2017: The Year Blockchain Got Weird

OPINION
Sarah Friend
Dec 24, 2017 at 13:30 UTC  |  Updated  Dec 26, 2017 at 15:17 UTC

Sarah Friend (@isthisanart_) is a software engineer working at a blockchain development studio. When not doing that, she creates games and interactive experiences that explore privacy and transparency and the political and environmental implications of technology. 

This article is an exclusive contribution to CoinDesk's 2017 in Review opinion series.


2017 was a lot of things – a year of unprecedented environmental catastrophe, an ongoing political trash fire, the year that made more crypto-millionaires than any year previous…

Another way to remember the past year is calling it "the year weird blockchain broke." But what is weird blockchain you might ask? The etymology comes the "weird Facebook" phenomenon, a collection of meme-pages, wholesome and less-wholesome trolls and pseudonymous profiles made all the more wonderful by their unlikely home, the social network your family and your boss use.

And maybe in that definition, I point to why weird blockchain is worth talking about now, at the end of 2017 – because finally, weird blockchain feels weird.

The blockchain community has always been prolific with in-jokes and memes. Early crypto adopters share a vernacular of signs, symbols and idiosyncrasies – from yelling "MOON" in trollboxes, to HODLing, to the entire existence of dogecoin at all in any capacity.

But this year, blockchain hit banks, it hit business, it hit $10,000, and in its success it welcomed the masses like never before.

In the early days of crypto, anyone staying up all night to trade (or spending months of their life writing software no one thought would be useful) crossed the bridge of self-selection into the land of the outsider. This is no longer the case.

Now, in no particular order – my faves of the year's absurdity:

Jokes as art

Useless tokens of all kinds, among them the eponymous "Useless Ethereum Token."

UET bills itself as "The world's first 100 percent honest ethereum ICO," raising 310.445 ether. This one's basically a meme blockbuster, culminating in a listing on HitBTC and at one point trading at $4.95. Yet, it also had an early and less-well-known predecessor, ponzIco, a more biting variant, hatched by Josh Cincinnatti of the zcash foundation.

It comes with a pun-filled whitepaper, and was name dropped by Matt Levine on Money Stuff:

"The great art project of our age is to entirely collapse the distinctions between 'fraud' and 'performance art,' so that one day mortgage-bond traders will be able to say, 'Wait, no, I wasn't lying about bond prices to increase my bonus, I was performing a metafictional narrative about bond-price negotiations in order to problematize the underlying foundations of bond trading in late capitalism.'"

Memes live in the liminal space between art and jokes.

A troll of a different variety is Fluffypony (Riccardo Spagni), the lead developer for monero, whose hype campaign for a "big announcement" in May 2017 culminated in a 2x run-up in price.

When the video finally dropped, it was instead a two-minute long stock-footage filled parody of inspirational corporate propaganda, culminating in the slogan, "Putting the fun back in fungibility."

Hailed as art by some and with outrage by others:

In this genre, I award honorable mentions to BTCwizard, world's first "Initial Troll Offering" (a push to get the bitcoin wizard a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal) and FitVitalik, an apparently totally
sincere token that will somehow get Vitalik Buterin a probably-non-consensual personal trainer.

Art as jokes

Moving more squarely towards the camp of what I'll call "intentional art," we find Bad Shibe written by Rob Myers and illustrated by Lina Theodorou.

The story is a near-future sci-fi novella set under a rising Doge Moon – a young shibe named YS starts to question the underpinnings of the tokenized-reputation system that governs their world. Written in 2014, but only now published in 2017, the meme is still strong – and the story more relevant than ever.

Bad Shibe is part of Artists Re:Thinking the Blockchain, an anthology of speculative fiction, interviews, illustrations and theory published by Furtherfield, a centre for arts and technology based in the U.K.

The book includes a rich collection of takes … everything from a round up of cryptocurrency mining in contemporary art, a blockchain developer's Hippocratic oath and blockchain LARP. Furtherfield has also been hosting the DAOWO programme – a series of workshops on reinventing the arts lab with blockchain.

Another irreverent project with a postwork dystopian twist, Max Dovey's Respiratory Miner allows people to mine cryptocurrency by breathing.

Breath (BRH) is part of an art performance and interactive exhibit that uses a spirometry, a medical technique for measuring lung capacity, to mine monero with a hashrate adjusted for rate-of- breath. It was recently exhibited at Generator Projects in Dundee in an exhibition curated by Alejandro Ball and Inês Costa, and will be exhibited again in January as part of Money Lab 2018.

Truth is stranger

But of course, another dimension of the fake news era is – beyond the blurry synergy of jokes-as- art and art-as- jokes – is reality itself competing to out-weird them.

How can you distinguish the troll from the truth? As we all now know it's a sinister phenomenon, but its smallest sibling is the clickbait headline that becomes accidental meme.

Now, in rapid fire, I bring you, this:

Buddhists launch digital currency to banish corruption from religion

And this:

And never forget this:

There you have it.

2017. It's the blockchain version of the moment you realized Hot Topic exists.

The thing you used to get made fun for is cool now. The area of permitted protest of the system is much greater than the system is willing to admit.

Disagree? CoinDesk is looking for submissions to its 2017 in Review series. Email news@coindesk.com to pitch your idea and make your views heard.

Dennis Rodman image via Shutterstock

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