Inside Molly White’s campaign against crypto
Crypto was wrapping up a go-go year when Molly White launched her blog, Web3 is going just great.
Things weren’t exactly going great for crypto in December 2021. There were signs then that an impressive upsurge had come to an end and was on the precipice of a stunning crash: a crypto winter.
White created the blog precisely to turn the spotlight on the even more serious havoc that she feared crypto was going to wreak — not just on the startups and investors rushing into the field, but also people betting their life savings on tokens they’d barely researched after hearing about them online.
“It felt like suddenly people were marketing crypto to the average person,” she told Protocol. “People were getting sucked into these schemes that they really did not know much about or understand properly.”
Web3 is going just great rapidly attracted an audience, and now gets 60,000 to 100,000 visitors a month, White said. Its Twitter account already has 114,000 followers. She only started the account in January.
White, 29, was a teenager when bitcoin launched in 2009. She is part of a generation of software engineers who entered the tech industry in the past decade when the crypto revolution was underway. Many of her peers ended up joining the crypto wave. White went the other way, emerging as one of crypto’s leading critics.
In an interview with Protocol, White, an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, talked about her journey as a young technologist and why she became a crypto contrarian.
This conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.
Your blog is called “Web3 is going just great.” You clearly have a specific view of Web3 and crypto. Do you think it’s all a scam, as some critics have argued?
I wouldn’t say it’s all a scam. I feel that implies that every person running one of these projects is intentionally trying to take advantage of people, which I don’t think is true. I do think the technology as a whole and a lot of the promise of it has been really overblown. But I wouldn’t say that it’s all a scam, per se.
You told the Financial Stability Oversight Council that you are “cautiously optimistic about some digital asset use cases, specifically the introduction of non-crypto-based digital cash.” Can you elaborate a little bit on that?
There have been some ideas of introducing other forms of digital cash which don’t actually require a blockchain to implement. We use what some could argue is digital currency already today when we transfer money electronically.
I think it would be really valuable for there to be more of a cash equivalent to something like that where you actually get the same privacy and surveillance expectations of cash with a digital currency. It’s not being traced as closely as digital transactions are. You’re allowed to make small transactions very privately.
I think that would be really beneficial for society to have something like that. But I think as soon as you start looking at crypto and blockchains, you end up with a more speculative asset that has a lot of inherent flaws and tends to not work so well as currency. I remain hopeful that there might be some sort of digital cash in our future but I don’t necessarily expect that it will look like a cryptocurrency.
You were studying computer science in college when bitcoin and the crypto realm were getting started. How were you introduced to crypto and what was your reaction?
I was actually a little younger than that when bitcoin first emerged. I was aware of it pretty early. I have been involved with the Wikimedia communities for a long time, which has a really strong overlap with free software communities and people who are really interested in freedom from surveillance and online privacy. I ran into it in those circles first. I thought it was interesting as a concept, but not something I necessarily had a use for.
Back then, I mostly knew of bitcoin as a way to buy drugs online, which is kind of what it was for at first. Or at least that was the biggest use case for it. And I was not doing that. It was like, “OK, I guess people can go do that,” but it’s not really something I was interested in.
The other use case was the people who thought that it was going to become much more valuable in the future. So they were putting money into it for speculative purposes. Well, I was in either late high school or college, and I didn’t have a ton of money just kicking around that I was trying to speculate with. It was something that I knew about but wasn’t particularly interested in.
I thought some of the aspects of it around censorship-resistant financial transactions was really interesting and the potential for it to be used to fund people who are not necessarily in the good graces of an authoritarian state, I thought there was promise in that. But as time went on, I watched what it became, which was largely quite different from the original principles of it.
Was there an incident or a development or maybe a conversation you had that made you become concerned about the rise of crypto?
I grew increasingly concerned as the years went on. I was vaguely aware of what was happening in the 2017-ish era when ICOs were really big and a lot of people were using those to skirt regulations on securities offerings.
I really started to become concerned in the summer of 2021. It felt like suddenly people were marketing crypto to the average person. Anyone watching a sports game on TV or riding public transit in some places were getting bombarded with this idea that crypto was a good idea for someone to potentially make money off of, as though it was an investment or something that everyone should be trying out.
