"I’ve been sending death threats since I was 8."
I know a lead-in like that piques interest and so does Chris DeRose, one half of the abrasive and influential podcast 'Bitcoin Uncensored'. It’s why he said it. That, and to make his co-host and partner in alleged crime, Joshua Unseth, laugh. “Sometimes the most honest thing you can do is tell a lie,” Unseth adds.
That statement should cloud everything you’re about to read.
First, a brief introduction. For those who aren’t familiar, Bitcoin Uncensored is a loosely defined podcast that’s part constant Soundcloud experimentation and part social media barrage. While maybe nothing on its own, ‘BU’ has coalesced into a (mostly) cohesive (and controversial) flavor of bitcoin intellectualism – one that is at once a rejection of the technology’s earlier Libertarian values and a supposed embrace of its more scientific merits.
That's not to say DeRose and Unseth think differently than the bitcoin maximalists of 2013, it's just that they’ve developed a new way to espouse the message.
Their claim to fame is that they tout this in a rather tasteless and increasingly offensive and visible way. (The duo was ranked number nine in our year's-end, "most influential" reader poll).
To many, though, the vote shone a brighter light on their more unsavory actions. They’ve been called misogynists, racists, anti-Semites and homophobes by the most well-known faces in the industry. (Many of whom refused to go on record about the subject).
Before we continue, we'll want to bear in mind this juxtaposition.
To understand DeRose and Unseth, one must also understand bitcoin evangelists, a group that for years now has either been getting made fun of or ignored by most everyone that's not a 'believer'. Traditional financial institutions, large enterprises, venture capitalists – most have bowed out for a tangential industry, 'blockchain'.
And it’s this buzzword that has emerged as the central focal point of the BU universe.
The problem, according to DeRose and Unseth, is that none of the bitcoin haters seem to know what a 'blockchain' is. That, and because it’s being used as a buzzword to secure funding rounds at the expense of the innovators who created it. (And they're not alone in this claim.)
To some, DeRose and Unseth have become something of a mascot for this crusade. And to those who are opposed, they’ve become another name on their Twitter block list.
'Bullying and harassment'?
In the middle of this tug-of-war are the critics who allege that DeRose and Unseth instigate nothing more than bullying and harassment (and that acknowledging them at all amounts to "letting them win").
And there's plenty of evidence to back this up. This article by blog Bitcoinist highlights some of the more colorful and unfriendly words they've used for notable investor-backed projects, including Zcash and thought leaders like Andreas Antonopoulos.
In interview, DeRose didn’t see to have a firm stance on whether or not his actions constitute ‘trolling’. This is despite admitting to making harassing phone calls to people’s family members and creating (or encouraging) lewd gifs and memes that lampoon industry figures.
Indeed, DeRose seems unable to see the human cost of these actions, preferring to emphasize his seeming belief that any engagement in the industry amounts to an entrance ticket into a kind of prolonged intellectual warfare.
“I don’t know what trolling is anymore,” DeRose told CoinDesk. “Is any peer review trolling now? Is anything that is meaningful now considered trolling?"
In his mind, this is what allows him to say, criticize someone's appearance in a sexualized way, or attend an industry conference in disguise and antagonize its organizers.
"What I’ve worked hard for is to have a culture where people are evaluated by their ideas and not as people," he adds.
In some ways, this is historically how the bitcoin and blockchain space has interacted with outsiders (see the development community’s sprawling mailing list and Twitter arguments, as evidence). Conflict definitely garners attention.
DeRose and Unseth have even acknowledged the accusations about their behavior on their show, though when they do it's often dismissive.
In response to the topic of subjective morality on a recent show, DeRose quipped "I don't think there's anything worse than that." The conversation quickly routs through discussion of the bible, sex crimes and how confrontation is sometimes the only way to make people face thought paradoxes they may not have previously considered.
And as some of their favorite public targets have struggled – banks leaving the R3CEV private blockchain consortium, scammers running away with the money raised by initial coin offerings and The DAO hack and subsequent ethereum hardfork – the two have earned a kind of niche celebrity in the industry for forcing the conversation.
Even their critics are increasingly acknowledging a difficult truth – they may be partly right.
'Toxic and flawed'
Jae Kwon, founder and CEO of the open-source blockchain platform Tendermint, has been in the line of fire of DeRose and Unseth before, but he’s more level-headed about the antagonism.
Despite being the butt of some of their jokes, he said he shares some of the chagrin that their sprawling podcasts and social media firepower have helped give voice to.
"I’m also frustrated by some of the things coming out of this industry under the umbrella of blockchain," Kwon said. "The core of what they’re saying has a lot of truth to it."
He credits the rise of Unseth and DeRose to the anonymity afforded by the Internet itself, one that he said has created "subculture where trolling is promoted as the method by which one arrives at the truth".
And in the bitcoin space it's only secured by the mythos surrounding the cryptocurrency’s pseudonymous creator, Satoshi Nakamoto, plus most supporter's belief that technology can usurp social problems.
If you have good technologically sound ideas, then it doesn’t matter who you are as a person, right?
But sometimes it does matter, because there are more effective ways of changing the right people’s minds than via condescension and humiliation.
"The approach they take – bullying and trolling – and their criteria, any proof-of-stake blockchain or fundraiser is a scam, are toxic and flawed," he said.
Kwon’s Tendermint co-founder, Ethan Buchman, agrees. "I suspect much of their effectiveness is lost due to the tactics," Buchman said.
