Abstract: We look at the recent apparent cultural schism in Bitcoin, in particular the so-called laser eyed Bitcoin maximalists and the accusation from “anti-maxis”, that this section of the community are too close minded and too dismissive of new ideas. We speak to a key proponent of this criticism of Bitcoin culture, Udi Wertheimer. We conclude by agreeing that of course improvements can be made, it would be great if diversity of thought among Bitcoiners online increased. Bitcoin can be more and needs to be more than just “digital gold”. However, it is not clear to what extent the situation has gotten worse over the years, one thing the anti-maxis may be getting wrong is overestimating the degree of deterioration in the quality of the discourse, it has always been messy.
An apparent rupture has slowly emerged in Bitcoin, with some individuals from within the “community” becoming highly critical of certain aspects of Bitcoin culture, in particular the quality of online discussion. The most vocal critics include Udi Wertheimer, Eric Wall and perhaps Nic Carter, although their opinions are shared by many. A summary of the main criticisms of “Bitcoin maxi laser eyed” culture can be found below:
- Overconfidence in Bitcoin’s success and cult-like behaviour – Bitcoiners behave somewhat like a cult, believing Bitcoin’s continuing success is inevitable no matter what. Therefore one does not need to take proactive action to help Bitcoin succeed. Questioning this narrative, discussing challenges or criticising certain aspects of Bitcoin is no longer tolerated to the degree it was in the past. Bitcoin has become inappropriately associated with other controversial ideas such as: carnivory, pro-gun, anti-woke, Christianity, anti-modern art and anti-vax. These values can dissuade new people from joining the community and Bitcoin is supposed to be for anyone. Much of this overconfidence may originate from Bitcoin’s historic success and meteoric price appreciation. New Bitcoin proponents then attempt to emulate the techniques of influential Bitcoin figures in the past, without really understanding what drove the success.
- Too dismissive of alternative use cases, new ideas, alternative coins & other chains – Bitcoiners are too close minded and too quick to dismiss alternative use cases, coins and chains as scams. While this broad brush approach of labelling everything else a scam probably was more appropriate during the 2017 ICO boom; the technology used in these alternative systems has improved since then. While it is still probably true that the majority of alternative crypto system’s are scams, there are some interesting and successful ideas. Even if these alternative crypto systems are scammy and have nothing much to do with Bitcoin, for instance NFTs, due to their popularity, they represent a huge onboarding opportunity for Bitcoin, which has been wasted as the Bitcoin community dismissed the alternative systems too quickly. Lack of diversity of thought is considered a major issue, with “digital gold” currently the only approved narrative.
- Too much talk – Bitcoiners spend too much time talking on podcasts and at conferences, where the same people say the same talking points again and again. Points which lack intellectual rigour. For example Michael Saylor stating that “Bitcoin is digital Energy” or that “Bitcoin is the most thermodynamically sound asset”. Not enough Bitcoiners actually use Bitcoin or propose solutions to the technical challenges.
- Too boring – Bitcoin maximalists have been too critical of fun non-monetary use cases of Bitcoin such as Ordinals and Taproot Wizards. These alternative use cases are necessary to keep Bitcoin fun and exciting. They are also necessary to generate transaction fee demand, to mitigate the risks of a lack of transactional demand reducing the security budget when the block subsidy declines.
- Too resistant to consensus rule changes – There is a perception that the winning side in “The Blocksize War” was the smaller block toxic side, the side that defended Bitcoin and opposed consensus rule changes. The people on the winning side then came out looking intelligent, while the losers looked foolish and shortsighted. People want to be successful and appear smart and therefore they emulated the winning strategy. However, as a result, the community is too quick to oppose consensus rule changes which could be useful, such as CTV, Drivechains and Taproot which activated too slowly. While the smaller blockers were correct in 2017, this ultra conservative approach is not currently appropriate.
The purpose of this article is not necessarily to assess the validity of the criticisms of Bitcoin culture. The claims are of course valid to some extent and Bitcoiners can improve in certain areas. The question we are focusing on, and one we find much more interesting, is as follows: To what extent are these critics identifying anything genuinely new? Has Bitcoin always had these problems to some extent? Part of the narrative of the anti-maxis is that the situation has deteriorated considerably since 2017, due in part to newcomers in the 2021 bubble. However, is this true? Perhaps Udi and Eric were not paying enough attention to notice these problems beforehand? Or alternatively, perhaps they were themselves guilty of the above shortcomings themselves in earlier cycles and therefore were unable to identify it.
Bitcoin has always had some cult-like characteristics. Bitcoin has always had some advocates who exhibited behavior that was fanatical, cringeworthy or somewhat radical and extreme. Some Bitcoiners have always been overconfident in Bitcoin’s future success and dismissive of anyone that questions otherwise. This type of behavior has always turned some people away from Bitcoin, it did so in 2011 and it turns people away in 2023 too. And of course, at the same time, there have also always been examples of brilliant people, people well versed in economics, game theory, computer science and mathematics.
