Essay: Understanding the Participatory Theater of Cryptocurrencies

[Note: This is a revised version of a paper submitted to HASTAC 2015, which was not accepted.]

Understanding the Participatory Theater of Cryptocurrencies
Robert E. McGrath
Urbana, Illinois
Revised February 2015


The “cryptocurrency rush” of the early twenty first century is based on newly created technology, and sometimes is presented as a revolutionary and unprecedented development. A Cryptocurrency is technically simple to create, and presents people with the opportunity to invent whatever uses and meanings they wish for their new digital money.

Just as in earlier periods and other financial technology, concepts of digital money have been incorporated into much larger cultural narratives; into stories about identity, morality, and power. A cryptocurrency, like other forms of money, invites us to play a role in the participatory theater surrounding them. It is notable that for every successful cryptocurrency, the technology has been taken up by a self-identified “community”, who promulgate stories about their “coins”.

This process can be seen clearly in the hundreds of “alt coins”, which are (literally) derived from the Ur-software of the patriarch, Bitcoin. This family is unhappy in its own way, displaying many Oedipal and sibling rivalries, and, despite nearly identical technical features, sports a plethora of narratives.

The Bitcoin community itself echoes many of the arguments made by nineteenth century advocates of the gold standard (which William Jennings Bryan memorably tagged the “Cross of Gold”); stories about “honest money,” “confidence,” “stability,” and “universality”. The community also tells a narrative about “bold Internet entrepreneurs”, “disrupting” and revolutionizing money and everything else. Some enthusiasts emphasize the disruption of economic power, displacing Wall Street and central banks. Others imagine seceding from the political structure altogether, to create a virtual, “peer to peer”, “off shore” economy that cannot be regulated or taxed. Yet others hope to serve the “unbanked” and others left out of the current economy. In fact, there are considerable tensions developing within “the” Bitcoin community, stemming from the conflicting interests represented by these themes.

The same cryptocurrency technology can equally well serve other, radically different cultural narratives, including deep and old stories about identity, culture, and values.   We see, for example, “national” cryptocurrencies, such as Spain (SpainCoin), Israel (IsraCoin), and Iceland (AuroraCoin). One group has floated an “official” cryptocurrency for the “Traditional Lakota Nation” (MazaCoin). These cryptocurrencies have become part of long-standing stories about cultural identity and sovereignty.

Some cryptocurrencies address specific goals, such as supporting education (EduCoin) or crowdsourcing science (GridCoin) or rewarding physical activity (MangoCoinz). These currencies carry “value” to their community of users, while not necessarily trying to be a general-purpose currency.

In fact, a cryptocurrency narrative need not be “serious” to be successful; it only needs to attract an active community. Consider Dogecoin, the self-declared “meme-based cryptocurrency”, which invited its original users to act out an absurdist play, mocking the pretensions of the patriarch, Bitcoin. The Dogecoin narrative suggested that “value” is found through community, good humor, and gift giving. Notably, Dogecoin is the only cryptocurrency with its own fanzine.

None of these cultural narratives derives from or are driven by the technology itself. A successful cryptocurrency is not driven primarily by the technology, but by stories people want to act out.

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Cryptocurrency Thursday

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