Why Ethereum Can't Tell What Its Users Want

FEATURE
Rachel Rose O'Leary
May 1, 2018 at 04:00 UTC  |  Updated  May 3, 2018 at 12:24 UTC

As ethereum, now the world's second most valuable blockchain, grows larger and more diverse, it's becoming clear its mechanisms for getting input from its constituency are proving problematic.

Indeed, a series of proposals targeted at controversial topics – lost fund recovery, the ether supply rate and the emergence of new mining hardware – have sparked questions within its developer ranks of late about how to coordinate messaging and find consensus among the often conflicting attitudes about the protocol's roadmap.

Most recently, several developers even went so far as to worry such divisions could have broader repercussions after a new proposal, EIP 999, was introduced that some feared could lead to the creation of two incompatible blockchains.

And while many prominent developers, including software creator Vitalik Buterin, are pushing back on the idea that a split is probable, it remains a technical possibility, both because of the extent of the disagreement and the fact that anyone who runs the code is capable of choosing to fork off the network to take advantage of it at any time.

What's more, understanding just how probable such an event could be is becoming a technical challenge of its own.

Not only are developers divided, but the wider community also seemed splintered on the subject, with a "coin-voting" website – a web page that enables ethereum users to vote on topics based on the number of ether coins they have – showing a nearly even distribution of those for and against.

Infighting on social media displays much the same sentiment.

"Right now, we are all working off signaling, which is a really imperfect way to determine the needs of the community," Ashley Tyson of the Web3 Foundation, which lost $210 million in the Parity fund freeze, told CoinDesk. "You can monitor Reddit or Twitter, [but that doesn't] necessarily provide an accurate reflection of the community," she said.

However, the problem isn't unique to ethereum.

Indeed, bitcoin developers, miners, startups and users have aired competing views at various times in the cryptocurrency's history, most notably during the scaling debate (which in August last year, came to a head with some members of the community breaking off the main chain to form a competing cryptocurrency).

The issue seems to stem from developer conversations often occurring on platforms like GitHub and within channels and meetings where technical discussions take place. As such, it can be challenging for a non-technical audience to keep up, prompting concerns more novice users haven't yet been properly represented.

And while not all software changes have a direct impact on the average user - they're often just simple optimizations to improve the platform in discrete ways - some notable voices believe it's important for a variety of stakeholders to have a say when it comes to more contentious changes, generally those that could have an impact on the core values of the system.

"You can't create a governance process without actively involving all participants," Péter Szilágyi, an ethereum core developer, told CoinDesk.

And speaking to the process of architecting systems in a way that everyone's happy, he continued:

"As long as people feel something is being forced on them, they will fight it. Build something together that's beneficial to both sides, and everyone will consider it an upgrade."

Imperfect signals

If it's not obvious from the fierce debates and vitriol spewed throughout the crypto community over the past few years, that's easier said than done.

And currently, the only way to measure community sentiment to get that done is through social media channels and coin-voting sites.

While the chatter on social media can serve as a useful metric for gauging how the community feels about a particular topic, there are issues with this method as well. Trolls run rampant and fake accounts spam and manipulate, each spurred by possible financial gain or a simple willingness to escalate controversy.

Because of this, at a developer meeting last week, Jutta Steiner, CEO of Parity Technologies, which supports the proposal that last week so divided users, warned that social media could give the wrong impression of how deep the controversy over these topics actually runs, potentially adding fire to sensitive issues.

Speaking on EIP 999, Steiner said, "I'm not convinced that [EIP 999] is as contentious as it sometimes seems on social media."

She added:

"I think it's a pretty important point actually because often at the moment conclusions are drawn based on social media and it's not the only space."

While the mob mentality that proliferates on social media can be an effective way of getting your voice heard, it tends to silence subtler arguments and it's unclear whether these mobs are even ethereum users, much less real people.

"Who knows how many multiple usernames one party is using," Tyson told CoinDesk, asking, "and does that person even represent an ethereum community member?"

Used to try and clear some of the opaqueness up, coin-voting has become another way of measuring ethereum community sentiment. This method was first used heavily after The DAO hack, in an effort to get consensus on whether users wanted to hard fork the blockchain to get victims ether back.

At that time, many criticized the mechanism, saying that the poll was poorly communicated and wasn't open long enough for ether holders to properly respond. Plus, because the weighting of a particular vote is relative to how much stake - or quantity of ether - a user holds, some argue it puts too much control in the hands of the ether rich.

Coin-voting mechanisms deal with the same criticisms today.

"Minority voices, no matter how valid they may be, are never heard," Afri Schoedon, a communication officer at Parity, told CoinDesk, adding:

"The more money you have the more you can control the result."

Finding solutions?

And there's no easy solution at hand, although several developers and groups are trying.

For instance, as detailed by CoinDesk, several developers have started a working group named the Fellowship of Ethereum Magicians that relies both on a dedicated forum and in-person meetups to coordinate changes to the platform. Yet while the group strikes a median between the core developer community and other interested parties, it still doesn't fully encompass the broader community.

That said, several ethereum members are knuckling down.

For one, core developer Nick Johnson has migrated the ethereum GitHub repository onto a dedicated webpage that highlights the various code proposals in a more accessible manner.

Member of the ethereum magicians Lane Rettig has also expressed his commitment to better communicating the processes of ethereum governance in a blog post, stating that his vision of ethereum is as ruled by "rational, constructive, well-intentioned, economically incentivized human beings brought together by selfish and selfless inclinations alike."

As such, at the ethereum educational conference EDCON this week, Rettig has organized a workshop where he hopes to break down the network's governance basics and the philosophical assumptions behind these mechanisms.

And still, there might be even more creative solutions on the horizon.

For instance, core developer Alex Van de Sande proposed a code change that he believes might solve all the contentious topics - fund recovery, ether issuance and ASIC mining - that are being debated right now.

Because ethereum developers are looking to change the consensus mechanism of the protocol to proof-of-stake, eliminating proof-of-work mining, Van de Sande suggests sending all future ether issuance to a smart contract, which acts as a kind of insurance policy for the community. In the event of lost ether, the pool can be used to make users that lost whole again.

About the proposal, Van de Sande writes, "It should be seen as a platform to settle disputes to avoid the implementation of contentious hard forks, not as a means to remove the power of users and developers to execute them."

Still, the proposal has not been broadly accepted.

As such, Web3's Tyson concluded:

"We don't have the answers to these questions. But I hope that as a community we can begin to understand the questions and define the answers."

Broken phone image via Shutterstock

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