Intellectual Centre Online
What really got us pondering, was something Eric Wall said on the Laura Shin podcast in October 2022.
Bitcoin was the intellectual centre online. An internet subculture which had concentrated a lot of the brainpower from all different parts of the internet…. Bitcoin touched on a bunch of different interests and different political, monetary and computer science fields at the same time. It was this very interesting intersection between game theory, Austrian economics, computer science, cryptography, cyberpunk communities all at once, which I thought made one of the most interesting places to be on online. If you weren’t into Bitcoin and you were on the internet, you were not using the internet correctly. You hadn’t found the most interesting place. So if you go back to the old Bitcointalk forums, it was actually a very interesting community. It was ideas not only linked to Bitcoin, but all types of ideas were discussed widely and broadly. Most discussions included very intelligent and very knowledgeable people, but also people with many different types of views.Source: The Laura Shin podcast
Was Bitcointalk ever really the “Intellectual centre online?” Learning about Bitcoin for the first time is exciting and the potential can seem limitless, with endless possibilities. The outcome for Bitcoin can seem highly uncertain. When one looks back at the period one first learnt about Bitcoin, one may selectively remember it to be even better than it was, only remembering the best parts. While Eric is no doubt correct in saying it was a fascinating place back then, maybe it’s a bit of an exaggeration to claim it was the “intellectual centre online”. Eric has now learnt a lot and has a more realistic view of Bitcoin. And it may now seem that Bitcoin is boring and that for those involved since 2011, there is little left to learn. In that sense Bitcoin has become more boring to some people, although one needs to remember that for new joiners, they are at a different part of their journey. To them it’s new and exciting.
Saylor vs Antonopoulos
One way of trying to contrast the quality of the discourse is to compare the rhetoric of popular Bitcoin proponent Michael Saylor in 2022/23, to that of Andreas Antonopoulos in the 2014 era. Many hear Saylor talk about “digital energy” today and get frustrated. Bitcoin is not digital energy! While mining Bitcoin requires electricity, if one owns Bitcoin, one can not get back a specific amount of electricity with a formal redemption system. Bitcoin maxi critics can then point to Saylor’s rhetoric as an example of the degradation in the quality of the narratives in the space. Digital Energy is just nonsense.
However, in around 2014 Andreas Antonopoulos said that Bitcoin was an “unstoppable freight train” and that anyone or anything getting in its way would be “crushed like a bug”. We are using the freight train analogy, because just like the digital energy point, there does not appear to be much substance to it, unlike Antonopoulos’ more clever sewer rat analogy, which does seem to have a point to it. This message and rhetoric from Antonopoulos was inspirational to many. Many heard this and became excited, feeling tingles down the back of their necks, feeling lucky to be involved in something as transformational and exciting as Bitcoin. Perhaps Udi and Eric shared this experience. But of course Bitcoin is not literally a train! This was just a metaphor used by a talented speaker to inspire people. There is nothing wrong with that. If Saylor used this freight train analogy in 2023 however, I doubt the maxi critics would be impressed. Yet if they heard of “digital energy” in 2014, maybe it would have sounded more inspirational to them. Udi and Eric have heard it all before and learnt a lot in their years of experience in this space. They are no doubt much more informed than they were in 2014 and require a very different message to make them engaged. By criticising the quality of the content today, are these critics not being unfair to newcomers, who may need time to go through the same learning process they did 10 years ago? Newcomers who might just be figuring things out.
Today’s anti-maxi critics may selectively be remembering the good parts in 2014 and may not be able to holistically analyse the weaknesses in the space back in 2014 due to being too closely involved and too captivated and excited by what was going on. Attempting to demonstrate this point we re-listened to many hours of content from 2014 era Antonopoulos. The plan was to splice together comments from Antonopoulos in 2014 and Saylor in 2023, to demonstrate that the rhetoric is more similar than some people may expect. However, while this was possible to do, it did not feel fair. One can always cherry pick moments from hours of content. If one tries to argue against Udi and Eric, by selecting examples of stupid behaviour pre-2017, this is always an argument you are going to win, there is plenty of stupid stuff that went on. In general, at least Antonopoulos did acknowledge weaknesses and challenges in Bitcoin and most of his content still does feel quite informative, compared to the conferences we have today. Therefore we concede that those arguing that the quality of discourse has deteriorated in the Bitcoin space post 2017 may have a point.
In conversation with Udi Wertheimer
We spoke to Udi Wertheimer to get greater clarity on his thoughts. Udi explained that his main concern is that online Bitcoin culture has become “monolithic and lacks diversity”.
