The Bitcoin phenomenon is looking more and more like a cultural (dare I say religious?) phenomenon as much or more than a technical development. Based on clever technical developments, it is being propelled to prominence by high rhetoric and pirate-hero narrative. We are talking about “replacing” money, after all, which cannot be anything other than a mystical story.
One way to discern the Bitcoin narrative is to contrast it to with technically similar, but rhetorically distinct systems. The easiest case is probably DogeCoin, which is deliberately the “anti-Bitcoin”.
First, let’s note some similarities. Bitcoin and Dogecoin (and several other systems) are based on the same technology. Both are web-based, and operate through a participatory theatrical narrative: you are invited to play various roles, sending (buying) and receiving (selling) and maybe creating (mining) “money”. Playing the game requires installation of (minimal) software, a little training, and donation of time and computer resources.
Beyond the basics, these two systems invite/command you to join a larger narrative, about money, society, “trust”, “freedom”, and more.
In the case of Bitcoin, the narrative involves “revolution” and some tough ”common sense” economics. These technical developments make it possible to replace “government” money, central banks and free riding corporations. This new money will free the people to buy and sell with no “friction”. Bitcoin is also imagined to be a “stable” store of value, not subject to “debasement” by governments. I.e., it is a virtual gold standard.
Bitcoin is said to have the properties of cash, only better, being anonymous, transparent, and fraudproof. (Don’t ask how something can be both anonymous and transparent.) Based on web standards, it is “open source” technology.
The Bitcoin narrative must also include a drumbeat of criticism, which observes the plays that are enacted by Bitcoin enthusiasts. These include illegitimate commerce (drugs, weapons, murder for hire) and tax evasion. Surprisingly, the grownups are less than totally amused by the concept of undermining government and law enforcement. Actual economists don’t find need or merit for a virtual gold standard. The Bitcoin narrative is rapidly evolving, as the “frictionless” fantasy world encounters the “sandpaper” of the real world.
For a contrast, the DogeCoin narrative is quite different. Riffing on playful Internet meme (which I don’t grok at all), DogeCoin presents a nonsensical story (something to do with dogs). Users are invited to participate in the game, with all the same roles as BitCoin. Users are also invited/expected to adopt the crazy language games, salting their lingo with “such coins” and so on. This is just a game, it is not serious.
DogeCoin hasn’t been subjected to brutal criticism, mostly because there isn’t much rhetoric that can be criticized. How do you argue with “such coin”? It makes no sense, but that is the point.
As a way to compare the stories, let’s glance at some word clouds. Fig 1 presents word frequencies for the “Getting Started” pages for BitCoin (a) and DogeCoin (b) (compiled at by ‘tagzedo’) Table 1 lists the top baker’s dozen most frequent words from the two pages.
|Table 1. Most Frequent Words in “Getting Started”|
We don’t want to push too hard on limited data, but we can see some differences in emphasis. Bitcoin is about business, payments, choice, and so on. Dogecoin is about community, open source, and so on. Way more “shiba” in Dogecoin than anywhere other than ‘shibaluv.com’.
Obviously, this is very limited evidence. These particular pages are not necessarily representative of any larger cultural narrative, nor are they necessarily comparable to each other.
However, quick word clouds for other pages on these sites yield similar results, and overall they make sense. So this picture gives a reasonable shallow picture.
My analysis here neglects key parts of the Bitcoin phenomenon, such as passionate arguments (Andreeson, Stross, O’Brien, and many others) and media reports (market crashes, criminal roundups, heists, regulatory hearings).
Cultural studies mavens might want to examine this case much more thoroughly, to unpack the rhetoric and unstated assumptions about society, politics, and human nature. In this context, it is interesting to ask “What motivates the system builders/operators/users?” “Who adopts/participates, and what do they do with the technology?”
I think this analysis shows that the underlying technology is clearly very significant, both technically, and culturally. The basic algorithmic foundation turns out to be a medium for so many, and such strong narratives and social games.
Figure 1 (a) Word cloud from “Getting Started” from Bitcoin, http://dogecoin.com/get-started (created by tagzedo.com)
Figure 1 (b) Word cloud from “Getting Started” from Dogecoin http://dogecoin.com/get-started (created by tagzedo.com)