play out in practice is in ease of use and a full picture of a user’s identity. Chris describes the ability to hover over a name and have data at your fingertips. “I could really easily, with open data, build this portfolio of you in my mind. That allows me very quickly to get a sense of who you are, whether to interact with you, or how I might want to.” When identity is onchain, it’s much easier to verify if someone is who they say they are.

Unlike some innovators — and perhaps naturally entwined with his role as an educator and onboarder — it’s apparent that collaboration is a motivator for Chris, rather than the ego that can drive certain corners of the space. He consistently points to forerunners, those he’s indebted to, and is open to new ideas and technology while building Console. “We plan on leading it first and then open sourcing it (to involve the community further); there'll be opportunities to get involved and collaborate.”

It may be this collaborative instinct that gives Chris a desire to more fully integrate not just Console, but all areas of web3, with more people's lives. There’s a desire to move away from exclusive, alienating jargon and have the technology be something that’s simply easy to use.

“The narrative needs to change.”

— Chris Castig

He sees Console as “just a really secure chat app and it happens to use these technologies,” something that he hopes will not be limited to web3 aficionados. “A lot of web3 people want to just rebuild from the ground up — start everything from scratch. But I think the big moment and the big opportunity is in taking these tools and applying them to existing systems.”

Chris points to fundraising, which will also be an early focus as an area where web3 technologies, leveraging Console, could be incredibly powerful. “I want to see people that bring fundraising to NGOs and to bring it to politics, bring it to the real world. But to do that, the interfaces need to be easier to use, the wallets need to be easier. The narratives need to change.”

Console is built to work on multiple blockchains, including Bitcoin and Ethereum, and Chris is clear that each chain has different advantages.
Console is built to work on multiple blockchains, including Bitcoin and Ethereum, and Chris is clear that each chain has different advantages.
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Léa Rose Emery
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Léa is an American writer, editor, broadcaster, and presenter based in London. Her work has appeared in various publications, including The Guardian, The Huffington Post, WhatWeSeee, Cosmopolitan, Bustle, Teen Vogue, and The Daily Dot. She is working on her first book.

Learn more about Console on their website.