In the best of times — during face-melting bull runs that make even crypto skeptics question their “just say no to crypto” strategy, the tribalism and myopic crypto culture can be overlooked.
During the boom times, the cast of characters who parade around burning dollar bills and claiming that bitcoin is the one and true form of internet currency and everything else is, well, a shitcoin, feel like they are all part of the pull toward the future.
But during market deep market downturns — the kind that make even crypto evangelists wonder if it is time to divest — the cult-like communities that have grown up around different communities start to hit a little differently. They feel a little desperate.
The bitcoin versus the world’s shitcoins is a perfect example of the role, rise, and risks of digital dogma. It’s not just crypto where digital communities have sprouted and then taken root. We see the same kind of behavior now across the spectrum of activities — regular people going rogue political radicals fueled by the content they consume online is another example.
How the internet pushes people toward digital dogma
Dogma is the adherence to a specific set of beliefs, usually held by a group of people, that are unquestionable and considered the ultimate truth. Dogma is often associated with the first principles of religion. But other big ideas can also be distilled down to their dogma. Marxism has its dogma and so does neo-liberalism.
The concept of dogma has a role — it allows groups to organize and identify with one another without having to rehash the same basic principles over and over. Where dogma gets dangerous is when people stop talking about things rationally and just hold extreme positions because it is part of the group identity — and refuse to consider other good ideas.
And that is exactly where things seem to stand with the many tribes of crypto. People and communities are so convinced that the project they support is the best because of its consensus mechanism, or its lack of pre-mine, or because it will be the best at addressing a specific problem.
On some levels, digital dogma is good. It helps move conversations along and attracts more people into a community that can define itself around shared values and views. And in the tech world, or the crypto world specifically, dogma also helps underscore what tech marketers like to call “value propositions.” Why one cryptocurrency, for example, is better than another, can be explained simply. Bitcoin is the best, the logic goes, because it is the most decentralized and the most secure. Everything else is lacking in comparison.
The issue with this line of thinking — which may or may not be true in this case — is that there can/will never be another bitcoin. If that’s true, then this logic and the need for a dominant dogma makes sense. But if it’s not, then following strict dogma becomes a liability.
The idea of digital dogma does play a certain role in how people find communities and even products and services on the internet. The reason a site like Reddit is so popular, despite (or maybe because of) its strong cultural mores, is because it allows people to self-organize and follow interests and communities that they identify with.
And what growth marketer isn’t trying to harness the idea of digital dogma to not only convert potential customers, but to keep them as part of a tribe of users and evangelists?
On some levels, we are talking about competition. Competition in all forms is good. From the early days, tech has always been about a zero-sum kind of game. Some tech competitions are high profile and with lasting results — and usually produce some kind of standard. Think about the early energy grid, or the culmination of tech/market forces that led to the adoption of the internal combustion engine. The formatting of digital media provides more examples, vinyl lost to cassette, which lost to CD, which eventually lost to streaming media. There have been browser wars, social media platform revolutions, and search engine battles.
What is interesting is that digital dogma is that it often feels like all roads lead to one option, outcome, or monopoly. If crypto maximalists had their way, the same would be true of emerging digital assets — there would only be one option and the rest would just be relegated to the status of shitcoins. Is that really the best outcome?
The warpedness of crypto culture is such a part of where we are now it was used as part of the intro to Matt Levine’s magazine-filling opus on the state of crypto in a recent issue of Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek.
Within crypto there are two levels of dogma. First there is the meta crypto dogma, which basically says that the networks that create and are supported by their own digital assets are a solid alternative (or a complete replacement) for traditional information networks and financial systems.
A healthy and useful network that creates its own assets can be self-sustaining. It can also exist outside of the hands and control of traditional power structures because it can fuel its own growth and maintenance. So the dogma here is that crypto-backed decentralization is the future.
The second level of dogma within the crypto space is where things start to get a little tricky. It turns out there are degrees, or levels, of decentralization. Each level comes with its own set of trade-offs, usually boiled down to overall security versus ease of use and overall number of potential applications.
Most of the crypto community believes in the first level of dogma no problem. Leveraging the full capabilities of the internet to create decentralized/peer-to-peer networks is better than the blind march of today's internet monopolies.
Where things start to get really interesting (and where the maximalists start to come into play) is when talking about the second level of dogma.The utility/ease of use versus overall security is something that exists across a spectrum in the crypto world. Despite the options, some dogma purists believe there is only one right way to create and maintain a decentralized network.
If crypto is a revolution — or even if it is just a better, more customizable financial tech stack — then the only way it can compete with the status quo of the existing financial system is through mass adoption.
As we have seen in religion and politics, well articulated dogma can lead to conversions and adoption. Dogma works because it makes complicated ideas accessible and repeatable. There is something about dogma that also appeals to our need to belong, and to our ability to define ourselves based on the groups we belong to.
One of the biggest issues with crypto’s digital dogma is that it asks people to be open to alternatives and to envision a new financial system based on encrypted ledgers and alternative currencies. But at the same time, it demands that they immediately make decisions about which alternatives are best.
Today’s digital dogma demands that we leave the herd to join a tribe — for many this makes crypto inaccessible, or at least creates a lot of initial friction and slows adoption. It’s also really confusing.
A healthy economic system should not be defined by monopolies, but rather a number of competing systems that are looking to maximize the best user outcomes (this could be security, or low transaction costs, or interoperability).
In that context, the idea of a purist dogma as it relates to crypto seems misguided. It seems like the future of finance shouldn’t be about trading old dogma for new dogma, but to get to a place where there are multiple options/tools available to accomplish goals. For each person, and for each individual need, those tools can be used differently to accomplish specific goals.