Understanding the Participatory Theater of Cryptocurrencies

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

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

Abstract

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.

Introduction

The “cryptocurrency rush” of the early twenty first century is based on newly created technology, and usually is presented as a revolutionary and unprecedented development.[30] The idea of digital cash has been around for a long time, at least as early as Chaum [5] and the Amoeba Operating System [27], and practically everyone has experienced digital transactions of one or another variety, mostly based on credit card or similar financial services. In fact, cryptocurrency is a novel solution to a small part of the overall problem of digital commerce.

The original cryptocurrency was Bitcoin [21], which is a self-contained system (technologically)—a Bitcoin is a Bitcoin. But there is, in fact, no reason why there can’t be other currencies. The same basic protocol can be implemented—with identical or variant properties—to create additional pools of “coins”, each being a separate cryptocurrency. In fact hundreds of cryptocurrencies (know as “alt coins”) have been created.

These cryptocurrencies form a technological family, with their software often literally derived from the Ur-software of the patriarch, Bitcoin. This extended family displays many Oedipal and sibling rivalries.

The development of so many cryptocurrencies in a very short span of time is, on the face of it, surprising. Given that they are all very similar, and they are mutually interchangeable, why would there be so many new cryptocurrencies? Part of the answer is that it is very easy to create a cryptocurrency.   In fact, the process has been automated to the point where, for a relatively modest fee, anyone can create a new cryptocurrency in an hour (e.g., [9, 13]).

Since creating a cryptocurrency is technically simple[1], it 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 tell stories, and more importantly, to play a role in the participatory theater surrounding them.

It is not surprising, then, that for every successful cryptocurrency, the technology has been taken up by a self-identified “community”, who promulgate stories about their “coins”.

A Technological Family, Unhappy in its Own Way

This process can be seen clearly in the hundreds of “alt coins”, which are (literally) derived from the Ur-software of the patriarch, Bitcoin. Despite their similarity, different cryptocurrencies are often viewed as rivals with each other, and vehemently claimed to be “just as good” or “better” than other (technically nearly identical) cryptocurrencies. This family is unhappy in its own way, displaying Oedipal and sibling rivalries and a plethora of competing narratives.

I make the central observation that every cryptocurrency to date operates on both a technical and a cultural level. A new cryptocurrency develops as a cultural story, in which the new cryptocurrency is an important prop in the participatory theater. The technology is a necessary but not sufficient component in this process, and it is impossible to understand cryptocurrencies without understanding the cultural narratives of their communities.

Such a narrative presents themes about the meaning of the currency (as “money”, or other uses), and about the identity of the community, as well as broader themes of morality and power. Users are invited to enact roles in this play, which may define personal or group values, as well as a sense of solidarity and community.

The narratives associated with cryptocurrencies are interesting from several perspectives:

  • They are the real differential between the multiple currencies, as well as the driving motive for the technology
  • Many of the narratives predate the technology, e.g., nationalist/populist themes which are expressed in new form form through a “national cryptocurrency”.
  • Just as the technology is basically a family of closely related systems, among various cryptocurrencies, the narratives reference each other and express familial themes of rivalry and identity.

Some Cryptocurrency Narratives

The Ur Narrative was laid down in the founding document that defined Bitcoin [21], and recounted many times by the thriving Bitcoin community. This narrative 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” (i.e., globalism) [20].

The Bitcoin community likes to enact a story about “bold Internet entrepreneurs”, “disrupting” and revolutionizing money and everything else [2, 17]. 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” [31]. Yet others hope to serve the “unbanked” and others left out of the current economy [3, 22]. In fact, there are considerable tensions developing within “the” Bitcoin community, stemming from the conflicting interests represented by these themes [23, 30].*

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 [25], “Freedom for the Spanish people…it is not controlled by banks or governments.”), Israel (IsraCoin [14], “Israel, a major economy, breaks free from the financial chokehold of banks and politicians“), and Iceland (AuroraCoin [1], “…the hope of a new era of free currencies, immune to the meddling of politicians and their cronies”). One group has floated an “official” cryptocurrency for the “Traditional Lakota Nation” (MazaCoin [19], “…an inscription was placed into the genesis block, to remind us how mazacoin is created and why. “The Black Hills are not for sale. 1868 is the LAW!”). These freshly minted cryptocurrencies have become part of long-standing stories about cultural identity and sovereignty.

