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Amid Scaling Debate, Bitcoin Core Goes on Outreach Offensive

(@pete_rizzo_) | Published on January 28, 2016 at 19:40 BST
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communication

Even many of its members acknowledge Bitcoin Core has had a communication problem.

The largely volunteer development team, which provides peer review and testing for the bitcoin network's underlying code, has been on the defensive following the decision by a former member to criticize the project for failing to take what he considered to be adequate measures to handle a greater volume of transactions.

From there, the problem has only escalated.

Feeling the pressure from a particularly negative news cycle, bitcoin businesses soon began looking to support proposals that offered what they believed were solutions that would prove faster than Bitcoin Core’s development roadmap. One alternative, named Bitcoin Classic, has served as a rallying point for those who want to institute a 2MB block size, up from 1MB today.

Less publicized has been the 7th December roadmap penned by Blockstream co-founder and Bitcoin Core developer Greg Maxwell.

The roadmap, compiled with Maxwell's estimation of consensus among the developers, advocated for the community to increase the capacity of the protocol not by increasing the limit on the size of the blockchain’s data blocks, but by making a change to how information on the network is counted toward this metric.

Called Segregated Witness, the proposal would, among other less publicized fixes, increase the blockchain’s capacity four-fold without requiring a hard fork that would change bitcoin's consensus rules, a process that they believe may be too risky at present.

Still, many community members and businesses remain unclear about the recommendations and how the roadmap was produced.

Given that the issue has so often been termed the “block size debate” by the press, there is confusion as to whether Segregated Witness solves the scaling problem at all, or whether it’s an attempt to put off a hard fork – a change that many in the industry believe will eventually be needed given that the network only processes 1MB of data roughly every 10 minutes.

The idea that a 2MB increase might be risky hasn't exactly resonated with some members of the wider community.

Put more simply by Block C's Matt Carson:

"In a day where Google offers gigabyte fiber for $80 a month, the argument that a 2MB block might be too big doesn’t really make sense."

False start

Other community members professed confusion over the positioning of the initial announcement, given that it was made over a developer mailing list rather than through an official website or press push. It was a move that created an impression of informality that developers suggest was not intended.

More problematic is that, since the Bitcoin Foundation stopped funding former Bitcoin Core maintainer Gavin Andresen and other Core developers, the project has had no official institution to speak on its behalf. As a result, there has been a degree of distrust even when Bitcoin Core does take unified action to speak, with many assuming the self-interest of the parties in question.

But, in the midst of the drama, the team of developers that comprise Bitcoin Core have moved to boost their outreach efforts, launching a new website on 15th January and a dedicated Twitter account on 22nd January.

The actions, though seemingly minor, seek to better illustrate Bitcoin Core's message. Publications on the website have so far sought to stress the benefits of Segregated Witness in terms that are more akin to a traditional marketing campaign.

Driving this effort is the fact that members of Bitcoin Core stand by the roadmap, and are keen to showcase that, counter to what critics say, the proposal is one that has been thoughtfully reasoned and carefully considered.

Current Bitcoin Core maintainer Wladimir van der Laan told CoinDesk:

"I think scaling proposals have been done to death at this point. In my opinion, the time of discussion and planning is over for now and we need to move on with actually realizing the roadmap."

Bitcoin Core demystified

Of course, while the above statement may seem authoritative, it’s not the same as, say, a CEO issuing a mandate to his or her company. Even as a maintainer who manages the software release cycle for the project, Van der Laan is only able to speak for himself and encourage conversation.

For example, van der Laan added that Bitcoin Core will still consider alternative proposals for scaling that are posted to the mailing list.

"This needs to be an active area of research," he said.

Adding to the confusion is that, even in the bitcoin industry, it remains unclear how Bitcoin Core makes key decisions. The malaise is arguably a product of the quickly mounting price escalation at the end of 2013 that distracted businesses and media from focusing on the still extremely nascent technology underpinning sensational claims from increasingly well-capitalized startups.

In practice, Bitcoin Core's dynamics are easier to understand.

At workshops surrounding Scaling Bitcoin Hong Kong, the culture was evident, as was the informal hierarchy held in place by individuals that value expertise and the ability to deliver results.

Speaking in the developer team Slack group, one developer said: "People just take on parts that interest them with only informal coordination."

To those close to the project, it can be hard to determine the source of the communication issues.

Van der Laan, who is now supported by MIT Media Lab’s Digital Currency Initiative, acknowledged, however, that there is a culture gap given Bitcoin Core's own history.

When viewed through the lens that Bitcoin Core’s earliest developers largely started by donating their time to developing an online currency created by an individual that they never met (or so they say), the groupings today are more understandable.

