The Rise and Fall of Bitcoin Culture

Crypto's first token created a culture and then a monster.

AccessTimeIconOct 11, 2022 at 11:46 a.m. UTC
Updated Apr 9, 2024 at 11:17 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconOct 11, 2022 at 11:46 a.m. UTCUpdated Apr 9, 2024 at 11:17 p.m. UTCLayer 2
AccessTimeIconOct 11, 2022 at 11:46 a.m. UTCUpdated Apr 9, 2024 at 11:17 p.m. UTCLayer 2

Bitcoin maximalism has become so desperately unhinged I consider it a cultural Chernobyl. The situation was not always so. Bitcoin culture was not maximalist for most of its history.

The zealots infecting modern Bitcoin culture are usurpers.

I arrived into the world of Bitcoin in 2012. I had heard about the dark net marketplace Silk Road and its then-elusive leader, the Dread Pirate Roberts (DPR). As a fan of subcultures, I was enthralled and I still think nothing has come close to that era for sheer intrigue.

Paul Dylan-Ennis, a CoinDesk columnist, is a lecturer/assistant professor in the College of Business, University College Dublin.

Silk Road led me to look into Bitcoin, which led me to look into cypherpunks and libertarianism, terms I had never heard before. The experience was formative because I did not just become a bitcoiner, but I changed my entire academic research trajectory to Bitcoin. It was a calculated risk that paid off career-wise.

I spent the next few years completely immersed in the bitcointalk forums. For most of Bitcoin’s early history bitcointalk was Bitcoin and it was amazing. What struck me at the time was how individual everyone was. Most people there held very unique positions and had varied interests. They were rarely on the same page about anything, including Bitcoin! They did not repeat generic talking points or simplistic memes.

This does not mean the users on bitcointalk were nice. Discussions were often mean-spirited, but debates were well-informed and not cliche. You could, as shocking as this may sound in the current atmosphere, actually learn new things there.

At the time, my research specialization was just bitcoin because that was the only crypto people in academia recognized. (except “blockchain,” which I sidestepped artfully!). I was forced to understand bitcoin intimately, in all its layers: technical, social, economic.

I remember nyms like theymos, MemoryDealers and MagicalTux. I know what RIPEMD160 is. What stratum is for. Or what F2pool is. I know what BitcoinXT was. I know not to confuse my UASF with USAF. The lore is in my very bones.

Yet, I was never a bitcoin maximalist. Back then, people who didn’t like altcoins just ignored them. There was never any suggestion that holding other coins was verboten. Satoshi himself was happy to work with Namecoin. There was no culturally monolithic embargo on altcoins like today. There was no purity test to pass.

'Stay toxic'

The term maximalism was coined in 2014 by maximalism’s favourite villain, Vitalik Buterin:

One of the latest ideas that has come to recently achieve some prominence in parts of the Bitcoin community is the line of thinking that has been described by both myself and others as “Bitcoin dominance maximalism” or just “Bitcoin maximalism” for short - essentially, the idea that an environment of multiple competing cryptocurrencies is undesirable, that it is wrong to launch “yet another coin,” and that it is both righteous and inevitable that the Bitcoin currency comes to take a monopoly position in the cryptocurrency scene.

The term is interpreted widely differently depending on what community you belong to.

If you are a bitcoiner then, as Pete Rizzo informs us, it likely means you believe one or all of the following:

  1. Bitcoin, a computer science invention, is the world's first working non-state monetary system. All other crypto assets compete with bitcoin by virtue of their existence, none offer long-term advantages without trade-offs.
  2. Investing in other cryptocurrencies is [select one: wrong, stupid, immoral, uninteresting] and should be discouraged and ignored socially for the benefit of others as a form of consumer protection.
  3. Bitcoin is only limited by human ingenuity. Anything other cryptocurrencies can do can otherwise be achieved by either bitcoin (or a centralized financial alternative).

If you are belong to the crypto community – which Bitcoin increasingly defines itself against – then, as CoinDesk's Daniel Kuhn tell us, it’s a pejorative that is:

…meant to evoke a certain closed-mindedness or lack of imagination in the Bitcoin community. Sometimes it suggests that “maxis” are only out to maximize their profits.