Then we started to see the narrative that crypto was going to be the future of the web with Web3. Every new project online was going to be using blockchains in some way. That’s when I really started to get concerned and to pay attention. I was really worried that people were getting sucked into these schemes that they really did not know much about or understand properly. There was this magical, “Well, it’s computers, so it will work” feeling around it, which is obviously never true on its own. And I was also really concerned about the idea that this is how the web should be going forward.
I’ve always been someone who cares a lot about the web. I think it is quite amazing. I really like to see projects on the web that are benefiting humanity and moving in a good direction. The idea that everything should start incorporating blockchain, I was like, “Should it?” So I started doing some more research around that.
You’re part of the generation of software engineers who joined the tech industry in the early 2010s, many of whom became excited about and even became part of the crypto industry. But you went the other way.
It’s interesting because I actually don’t feel like software engineers in general have been overwhelmingly positive about it. A lot of the software engineers I know actually were very skeptical of it, especially when we started seeing things like NFTs and some of these schemes that were more plainly get-rich-quick schemes.
I remain hopeful that there might be some sort of digital cash in our future but I don’t necessarily expect that it will look like a cryptocurrency.
I think a lot of people actually took a look at the technology behind it [and said]: “Why is this the future of the web? I don’t understand how this is such an improvement.” I’ve actually spoken to quite a lot of software engineers in my generation and other generations who were actually very skeptical of it.
But there are definitely software engineers and other people who are very positive about it as well. Some people are actually very open about the fact that they don’t see much promise in the technology, but they realize they can make a lot of money. That’s been a fairly common thing I’ve run into.
So it’s like saying, “We’ll stick with this because there’s VC money flowing into this, and when it’s clearly not working we’ll get out?”
Yeah, that’s sort of the idea. Sometimes it’s not necessarily people who are starting companies. It’s like, “I’m going to go work for a crypto company because the salaries are incredible,” even though they don’t necessarily believe in the product that they’re working on. It’s just a great paycheck.
Tell me about the idea to start the blog. How did you come up with the name?
I launched it in mid-December . I was seeing two really different stories. I was seeing in both mainstream media and in tech media this narrative that crypto is making all these people rich. You can get such good returns if you start putting money into crypto. Look at all these people who have brought themselves out of poverty because they started a crypto project or they started selling NFTs.
Then on the other hand, I was seeing this stream of news stories that was like, “Oh, another project got hacked” or “Oh no, someone lost all their NFTs because someone got their wallet address or their wallet keys.”
It felt like I was seeing a lot of the first story in mainstream media. But the second one was going unreported.
So I started, on my own, keeping a list of examples of how often this was happening, scams were being run, hacks were happening. It began to become clear to me that it might be useful to illustrate this in one place instead of people just having to see a tweet or a news story or a one-off post or whatever.
That was the idea behind the project. As for the name, I just have a sarcastic, dry sense of humor. It felt like every time I was like, “How’s this whole Web3 going?” I would just find myself thinking, “Wow, it seems like it’s going just great.”
What have been the most troubling reactions?
Sometimes people get really mad at me personally for writing these things, especially if they have some stake in a project or they are personally involved with a project in some way. They see what I am doing as basically drawing attention to the negatives of their project, and that threatens their bottom line.
Sometimes people get pretty aggressive with me. In general, there’s people in the crypto community who are just hostile to any negative reaction or negative coverage of the space because they see it as threatening to crypto as a whole.
You told the FSOC that concerns about crypto regulations stifling innovation are “overblown” and that “the most impressive innovation we have seen with crypto has been in separating average people from their money.” That’s a pretty sweeping statement. What reactions have you gotten when you raise that argument?
People will just deny it. They’ll say, “Oh, crypto has been so revolutionary. It’s changed people’s lives.” And you press on that question and people tend to say, “Well, it’s made some people very wealthy,” which is true. But you could say the same thing about a Ponzi scheme or pyramid scheme….
Read More: Inside Molly White’s campaign against crypto
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