Some cryptocurrencies address specific goals, such as supporting education (EduCoin [8], “…sponsor students at hackathons, change how families save for college, help teachers use digital currency in their classrooms, encourage social tipping between learners, crowdfund for students and teachers, and above all, generate wider access to world class education.”) or crowdsourcing science (GridCoin [10, 11], “…uses distributed computing … to benefit humanity by advancing the progress of medicine, biology, climatology, mathematics, astrophysics…”) or rewarding physical activity (MangoCoinz [18], “Start Mining for a Better Future“). 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. In addition to a number of jokes that were never serious, such as Tooth Fairy Coin [28] (the joke is obvious) or CantorCoin [4] (a “commemorative” coin). One joke actually became a popular cryptocurrency: Dogecoin [7].

Dogecoin (pronounced ‘doj-coin’), a self-declared “meme-based cryptocurrency” [15], which originated in a joke [16]. Founder Jackson Palmer tweeted: “Investing in Dogecoin, pretty sure it’s the next big thing”, and the reception was so great that the joke was made real a month later. The Dogecoin narrative arose partly to be “not Bitcoin”, inviting its original users to act out an absurdist play mocking the pretensions of the patriarch, Bitcoin (e.g., [26]). The Dogecoin narrative suggests that “value” is found through community, good humor, and gift giving. Notably, Dogecoin is the only cryptocurrency with its own fanzine [29].

Dogecoin is a particularly clear case of my thesis: the cryptocurrency itself is technically interchangeable with other cryptocurrencies; but it has a completely different narrative that has attracted a different group of people, and elicited different behavior from them. Where the Bitcoin stars wealthy Venture Capitalists (e.g., [6]), significant segments of the Dogecoin community has eschewed VC [24], embraced NSACAR [12] and marched on Wall Street [26].

Conclusion

Cryptocurrencies are often portrayed as mainly a technological wonder. In fact, they are a fascinating sociotechnical phenomenon, in which the technology is taken up to become part of deep and powerful cultural narratives.

It is very important to note that these narratives are not driven by the technology or its affordances (though some claim to be), rather the technology is a prop in an ongoing narrative. In fact, like conventional money, cryptocurrency is a mechanism that invites people to enact a role in these stories.

Cryptocurrencies are also interesting because they are technically simple to create, so anyone can have their own “coins”. Hundreds of cryptocurrencies have been created to date, forming a large extended family, more or less descended from a single patriarch, Bitcoin. The descent can be traced independently in both software and in the stories surrounding the currencies.

Cryptocurrencies have been incorporated into many communities with different stories to tell. These include ancient stories about identity, contemporary stories about power, and even absurdist jokes.

Only the technology is new, and it is really no more “innovative” or “disruptive” than the stories people act out with it.

Note On Sources

Whenever possible this paper refers to published source, but of necessity most of the references are citations to potentially ephemeral on-line sources. These are, of course, the primary sources for the phenomena discussed, and therefore both unavoidable and proper.

Author’s Note

The author is a staff writer for “Very Much Wow” magazine.

Note

* This article was submitted to HASTAC 2015 alongside a proposed workshop entitled, “How to Make Your Own Cryptocurrency—and Why You Might Want To”