The 'Perianne incident'
To understand where this sentiment comes from, however, one has to go back to the most influential ‘Bitcoin Uncensored’ episode, featuring Perianne Boring, founder and president of the non-profit Chamber of Digital Commerce.
Today, the narrative has been reduced to something like this – DeRose and Unseth coaxed Boring into appearing on the show to talk about blockchain. There, she, in the midst of forceful questioning, conceded that it was basically like the SWIFT secure financial messaging service, a comment the pair immediately and harshly criticized.
Their point was essentially this: if blockchain is just like SWIFT, what would be the point of luring banks into spending vast amounts of time and money stripping their architecture?
For many though, it wasn’t what was said, but how it was carried out (as well as subsequent discussion that found them emphasizing her physical appearance).
On the audio, you can even hear how DeRose and Unseth know full well that they’re prepared to rip apart her ideas.
"She didn’t learn anything from it because she was immediately put on the defensive. It was great for their ratings, but if they actually want her [and others] to learn something or have a positive impact, they need another approach," Buchman said.
Bitcoin's right wing
Sure, you could say that standing on a soapbox and patronizing people isn’t always effective – but then again, the latest US election would just about prove you wrong.
On a larger, sociological level, DeRose and Unseth have simply borrowed from President-Elect Donald Trump’s playbook. Stoke animosity, attack political correctness and the crowd goes wild. This can also be seen broadly in the many pro-bitcoin Twitter accounts that routinely retweet Trump rhetoric, unbecoming memes and other incendiary online content.
Unseth's former Twitter description, for instance, claims, "If you support me and @derosetech [Chris], then you also support @realDonaldTrump."
Part of the script is to willingly give ammunition to the haters. They know that defending themselves against trolls is a lost cause, because well, they play that game.
The duo's most ardent supports liken them to something like venerated court jesters, there to prove, as one blogger put, that the emperors have no clothes.
"The bottom line is – any community that wants to evolve past bad habits and toxic over-optimistic utopian thinking will have to face ridicule and humor. Because it is often only when we speak in jest, that we are truly saying the truth," Plutus.it's Filip Martinka wrote.
Others, like bitcoin developer Paul Storzc, use even more vaunted historical terms:
“Not wanting to be misunderstood, the BU hosts aggressively reject the premise that 'they must be understood'. They are only interested in the truth; and, in the spirit of Socrates and Sir Karl Popper, they deliberately stack the deck, so that it will be as *difficult* as possible for them to make their case.”
The argument goes like this: So, what if Unseth (who's not light-skinned) says he doesn’t like people of color, hasn't his belief that bitcoin is the only blockchain with a circular economy promoted interest in how this might be successfully replicated?
And who cares if DeRose brags about his love of escorts? His position that bitcoin is supported by regulatory arbitrage (the idea that government rules and restrictions give the blockchain its usefulness) is now a de-facto phrase.
But many do care, just like they care about President-Elect Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric.
Because the way people in power act and speak gives others an example, an excuse to act in the same way.
In interview, Unseth and DeRose display a certain cockiness that can be palpable as well.
Their worst quality, interruption – not only in the interview but at conferences (where they’ll lampoon speakers with question after question) – can be grating. Still, their passive aggressive questions and satirical statements are, many times, on point. And while they cast themselves as imbeciles, heroin addicts and 'johns', it’s only to mask real concern.
"The secret truth is that we actually care about bitcoiners," DeRose said.
Finally, a moment of clarity in an interview that all-too-often digresses into a swirl of jokes.
To some, DeRose and Unseth are already sympathetic due to their 'outsider' status.
According to Toni Lane Casserly, partner at BitNation, a blockchain-powered "decentralized borderless voluntary nation", it's best to view their offensive, in-your-face tendencies as a result of emotional baggage that they carry around.
"They were placed in situations where people didn’t value them, where they were treated like they weren’t good enough or smart enough, and the way they’ve dealt with that is through humor," she said.
Back to the death threats
In some instances, though, it's hard to laugh. As the saying goes, there’s a fine line between clever and stupid, and Bitcoin Uncensored certainly likes to cross that line.
At stake in the whole narrative is the question of who is the real bully.
Is it the hordes of bitcoin enthusiasts on Twitter who lampoon and attack their intellectual opponents in anonymity? Or is it the businesses and conferences that all too often lock out this dialogue for a PC or 'business-friendly' environment?
In this light, one would be remiss not to mention the central characters of "The Big Short", another set of outsiders who were attacked and ridiculed, only to be proven right.
A core intellectual question here is, as Unseth and DeRose allude to, which is the greater harm?
"When we started doing this show, it was obvious where the space was going. To us 2+2=4 and then there were a bunch of people in the space claiming that 2+2=15," Unseth said.
"If [people are] out there advocating people throw their money into toilets and we’re telling people that those are toilets, are we really the assholes?"
It could be argued that both parties are guilty for the poor state of the dialogue.
But then, there’s that line again. After all, I'm still here trying to figure out if the pair sends death threats to blockchain industry entrepreneurs, when DeRose finally admits to the action. Unseth quickly jumps to his defense.
At its core, its this kind of camaraderie that is also key to their appeal.
"It’s interesting, though, because these guys are known scammers," he says, alluding that I’m trusting the wrong people.
"I don’t mean to disrespect; just trying to validate," I said.
DeRose quickly strikes back:
“You couldn’t disrespect us if you tried.”
Image via Bitcoin Uncensored