"'Bitcoin Core' was never an organization, just a loosely coupled group of overworked mostly-volunteers contributing to a piece of software, so it has never had an unified message," van der Laan told CoinDesk.

Still, van der Laan opined that the group has recognized the problem, and that members of Core are now doing what they always do, mobilizing through their own volition to find solutions.

Culture change

Even as more visible developers including former Core maintainer Gavin Andresen and Bloq CEO Jeff Garzik donate time to other pursuits, work on the Bitcoin protocol carries on.

Each developer continues to maintain a 'branch' of the network, different from the contentious 'fork', that if it proves worthy of wider consideration is submitted to a staging area where it is subject to review and debate.

Merging such a change can be a lengthy process, requiring peer review and revision. For example, the cryptographic library libsecp256k1 was in a state of research and development for over two years, and now replaces the "buggy and slow" OpenSSL in validating transactions on the network. Core representatives estimate that signature validation is now 7x faster as a result of the effort.

Such actions are plainly visible on GitHub, but as members acknowledge, just because something is made public doesn't mean it will reach a broader audience.

One of the more active developers addressing this issue is a UK developer who goes by the name BTC Drak, or Drak for short, and whose Twitter icon includes a notable reference to "Lord of the Rings".

Amidst the clamor over the scaling debate, Drak has been one of the figures helping the project enact changes in how it fosters public dialogue.

Drak explained:

"Public forums have not been an effective way to communicate because of the sheer volume and fast pace of people commenting. Everything tends to get drowned out."

For Bitcoin Core members, the primary forums for communication include the text communications protocol Internet Relay Chat (IRC), the web-based code management program GitHub and a mailing list.

"This has lead to the impression that developers are inaccessible and not listening," Drak argued.

Van der Laan continued that those who are seeking to engage the group also have to be mindful that Bitcoin Core is an existing, and functioning, developer unit with its own entrenched processes.

"If you decide to get in contact with us, and feel welcome to do so – be civil, remember that this is a volunteer effort," he said.

The comments are meant to be constructive, more akin to a restaurant owner reminding guests that they can't simply walk into a restaurant's kitchen without waiting for a seat.

Still, though they voiced a desire to focus on positive messaging in their formal outreach, some Core members indicated they have negative feelings to those who have sought to disparage the project's efforts without understanding its processes.

Changing ways

This is partly because Bitcoin Core did have established ways in which it was attempting to communicate to the public even before the recent communications push.

Bitcoin.org, a separate open-source community resource, for example, has long been the resource where new bitcoin users could download Bitcoin-Qt, the project’s free wallet.

Bitcoin.org, like a number of other high-profile bitcoin forums, recently came under criticism for delisting a wallet offering by California startup Coinbase, one the ecosystem’s best-funded companies, over its positions on the scaling debate.

"It became awkward for us because of the community belief that Bitcoin.org and Bitcoin Core were on in the same. This accelerated the wish to have a separate website," Drak said.

Drak said he spent the holidays building out an alternative website for use by Core. Johnson Lau provided Chinese translations and Jonas Schnelli then contributed design work.

Eric Lombrozo, a Bitcoin Core developer and CEO of multisig wallet startup Ciphrex, seconded the idea that Core has been needing to change how it communicates by enlisting individuals who can act as "liasisons and emissaries" like Drak for the Bitcoin Core team.

Lombrozo said:

"Business executives, with a few exceptions, don't usually feel comfortable chatting on #bitcoin-dev on IRC. The only way to bridge these gaps is with individuals who feel at home in two or more said cultures who can serve not merely as points of contact but as fluid conduits.”

Of particular interest is for the project to find individuals who can liaise with the industry’s active mining community, most of which is based in China, and the media, given that Core members believe it played a pivotal role in creating the perception that its scaling roadmap did not have widespread support.

Lombrozo said:

"We need to find ways to have Core dev points of view satisfactorily represented in publications that reach these communities and other forms of media."

New offerings

Bitcoin Core also opened a Slack group on 10th January that it believes can be more accessible to new, less-techy members who can help the project in different ways.

"Humans are social animals and tend to think the worst when there is silence or lack of communication," Drak told CoinDesk. "Slack is helping to grease the wheels as it were.”

Still, van der Laan said that the group doesn't intend to stray drastically from its culture, even if its messaging is more formal.

When asked who would be in charge of managing the Bitcoin Core blog and Twitter account, van der Laan said that members will still largely continue to communicate to the community in their own words and as they see fit.

Van der Laan, as did other Core developers, sought to stress that the communication effort is in the spirit of other open-source software projects that issue both technical and non-technical blog posts.

Still, as for how much will change as a result of these efforts, van der Laan was careful to temper expectations owing to the volunteer nature of the project, concluding:

"As with software changes, it all hinges on what volunteers are willing to write."

Communication image via Shutterstock

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