I would say the correct definition lies somewhere in the middle. Maximalism is when you believe Rizzo’s (1), (2) and (3), but you do so in the close-minded, highly aggressive manner captured in Kuhn’s definition.

Some bitcoiners, like Rizzo, believe bitcoin has a unique status among cryptocurrencies after carefully weighing the evidence. But this is not often the type of maxi you're more likely to encounter. No, we encounter an endless onslaught of triumphalist, populist meme lords hellbent on portraying every good faith crypto endeavor as if Sauron himself designed it.

How did we get here and can we escape maximalism?

Let me be absolutely clear where I stand: Maximalism is extremely detrimental to crypto, turning it into an endless grind of factionalism. This factionalism is intrinsically self-destructive because it is unappealing to the mainstream, manifesting as aggression, hostility and toxicity.

More and more the average Crypto Joe has learned these traits originate in bitcoin culture. What is bitcoin culture to them? It’s laser eyes, have-fun-staying-poor, oddball Citadel stuff and Adam Back saying “stay toxic.” What kind of insane culture embraces toxicity!

The seasoned Crypto Joe knows what to expect and that’s the answer to why nobody wants bitcoiners at their conferences. Why would any other culture want to be berated by a bitcoiner at an event? If bitcoin wants respect it can start first by giving respect to others.

Give a little bit

Let’s turn to the how. I want to stress to the newcomers, especially the infamous “joined 2021” generation, that maximalism is not a bitcoin norm. It’s a recent curio and it can be excised by any robust bitcoin cultural alternative willing to take on the battle.

I trace the origin of today's maximalism back to the Bitcoin Civil War. As we’ve seen, the term originates in 2014, but truly takes off after following a contentious debate about blocksize and scaling solutions that led to the Bitcoin Cash hard fork in 2017. A particular vision for Bitcoin won out – favoring smaller blocks, SegWit implementation and scaling through the Lightning Network.

Instead of Bitcoin primarily as digital cash with some gold-like properties, as envisioned by Roger Ver, Bitcoin would be primarily digital gold at the base layer, but with a dedicated layer 2 for cash-like payments.

The victory, in technical terms, was clear-cut and clean. The Mowist small blockers saved Bitcoin from an attack by the miners, primarily through the UASF counter-tactic, but also, and this is important for what followed, by adopting relatively sophisticated public relations tactics.

Here’s how the infamous “Dragon’s Den” coordinated its social layer - /bitcoin, bitcointalk, Twitter - as described in "The Blocksize War":

The channel was very active and entirely focused on the blocksize war. Most of the conversion revolved around social media, public relations and how best to expose weaknesses in the narratives and arguments put forward by the large blockers. Many participants in the channel appeared very committed to the cause. Discussion often focused around how to convince various people to join the small block camp, who was likely to turn, and which would be the most effective issues to focus on in social media. There was also discussion on memes and meme production. This war was also a meme war, and the “Dragons”, as members of the channel were sometimes called, were very involved in meme production. Many of these memes were humorous, designed to make the large blockers appear as if they had a weak understanding of some of the technical issues in Bitcoin, with Roger Ver, Craig Wright and Jihan Wu being the main focus of attention.

In hindsight, the Dragon’s Den set the stage for maximalism’s emphasis on adversarial thinking - it is Bitcoin against everyone - where attack is the best defence. You need only look at how a Bitcoin maximalist comes armed with a set of derivative pre-packaged talking points about, say, Ethereum, to see the contemporary version of this preemptive narrative formation. There’s little to no reflection on Ethereum per se, but there is a deep well of sanctioned generic Ethereum memes that are mindlessly trotted out. As someone who researches both Bitcoin and Ethereum, the degree to which the modern bitcoiner does not understand Ethereum is often shocking, although perhaps the solace of maximalism is you can just learn Bitcoin and never anything else. Relaxing!

Maximalism consolidated by firming up the expectations on its own members. Most radical subcultures begin by expressing their ire outward, as maximalists do to crypto, but they concretize around the expected behaviors of its own community members. Acceptable maximalist behavior operates in an interestingly puritanical manner because it is all about foregoing now to benefit later, which can mean “hodling,” but, more importantly resisting temptation, like decentralized finance (DeFi) or non-fungible tokens (NFT).