References

  1. AuroraCoin. auroaracoin. 2014, http://auroracoin.org/.
  2. Bitcoin Foundation. Bitcoin Foundation. 2104, https://bitcoinfoundation.org/.
  3. Bitcoin Microfinance. Bitcoin Microfinance. 2014, http://www.bitcoinmicrofinance.org/.
  4. CantorCoid. CantorCoin. 2014, https://sites.google.com/site/cantorcoin/.
  5. Chaum, David, Blind Signatures for Untraceable Payments, in Advances in Cryptology, D. Chaum, R. Rivest, and A. Sherman, Editors. Springer US, 1983, 199-203. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4757-0602-4_18
  6. CoinSummit. Bitcoin Fireside Chat with Marc Andreessen and Balaji Srinivasan – Coinsumm.it 2014, http://youtu.be/iir5J6Z3Z1Q.
  7. DogeCoin. DogeCoin. 2014, http://dogecoin.com/.
  8. EduCoin. EduCoin: Digital Currency for Education. 2014, http://educoin.cc/.
  9. Farivar, Cyrus, Behold Arscoin, our own custom cryptocurrency!, in Ars Technica. 2014. http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/03/behold-arscoin-our-own-custom-cryptocurrency/
  10. GridCoin. GridCoin. 2014, http://www.gridcoin.us/index.htm.
  11. Halford, Rob, Gridcoin. Crypto-Currency using Berkeley Open Infrastructure Network. Computing Grid as a Proof Of Work. 2014. http://www.gridcoin.us/images/gridcoin-white-paper.pdf
  12. Howard, Isabella, Dogecoin Sponsored NASCAR Complete, in The Daily Doge. 2014. http://www.dailydoge.org/2014/04/27/dogecoin-sponsored-nascar-complete/
  13. Humint. Humint. 2015, http://www.humint.is/.
  14. IsraCoin. IsraCoin: Teh Israili Cryptocurrency. 2014, http://www.isracoin.org/.
  15. Know Your Meme. Doge. 2014, http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/doge.
  16. Know Your Meme. Dogecoin. 2014, http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/dogecoin.
  17. Lee, Timothy B., Bitcoin Is A Disruptive Technology, in TimothyLee. 2013. http://www.forbes.com/sites/timothylee/2013/04/09/bitcoin-is-a-disruptive-technology/
  18. MangoCoinz. Mango Coinz. 2014, http://www.mangocoinz.com/.
  19. MazaCoin, MazaCoin, 2014.
  20. McGrath, Robert, You Shall Not Crucify The Internet On This Cross of Bitcoin, in Very Much Wow. 2014: Albuquerque. p. 34-37. http://issuu.com/verymuchwow/docs/vmw3/35?e=11558635/8421855
  21. Nakamoto, Satoshi, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. 2009. http://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf
  22. Ripple Labs. Ripple Labs. 2014, https://www.ripplelabs.com/.
  23. Rizzo, Pete, TNABC Day 2: Bitcoin’s Diverse Community on Full Display, in CoinDesk. 2014. http://www.coindesk.com/tnabc-day-2-bitcoin-diverse-community/
  24. Sankin, Aaron, Dogecoin doesn’t need venture capitalists to get to the moon, says co-creator, in The Daily Dot. 2014. http://www.dailydot.com/business/dogecoin-venture_capital-rejected-jackson_palmer/
  25. SpainCoin. SpainCoin: Freedom for the Spanish People. 2014, http://spaincoin.org/en/.
  26. SuperstarProperties. DOGECOIN party at the Bitcoin Exchange NYC 2/7/2014 SUCH PARTY! . 2014, http://youtu.be/gzljN5e_JG0.
  27. Tanenbaum, Andrew S, Sape J Mullender, and Robbert Van Renesse, Using sparse capabilities in a distributed operating system, in 6th International Conference on Distributed Computer Systems. 1986: Cambridge, MA. p. 558-563. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/2952073_Using_Sparse_Capabilities_in_a_Distributed_Operating_System/file/d912f50acf69412805.pdf
  28. TheToothFairy. Tooth Fairy Coin. 2014, https://bitcointalk.org/index.php?topic=680350.0.
  29. Very Much Wow. Very Much Wow: The DogeCoin Magaizine. 2014, http://www.verymuchwow.com/.
  30. Vigna, Paul and Michael J. Casey, The Age of Cryptocurrency: How Bitcoin and Digital Money Are Challenging the Global Economic Order, New York, St Martin’s Press, 2015.
  31. White, Mike. Darkcoin Added To Darknet Drug Marketplaces. 2014, http://coinbrief.net/darkcoin-darknet-markets/.

 

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