Crypto's tribal culture is rooted to its libertarian origins, but that has to be reconciled with the crypto ecosystem's emphasis on 'genius individuals'. Tyler Scharf explores how the conflict between genius and non-hierarchy leads to factions and conflict.
Crypto culture has a peculiar landscape. To the outsider it appears mysterious: armies of anonymous characters with colorful profile pictures on Twitter representing obscure internet money with a market cap as large as Amazon.
In part this mystery is rooted in the unfounded belief that technological genius is needed to navigate the space.
One look beneath the surface reveals the multiple layers of this complexity, and the ideological division that this can foster. Various factions warring against each other, each with their core figureheads, fighting for their core values.
The roots of this divisivenesses can be traced back to the inception of crypto culture. On the genesis block of Bitcoin, a commemorative message was inscribed: The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.
This reference to the Global Financial Crisis was both a protest against the bailout of the "too big to fail" banks and a manifesto for the general public to take control of money into their own hands. Bitcoin is the answer: a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, decentralised, trustless, with a fixed inflation rate and capped at 21 million tokens forever.
It is no wonder that crypto's libertarian, even anarchist, roots have resulted in comparisons to Occupy Wall Street. Crypto OG's tend to be independent, self-starting, and distrusting of institutions; venture capitalists and institutions are not welcome in this space. Even selling courses and educational content is frowned upon because all information should be open-source.
In a 2021 political survey carried out by Metagov, 45% of respondents believed that crypto is a political philosophy, as opposed to an economic technology, of which 42% identified as libertarians and 19% as anarcho-capitalists. Web3’s revolutionary roots remain strong.
Even through these prisms, the tribal nature of crypto culture can seem mysterious. Crypto is, after all, technological infrastructure that enables a range of use cases. But in the web3 subculture, arguments will erupt around apparently trivial topics, like blockspace, which reveal the philosophical underpinnings of the blockchain itself.
For example, take the recent debate about Bitcoin NFTs. Ordinals are an innovative way to bring non-fungible tokens to Bitcoin: an image is ‘inscribed’ onto a satoshi (a hundred millionth of a bitcoin) which becomes forever immortalised on the chain.
Bitcoin as a protocol is essentially in a state of ossification due to veto-based governance that makes reaching consensus very difficult, but individual developers are still free to innovate on top of that base layer, as Casey Rodarmor did with ordinal theory to create the early primitives of these Bitcoin NFTs.
Not all Bitcoin users are keen on digital artifacts, however. Some see this as a waste of blockspace and are even encouraging censorship from miners, a major departure from one of the few things those in crypto typically agree on: anti-censorship. Ultimately, the crux of this divide is found in the permissionless maxi — the blockchain is open for anyone to use as they see fit — versus the bitcoin maxi: the blockchain was created as a peer-to-peer electronic cash system and should not be used for anything else.
Those who do support Ordinals are either in it for the technology, as this is a new technical use of the protocol, or are degens after the money (the highest sale so far has been 11.5 btc / $255k for an Ordinal Punk).
A strong case can be made that the leading reason for such divisive tribal culture in crypto is its hyper financialisation. After all, when individuals can make hundreds of thousands in a single transaction, the stakes get a lot higher.
“Crypto loves killing the main character.”
Andre Cronje is widely seen as the genius architect who co-founded multiple innovative projects, including DeFi protocol yearn.finance and the Fantom blockchain. He caused controversy in March 2022 when he quit DeFi, "leaving billions in jeopardy". Of course, this was untrue: it was trivial for other developers to pick up Cronje’s open source projects and continue maintenance.
The supposed jeopardy was rooted in the narrative: Cronje was the genius whose groundbreaking ideas created wealth; without him it was impossible for the wealth to continue coming in. Crypto has a tendency of latching onto the personality behind the tech, and then, in Cronje’s words, “crypto loves killing the main character.”
Cronje returned to crypto this year with warm reception because his contributions were net positive. Others were less deserving of such a welcome.
Dani Sesta, Do Kwon, Su Zhu, Kyle Davies, Sam Bankman Fried, and Caroline Ellison are some of the more recent examples of Crypto Twitter hero geniuses turned villains as their respective projects failed, taking billions of user funds with them.
They had all pushed memes that went viral in the subculture: Sesta and his ‘frog nation’; Kwon and his ‘lunatics’; Zhu and the ‘supercycle’; Bankman-Fried and his quant team of math geniuses. All individuals who were elevated to their divinity by market participants supporting the narratives that served their bottom line. And all individuals who fell from grace once that profit and loss line turned red.
If there's one thing that the tribes can agree on, it's unprofitability. In crypto, price is the leading indicator — interest, new ideas, and startups follow. And for many, basic human values can easily be foregone when price becomes a pain point.
Crypto is a curious industry. Because so little is actually known about the future of this technology, most participants do their best to stay humble; it is the only way to survive. However, that lack of knowledge makes it easy for malicious actors to seize the narrative. A purported genius can become thrust into that of a scenius.
“Scenius,” says Brian Eno, “stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.” Because of the vastness of the crypto space, it is rare that a scenius can belong to the entire cultural scene. Instead the scenius is a part of one or more particular factions, tapped into the narrative of that crew.
We tend to get swept up in narratives, whether we are technologists, degens, DAOists or otherwise. Much like explorers of old, those like Columbus did not know where they were heading, just that it had immense potential in shaping our collective future.
“The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.”
— inscribed by Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, on the very first block added to the Bitcoin blockchain
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