Bitcoin maximalist cultural logic is restrictive. It is about who can behave in the purist, most ascetic manner. The problem for members, as it is in most puritanical cultures, is this is a double-edged sword. You can enjoy berating crypto degens for their excess, but you may find the laws weaponized against yourself, for infractions that are a moving target, one day investing in crypto ventures is acceptable, the next you are Nic Carter and out in the cold. It is not incidental that the most prominent critics of Bitcoin maximalism, like Udi or Arthur Hayes, push back hard against the restriction on other coins; they recognize the absurd quasi-religious undertones involved.

Purity is an accelerant. The most moral, the most pure, the most serious is invariably the new convert. When you get into a tangle with a Bitcoin maximalist on Twitter today, an occupational hazard, you will soon encounter the phenomenon known as “Joined 2021.” This user does not debate, they meme. Specifically, they meme with an aesthetic best described as Boomer Uncle on Meta. “Uncle Bitcoin” is entirely predictable:

  • Bitcoin only
  • Wanting Ethereum to be a security more than the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • QAnon-style conspiracies about Joseph Lubin and ConsenSys
  • Uses outdated terms like ICOs, altcoins – revealing they are trapped in a 2017 time warp
  • Hyperbitcoinization is inevitable even though nobody knows how a Bitcoin-based deflationary economy would work in practice
  • Proof-of-work is the only viable consensus mechanism, for all possible use cases, until the Heat Death of the Universe
  • Some kind of [Michael] Saylor-inspired esoteric Bitcoin metaphysics

And that’s the stuff that is at least contextually coherent. You already know Uncle Bitcoin only eats steak. Push a little more and Uncle Bitcoin will treat you to some Fedora-tipping manosphere energy and before you know it goddamn Jordan Peterson is speaking at Bitcoin Miami. Uncle Bitcoin’s talking points ultimately flow downstream from a small cadre of Bitcoin influencers who produce more misinformation than a Russian bot farm. Their irresponsibly misleading tweets are the pinnacle of Brandolini’s law. Where would one even start the fantastical idea that Bitcoin has 40 million transactions per second? Or how do you respond to a tweet comparing proof-of-stake to slavery?

What’s the solution to “The Weirdening” of Bitcoin? We could grant Bitcoin maximalism its wish and separate Bitcoin from crypto. I know this amounts to their secession from crypto and we should oppose it on principle, but it’s what they want. They’re Texas (in analogy and spirit) and let Texas be Texas. This could be symbolized by removing bitcoin from CoinGecko and CoinMarketCap. This immediately would move ether to the top position it has been enviably eyeing up since its inception. Everyone would be happy!

Yet, I think this would be a depressing outcome. Bitcoin’s original culture was a synthesis of determined cypherpunk and thoughtful libertarianism. It drew on previous movements, certainly, but this combination was completely ex nihilo, a once in a generation cultural event. It set down the core principles of crypto culture: decentralization and censorship resistance. These remain our red lines. And bitcoin remains the gold standard in both cases.

See also: After Bitcoin Maximalism | Podcast

I do not want to leave the impression that this is simply a critique of bitcoin. My words are directed squarely at the triumphalist nihilism of Bitcoin maximalism. I want to emphasize that cultures ebb and flow. We do not have to be fatalistic about the stranglehold maximalists have. But it will be hard work to push back. You can probably already imagine the blowback I will receive from them for this article. And any bitcoiner challenging them will face the same toxicity. But it has to be done.

To encourage the pushback, I propose another path, one where bitcoin is positively affiliated with the rest of crypto. Crypto is a vast design space of cryptoeconomic experimentation emanating from the Genesis Block and those operating in the emerging fields of decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO), DeFi and NFTs are exploring it. Now, imagine a bitcoin culture that rather than aggressively berating the rest of crypto, used its considerable experience and know-how to positively encourage decentralization and censorship resistance, taking up a paternal (rather than paternalistic) role befitting bitcoin’s history. Instead of focusing on the scams and casino capitalism that blight crypto – and once blighted bitcoin when it was the only game in town – bitcoiners could help build the full suite of decentralized organization, finance and creativity that a post-centralized society will need. We will not win by simply having hard money; we’ll need hard everything for the crises to come.

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Paul J. Dylan-Ennis

Dr. Paul Dylan-Ennis is a lecturer/assistant professor in the College of Business, University College Dublin.