Poof, Your Money's Gone: Building for Blockchain Users

Taylor Monahan
Dec 23, 2017 at 13:45 UTC
OPINION

Taylor Monahan is the founder of MyEtherWallet, an open-source, client-side interface for generating ethereum wallets and interacting with the ethereum blockchain.

The following article is an exclusive contribution to CoinDesk's 2017 in Review series.


It's easy to ignore how simple things are today, and even easier to miss how much larger things will be tomorrow.

We underestimate, misestimate, write off exponential as linear and react to the five-minute candlesticks as if they are the whole picture. Everything is relative. Unless we zoom out, we won't see that peaks are growing taller each day, nor that the valleys are barely blips given full context.

When we put together the first version of MyEtherWallet, we weren't trying the change the world. We were just building a wallet generator that didn't require the command-line. Two-and-a-half years later we've become the de-facto interface for interacting with the ethereum blockchain, especially when it comes to ethereum-based tokens.

This is not your typical journey.

But the fact that we were able to build a product in this fashion reveals more about the market than our own skills. Only in such a new and emerging space could we thrive building a product for ourselves. We knew what people wanted because we knew what we wanted. Early blockchain adopters, ourselves included, tend to hold more libertarian or anarchist views, have an intolerance for inefficiency, have a tolerance for risk, are tech-savvy, privacy-minded, innately curious, self-motivated and thoroughly enjoy the possibility of a better future.

However, the crypto-sphere is not a microcosm of the larger world; it's limited to those who see the potential future regardless of the experience today. Most do not enjoy reading research papers, let alone debating them on forums created before the iPhone existed.

Most value ease, automation and features over control of their data. This, combined with the online experiences we've grown accustomed to (insurance, mobile banking, "undo" buttons, password resets, live customer support) means throwing my mother onto the blockchain today would be a recipe for disaster.

This isn't because my mother is incapable or uninterested. It's because she lives in a world that operates differently than the blockchain world. Unlike those of us already in this space, she hasn't found the resources that shift her mind and trigger her "rabbit-hole" moment.

One can hope that the state of things today are not seen as the "simple times" tomorrow.

Ideally, looking back we'll have a nostalgic viewing of "the early days." The unpolished days. The days reserved for geeks and misfits and maniacs who believed in the "why," but hadn't quite nailed the "how."

Cracking custody

Mike Belshe, the CEO of bitcoin storage service BitGo, was the first person to help me see the uniqueness of the cryptocurrency custody situation. He pointed out that if your house completely burns down while you are at work, you would lose less than if you lost your private key. The insurance will pay, your wallet and phone were with you at the time, your important documents are all in the cloud, and you can, however awful it may be, still stand in line at some government bureaucracy to get a new birth certificate.

More recently, Ryan McGeehan was helping us put together our security policy and included:

"I am aware that cryptocurrency companies are a global anomaly to the security industry. I am aware that these companies are hacked into deletion at a far greater rate than any industry. I will walk through this industry's graveyard. I will look through this list and appreciate the scale of this problem."

When it comes to cryptocurrency, a single string of characters can cause irrecoverable loss. This space mostly operates in a gray area in regards to taxation, regulation, security and jurisdiction. The loss of your private key results in the loss of your funds.

The theft of a private key results in tax-free, identity-free funds that can be mixed, siphoned, used to pay for products or services or converted into (essentially) clean fiat.

I've joked that MyEtherWallet needs to budget for the years of therapy our support and education team is going to need after spending their days, nights and weekends with people who have lost their funds. Whether it's phishing sites, malware, unsafe storage of keys, or other exceptionally creative ways (aka "user error"), the worst part is the helplessness.

We can educate them about what went wrong, we can try to prevent it in the future, but we cannot make the keys reappear or return the funds. They're gone. Poof.

"Poof" should be a concept reserved for magicians and charlatans. The very real consequences of loss become evident as you spend time in this space and begin to understand the blockchain, cryptography, and key pairs. However, without this baseline knowledge, people only have their experiences with the traditional world (Gmail, Facebook, online banking) which leads to seemingly senseless loss.

When they lose, they don't care why or how, they care about a solution. With each passing bubble, those entering the space care less about the underlying technology and more about potential profits. The investments have become more irresponsible, the losses larger, and the reactions more accusatory, angry, and, at times, suicidal or homicidal.

The new blockchain user

Cryptocurrency is a global anomaly. Accept that. It is onerous, unique, and elusive. People are not stupid, they are uneducated on the idiosyncrasies of the blockchain.

Building a product for a limited demographic only works when that demographic dominates the market. As the market expands, what do you optimize for? Your original goals? Integration with traditional world? Decentralization? Security? Advanced users? Control? New users?

Growing up means figuring out what you stand for and what you want to stand for. For a product, that means making decisions that are in line with your philosophies and then aligning your user's expectations with your offerings. It means focusing your efforts on the best solution for the people you are building for, not an amalgamation of all the possible solutions. It is becoming apparent that the policies, systems, fees and regulations that we vehemently rebel against exist for a reason. They can subsidize refunds for fraudulent transactions. They can shut down accounts. They can protect innocent ignorants from being scammed.

A single product cannot effectively address the full spectrum of a user's needs and expectations when it comes to custody. One company cannot simultaneously give you your private key while offering two-factor authentication. A team cannot hold your funds while allowing you to send wherever you want, whenever you want. An interface cannot perfectly automate and hide the shifting variables (e.g. ethereum's gas costs) while you generate that transaction via an air-gapped device in the middle of a field covered in foil.

A more diverse population of users demands a more diverse population of custody solutions. It demands a more diverse talent pool to build these products, help people understand the blockchain and help the blockchain understand people.

We need products that optimize for ease-of-use over advanced features. We need third-party funds with insurance that hold and grow your investments. We need multi-factor solutions that target traditional businesses and can work within their established accounting practices. We need systems for transparency for ICOs and charities. We need teams that focus on ultra-private solutions for those in high-risk situations, or simply value control above all else.

We also need resources that target the growing ecosystem.

This means resources for institutions, my mom, and the kids who have been Snapchatting since they were 10 years old. We need tools for the unbanked, the banked and the over-banked. We need documentation and research so that those who have the expertise can use their advanced skills to advance the systems. We need the teachers who know the technology inside and out, and those who have the perfectly accessible analogy for everything.

The opportunity

To have a better future, we have to start building it today.

The people building it must be as diverse as the people who will be part of it. It's easier if those who are part of it are the ones building it. It can't just be technical experts or big corporations. Not every project requires millions of dollars or advanced college degrees. It requires both researchers at universities and teens with YouTube channels. It's publishers, writers, and random commenters who to take the time hold someone's hand and bring them onboard. It's talking, sharing, connecting, and iterating.

But mostly, it's realizing that those who change the world don't always set out to do so. All it takes is a decision to do something today, do it better tomorrow, and to not stop doing it...ever. One day, you'll lean back, zoom out, and realize the peaks and valleys that have consumed you were just the runway and the real lift-off has yet to occur.

Luckily, you're already on-board, building the ship, and there is no getting off now. The future is coming. HODL tight.

Don't think it's early days anymore? CoinDesk is now accepting original submissions to its annual 2017 in Review. Email news@coindesk.com to pitch your idea.

Money and security image via Shutterstock

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