You used to be able to find diverse opinions, approaches, and proposals, and that is no longer the case. There is one use case: digital gold. The rest (e.g. payments, speculation, gambling) are evil. There is one scaling solution: lightning (even though payments are evil). The other scaling solutions (sidechains, Drivechains, rollups, WBTC) are evil. Technical discussions about proposals were never extremely popular but they used to at least exist. They are now considered mostly evil and almost no one feels brave enough to have them publicly, including “core devs”. Altcoins were always frowned upon, but in the past at least some people would discuss them with some interest, looking for things Bitcoin could adopt. Today that’s considered Haram, even though there’s clearly more that bitcoin could actually adopt at this point (while in 2013 most of it was truly junk). But maybe the worst thing of it all is that all I’m complaining about above isn’t even really representative of Bitcoiners at all. Most bitcoiners I know aren’t even like that. It’s only the online culture that makes it seem that way, even though the loud participants are a small minority. So the online culture is guarded as this holy thing that mustn’t be disturbed and rejects any diversity of thought, which I’d say is not ideal for the future of this movement, but at least if that was what people actually wanted then it would’ve been ok i guess. But it seems like it’s not even what people want! At least from my anecdotal experience. It’s bad that bitcoiners are perceived to reject new ideas, if most of them do not wish to reject new ideas, because that means that people avoid proposing new ideas because they wrongly assume the new ideas aren’t welcome.
Additional Q&A with Udi Wertheimer:
- You claim that you are pro-Bitcoin and want to make things better. Are you not concerned that if you spend too much time looking for evidence that Bitcoin is not succeeding and criticising those who think Bitcoin is succeeding, that eventually you won’t want Bitcoin to succeed?
I’m not aware of any arguments I’ve made against bitcoin, in fact I believe the criticism I have towards laser-eye culture is purely supportive of bitcoin and made bitcoin measurably stronger (for example with increase in miner fees that was partially influenced by that campaign)
- Why does this small intolerant subculture online matter so much to you? Isn’t it inconsistent to call them small and insignificant and yet spend so much time fighting them? Or is that just good marketing?
The small intolerant subculture matters because it came to be perceived as representative of bitcoin (even though I believe it isn’t actually representative!). Being outspoken about how this perception is incorrect, and the minority isn’t representative, helps in my experience to moralise and motivate other groups of bitcoiners that can — and in recent months, HAVE – bring back some much needed diversity to the bitcoin scene. One might call that moralising/motivating activity “marketing”, that’s fine with me, although I do think it’s more than that.
- Hasn’t there always been small intolerant subcultures within Bitcoin?
Sure, although up until 2017 (more or less) I think they didn’t push away other minorities, and discussion was more diverse, which led to more innovation. Example: if lightning wasn’t invented in 2016, would people be willing to discuss it seriously today? Recall that lightning required THREE consecutive soft forks in order to become practical. This sort of experimentation was welcome in the past, I’d argue that not anymore.
When evaluating Udi’s criticisms at face value, of course he makes some good points. Certain aspects of Bitcoin culture could improve. It would be better if Bitcoin content was less repetitive and had more diverse opinions. It would be better if some people spent more time evaluating and discussing new technical ideas. It would be better if sometimes Bitcoiners were more polite and open minded on Twitter. Surely nobody can really argue against that? Some proponents of new ideas are already attempting to exploit the perceived negative attitude of the laser eyed maxis towards any new idea. For instance by dismissing all criticism of their proposal, even valid ones, on the basis it’s just the stupid maxis.
On the other hand, many have always argued that it is inevitable the quality of the discourse in the space will decline over time, the Bitcoin equivalent of eternal September. This has certainly happened to some extent. However, the main area of pushback we have against the new wave of anti-maxi critics like Udi and Eric, is that they perhaps exaggerate the extent of the deterioration in the quality of the discourse. It is certainly not the case that early adopters of Bitcoin were all open minded geniuses and we have collectively become dumber as time has progressed, to reach a terrible and sorry state that we are in today. The space has always been an eclectic mix of delusional fanatics, heterodox thinkers, radicals and extremists. This has always turned some people off Bitcoin and this will continue to be the case going forwards. Just because it’s always been like that, does not make it an excuse, it’s always worth trying to improve. However, some anti-maxers have exaggerated the extent to which things have become worse. Perhaps it’s also the anti-maxi’s themselves who changed, they became older and smarter.
Udi’s final point about Lightning does indeed seem correct, to some extent, at least to us. Perhaps it’s a good retort to asking how he would interpret Saylor’s “digital energy” analogy, had he heard it in 2014. Suppose in some alternative history, Joseph Poon and Tadge Dryja hadn’t come up with the idea 8 or 9 years ago and that Christian Decker never came up with his similar concept either. What if a network of payment channels was first envisaged in the summer of 2023? Would lightning ever be able to gain traction as an idea today? Or does only digital gold matter?
N.B. For those reading this thinking that BitMEX Research has become worse now, you are overestimating the quality of our 2017 content, because you were new back then.