A Real-Time Battle Over Trashy Art Is Becoming a Big Deal for Bitcoin

A new digital art project, covered in crypto politics and penises, displays a serious use for bitcoin's layer-two tech, the lightning network.

AccessTimeIconJun 15, 2018 at 4:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 8:03 a.m. UTC

A bird? A plane? No, that's just a giant penis spouting flaming bitcoin.

Such is the canvas at Satoshi's Place, a web app that allows savvy users to create digital pictures by sending small amounts of bitcoin. In the weeks since its release, the graffiti tool has become the site of territorial battles of pixel-space, with tribes of every description, from national flags, to cryptocurrency insignias, to companies, all competing for a patch of digital property.

Created by a developer who goes by the handle "Lightning K0ala," the project is inspired by Reddit's massive multiplayer art experiment, "Place," a three-day effort in collaborative drawing that garnered hype in 2017 (called, among similar sentiments, "the iconic picture of our time" by Paste Magazine).

But while participants on Reddit's r/place had a time constraint – users had to wait between five and 20 minutes before submitting a new pixel to the board – at Satoshi's Place, the limit is only how much bitcoin users are willing to fork over.

A pixel on Satoshi's Place is priced at one satoshi, or 0.00000001 bitcoin. And for 0.01 bitcoin, around $65 at current prices, users can take over the entire board, all by using a newly live payments technology for bitcoin called the lightning network.

According to data provided by the app's creators, there's been nearly 3,000 paid invoices running across the lightning network, for more than 8 million painted pixels, garnering the attention of about 10,000 unique daily visitors to the site.

"Satoshi's Place has been the first app that has gained wider attention from the community," said Elizabeth Stark, the CEO of Lightning Labs, a startup building a user implementation of lightning.

And as users compete for art real estate with their wallets, according to advocates, the quickly shifting cultural depiction of cryptocurrency enthusiasts demonstrates not only how Lightning can free the bitcoin blockchain from its scalability constraints, but also how technologies like these could eventually outpace traditional financial systems.

As such, even with many laughing at the 13 penises that adorned the website on Monday, Satoshi's Place isn't all crypto memes and minds in the gutter.

"It shows that bitcoin is, in fact, scaling and increasing the use cases the network can support," Casa engineer Jameson Lopp told CoinDesk, adding:

"It proves the power of microtransactions – it's not possible to use traditional financial networks to create pay-per-use systems like this that are metered at the sub-penny level."

And echoing something similar, litecoin creator Charlie Lee took to Twitter to call Satoshi's Place lightning's "first killer app."

Serious fun

Sure enough, many believe the artboard touches on something very important.

Citing the use of microtransactions within the game (one satoshi is worth a fraction of a fraction of a cent), Jeff Gallas, an early participant of the artboard and founder of lightning startup Fulmo, emphasized how such an application is currently unique to the lightning network.

Indeed, the popularity of the artboard brings to mind other successes in blockchain-gaming history, such as SatoshiDice or ethereum's Cryptokitties, but with one important exception.

As bitcoin developer David A. Harding pointed out, while both of these examples led to near-crippling blockchain congestion, Satoshi's Place has been imperceptible on the bitcoin blockchain itself.

"Since [the game] has become popular, I haven't observed any meaningful change in the volume of bitcoin transactions," Harding said. "This suggests that lightning network payment channels are working as their advocates expected in increasing the capacity for small and casual bitcoin payments."

In other words, due to the nature of lightning, whereby payments are pushed off the blockchain into payment channels that don't require miners validating transactions, the large number of transactions from Satoshi's Place doesn't encumber the blockchain in any way.

"The entire point of lightning is these apps can be built in a scalable way," Stark told CoinDesk. "We can already process many thousands of transactions per second on lightning and some estimates even go up to the millions."

According to Harding, the artboard's success is good news for adoption, because as Satoshi's Dice and CryptoKitties demonstrated in the past, lighthearted blockchain games can do a lot for attracting newcomers to the space. Plus, Harding finds it encouraging that even though lightning is still in an early phase – it's still possible to lose funds on the network, for example – it's already being used recreationally.

He continued:

"I think it bodes well for that future adoption that, even in these early days of end-user lightning network software development, people find the [lightning network] user experience satisfactory enough that they can spend hours engrossed in a game like Satoshi's Place."

The battlefield

But not only does the artboard display the power of lightning, it also casts light on the perpetual war the crypto industry is in.

"Due to the space scarcity (and lack of a market pricing mechanism), we end up seeing territory battles as folks defend 'their pixels' against others who wish to overwrite them," Lopp said.

Many startups are competing for space on the board to display advertising, but there are other, more political battles playing out on Satoshi's Place as well.

"There are advertisements interspersed with reproductions of art, but I think the more interesting aspect is the crypto memes that are unique to this space," Lopp told CoinDesk.

For example, as the lightning network was formulated in response to bitcoin's scalability concerns, many of the drawings have depicted leading figures in the bitcoin scaling debate – Roger Ver for instance.

"In the first days, the main topics on the website were bcash and penises," Jeff Gallas, an early participant of the artboard and founder of Lightning startup Fulmo, told CoinDesk.

But as bitcoin cash, the rival cryptocurrency that split from bitcoin this past August, logos appeared to take over the site, the word "cash" was changed to "trash," then finally "bitmain trash" (referencing the mining hardware giant's role in the controversy).

Ver, a bitcoin cash enthusiast, even took a jab at the project on Reddit, sarcastically calling it a "great example of the maturity level of many lightning network users." The comment was met with surprising feedback, as bitcoin cash users suggested creating another rivaling graffiti app with one user claiming that the bitcoin cash version would be "a bit nicer with a canvas than drawing penises and denigrating another coin."

"It's an interesting way to gauge the general sentiment of the community with regard to certain entities and concepts," Lopp said."It's a new example of digital scarcity that is simultaneously a proof of the unique applications that lightning network enables. Also, the anarchic nature of the internet makes it attractive to graffiti of all kinds."

Sure enough, there is some anarchy afront. According to Lightning Koala, users have already figured out how to hack the software, creating scripts to upload images and overlay jpegs on top of pixels.

Summing it all up, Stark said:

"Basically, we are keeping bitcoin weird."

Satoshi's Place screenshot via satoshis.place


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