It’s wonderful to be able to celebrate a culture week in crypto. As they have a penchant for throwing themselves off a cliff to see if they survive, Bitcoin and Ethereum and blockchain in general have many times looked like they wouldn’t get back up. For a few weeks after I got a deal to write my book in early 2019, I convinced myself it would be Ethereum’s obituary.
Matt Leising is co-founder of DeCential Media, which is dedicated to telling stories of the founders, builders and visionaries of the new decentralized world. This post is part of Culture Week, which explores how crypto is changing media and entertainment.
It’s interesting that the same can be said of the traditional financial world so much of this industry wants to replace; it just won’t die. Money has always been needed and always will, whether in shell form or packed into a 60-kilobyte block. What’s also always been needed are stories about money and power and all the fun stuff that comes along with it.
Crypto – I’ll refer to it broadly here as such, though I know many people loathe the term – is a particularly challenging and interesting and frustrating topic to cover. At this early stage in any industry or endeavor, stories are fantastically important. Think of how settling the western United States has been basically invented for our consumption and how, for the most part, we love it.
I came to write about crypto starting in 2015 after reading an explainer on the importance of blockchain in The Economist. Until then I’d dismissed Bitcoin as a fool’s game. My first story for Bloomberg News was about the blockchain-not-Bitcoin debate that raged for a while back then. It was rightly spiked. But I saw it coming, as many others did; Wall Street’s head had been turned. Blythe Masters led the charge of the bankers, and at Bloomberg it became a rich vein to cover.
I wicsh I’d kept track of the number of editors and other reporters I’ve given the rypto 101 speech to, and there are many in that newsroom and others all over the world who still think it’s a scam. It’s hard to know how to separate the daily news mentality from this certain kind of disdain, I think, as the news needs to be fed every day and never stops. It needs new stories, new sagas, and the rise and fall of Bitcoin fits that schema perfectly. Financial markets know all about froth and bubbles and internet companies with negative revenue and hundred-million-dollar valuations. And they know about the inevitable crash.
Going through the crypto winter of 2018-2019 as a reporter was one of the most valuable experiences I could’ve wanted. The euphoria of $20,000 bitcoin and ether at $1,400 led to some reckless behavior across the board, and newsrooms were no exception. Again, I understand this part. What I discovered that eventually disappointed me was how few in the media took that downturn to learn about this new way of organizing and transacting.
What was going on as ether was trapped under $300 as though being drowned was that people never stopped believing in it. They kept building and pushing and doing what they could to make this very different future a reality. This is an obvious point now, considering DeFi summer is in the rearview mirror and we’re perhaps starting to see a cooling off in non-fungible token (NFT) exuberance, but it wasn’t clear at all in 2019 that the Ethereum blockchain would gain the traction it promised.
But crypto don’t die, remember? It has now re-created three pillars of traditional finance and culture, but in a peer-to-peer uncensorable distributed fashion.
The first was capital formation with initial coin offerings.
The second, collateralized lending.
And the third, digital scarcity through NFTs and a possible answer to one of the trickiest decentralized puzzles: digital identity in the form of profile pictures.
This is an amazing amount of innovation in a short time, let’s not forget. And, of course, there have been the scams and hacks and frauds and everything else that has dogged crypto from day one.
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And yet with all that in mind there are many still in the mainstream media who sneer at crypto. This is, in part, what led me to co-found DeCential. Like most of the skeptics, the press had gone on its merry way when prices fell and its bias seemed confirmed, yet then the industry came roaring back. Strangely, in my experience, it only seemed to harden some beliefs that clearly this was all an enormous Ponzi scheme. I mean, have you looked into Tether?
Looking back, there was a kind of quiet solitude during the crypto winter. I recall writing a lot of stories about traditional financial firms experimenting with blockchain or taking baby steps to offer crypto as an investment asset to clients. Chicago gave us bitcoin futures. And all the while the developers and dreamers working in the public blockchain space kept plugging away. Summer 2020 saw usage on Ethereum explode as collateralized lending and decentralized exchanges – which had been around for a while – became easier to access. Soon bitcoin and ether shot to all-time highs and the demand for stories in newsrooms followed.
I was soon stretched this way and that by too many requests for stories and pitches and editors way up the masthead with whom I’d never worked now demanding my attention. I distinctly remember thinking, “Where were you when all this seemed so fragile? You didn’t believe in it then and you don’t believe in it now. You’re just chasing a rising line on a price chart.” It’s the news judgment equivalent of “number go up”.
And the real shame is that for too many in the traditional press that lack of belief is still pervasive. At this point it’s on them. The explainers and real companies and exchanges and investment funds have been around for years now. Crypto’s combined market value is over $2 trillion. I don’t have time for people still doubting all of this. They can shout at someone else’s cloud.
Because what that leads to, at the end of the day, is a dismissal of the people creating this new industry. And that does upset me. Coming from many years of covering Wall Street and the type of banker who succeeds there, getting to know a lot of the most important people in crypto has been wonderfully refreshing. They’re good people, for the most part. They truly believe they can make the world a better place, and in today’s political and cultural moment I will take all of that I can get. (Bear in mind, I mostly write about Ethereum, and that is what has led me to this belief.)
With DeCential, I realized that crypto journalism deserves a new chapter, one dedicated to telling the stories of the amazing men and women making all this cool new stuff. The culture they are also creating deserves as much attention as the code. There’s too much focus on the tech, or the entire idea of decentralized systems is often dismissed with an eye roll as too hard to understand. Understand it through the people, from their life stories and why they want to see this alternate future. It’s a trick as old as storytelling – use characters to convey complicated matters. Make it human and you can bring anyone along.
So here’s to the culture of crypto, one of the most vibrant and remarkable and never-predictable places to be. It’s also resilient, and it’s here to stay. Hopefully, I can play a small role to help capture its dynamic true to form.