This is a guest post by Jim Harper and the opinions reflected
are those of the author.
If triumphalism drove adoption, Bitcoin use would already be
widespread, and its price against other currencies would be
stratospheric. But the existence of a genius protocol does not
guarantee its success. For Bitcoin to thrive, there must be a
great deal of social and economic change. To foster such change,
the Bitcoin ecosystem needs better and more mature
communications. It’s a deficit that is costing the Bitcoin
ecosystem in lost potential each day it persists.
Bitcoin and the blockchain are brilliant and fascinating
technologies. But Bitcoin’s social capital needs are manifold. To
deliver on its promises of global financial inclusion,
user-defined privacy, enhanced liberty and a stable money supply
for all the world’s people, the Bitcoin ecosystem needs a larger
and more sophisticated community of software and protocol
developers, greater assurance against mining centralization, and
a thriving community of node operators. The embrace of the
financial services community would speed adoption. Bitcoin needs
the reality and perception of low volatility; it needs protocols
and practices that assure privacy, flourishing marketplaces, a
congenial regulatory environment and a positive reputation. (This
list of social capital needs is drawn from this author’s 2014
study of impediments to Bitcoin’s success
Efforts are going into developing Bitcoin’s social capital.
Open Bitcoin Privacy Project
is doing salutary work on the privacy piece.
is demystifying Bitcoin for regulators. But the dominant
theme in Bitcoin-land remains the “block size debate,” which will
determine how Bitcoin adds capacity,
as it must
. Perhaps it helps to frame the debate as
politics in a “non-political” money system
. Whatever the case, there is an ongoing failure to communicate
The drawn-out block size debate does not undermine Bitcoin’s
essential genius. It just means that community members are
burning a lot of energy on one dimension of the Bitcoin
ecosystem, energy that is not available for other dimensions. The
result is delay in achieving widely agreed-upon goals. Bitcoin
will fail to achieve both its social potential and its potential
value against major currencies while community members use their
energies this way.
It’s one thing to say that communications should improve,
quite another to say how to improve them. But in a 2011
study of government data transparency – which is harder to
deliver than it sounds – I identified four key practices, two of
which might be applied to the block size debate. Transparency
improves if an authoritative source of information exists.
Information sources should also be complete (a subset of
“availability” in the government data study). Information flows
and uptakes work better if everyone knows where to look, and
comes to rely on being fully informed by looking there.
The communications of Bitcoin Core advocates do not follow
this model. The creation of the
website and other communications have been good faith
efforts, but there has yet to emerge a source where the point of
view and plans represented by Core can be found and digested.
Instead, nuggets of information distribute themselves like Easter
eggs across various forums and listservs.
A non-technical expert should be able to look in on Bitcoin
development and relatively easily learn what is happening: where
we’ve come from and where we’re going; the risk management
philosophy that animates Core; and other essentials. This
information should be available in non-jargon to people of
ordinary sophistication and experience. In the absence of such
communication, scaling debates and others will probably be more
intense and longer lasting. Investment won’t flow and involvement
in Bitcoin won’t grow as it could.
Value is a product of subjective belief. Communicating about
Bitcoin will help foster growth in use and demand, raising the
price of Bitcoin while serving human needs that are still dire in
many parts of the world.
Core is a disconnected group of people who may differ even
with each other about important priorities and details in their
vision. A cost of that form of organization is paid in greater
misunderstanding, more time spent on debate and slower progress.
It’s a cost that can be mitigated.
The communications problem is particularly acute, though, when
the block size debate undercuts other dimensions of the Bitcoin
ecosystem. When debaters exhibit personal animosity toward
others, make churlish comments and foment derision for the other
side, they are signaling to observers of Bitcoin in important
segments of society that Bitcoin is not an attractive thing to be
involved in. They undercut Bitcoin acceptance among potential
Particularly dismaying are the communications of a C-level
executive at a prominent Chinese mining firm whose Twitter feed
is often tart and disrespectful toward others. These public
communications are available for anyone’s perusal, of course, and
they help fuel online chat that it is less than collegial and
productive. His CEO cited to me no particular policy about
company communications, saying that he prefers not to censor
people and that he is not the “father” or “master” of his
employees. Rather, this executive’s communications are consistent
with “an understanding” among them.
There is a belief among Bitcoin’s “triumphal” community that
miners can be relied on to behave well because of their interests
in profits. Markets may be perfect in the aggregate, but
individual actors are not, and some may not recognize that
insolence might be bad for business. Just like Core, Bitcoin
companies can improve their communications and message control
for the benefit of the ecosystem and themselves.
A winnowing process is underway to determine who are the good
businesspeople, technologists, pool operators and other Bitcoin
ecosystem participants. The technologies that best scale Bitcoin
will continue to be debated. The social capital Bitcoin needs
will develop, including more and more mature communications. But
it’s a slow, human process, and the longer it takes, the slower
Bitcoin’s promises of global development, liberty, progress and
profit will take to deliver.