Last Friday, Ethereum core developer Afri Schoedon tweeted: "'Polkadot delivers what Serenity ought to be.' Change my mind."
The invitation to debate was perceived as a threat by many Ethereans. The vitriol Schoedon received from the post on Twitter and reddit prompted him to clarify that the original tweet was meant to stir up discussion (both tweets have since been deleted). But the severe backlash prompted Schoedon to announce that he's done with social media, and rumor has it that he's "done with Ethereum."
Why was there so much bile in response to Schoedon's tweet?
Tribalism is one answer. Yaz Khoury, director of developer relations at the Ethereum Classic Cooperative, said the mob action against Schoedon and Parity Technologies (the developers behind Polkadot) "is the result of toxic tribalism that haunted the space for a long time." Ethereum contributor María Paula Fernández suggested similar verbal abuse via social media has happened in the past, and though a few core people have moved to stop it, most "remain passive, silent, apolitical."
As discussed by ETHNews this weekend, Ethereum is no stranger to tribalism, and the forks and dissent in Ethereum rival the historic schisms of the Protestant Church. But it's important to note that this tribalism doesn't come primarily from core devs or the people collaborating to enhance the Ethereum ecosystem. Many people doing the creative work see the diversity of networks as an asset. Jeff Coleman and Hudson Jameson tweeted their support for Schoedon and his contributions, calling for more support and less vitriol. As Khoury noted, "Ethereum is a technology with many implementations and visions: Main network, Classic network, Polka Dot, and ETH 2.0. The diversity of networks is powerful."
But, as illustrated through this comic, others think of Parity as a threatening competitor to Ethereum and resent the grant given to Parity Technologies by the Ethereum foundation. Schoedon has been very involved in the advancement of Ethereum 2.0 (Serenity), but because he also works with Parity, some have accused him of spreading FUD against Ethereum, even though he did work not on Polkadot itself. These accusations reflect a strong "Us vs. Them" mentality when it comes to blockchains – a mentality that is the direct opposite to the bridge-building mentality that Parity demonstrates through Polkadot, which is a multi-chain technology.
This isn't to say there can't be legitimate critiques of Schoedon or that Schoedon hasn't critiqued other projects, but this isn't about one or two tweets or one or two people. It's about how we all interact. Tribalism is at work here, and this display of cannibalistic impulses channeled through social media intersects with the bigger issue of public discourse.
In 1985, well before mass adoption of the internet and social media, Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman argued that the advent of the visual medium of television had inaugurated a shift in the way public discourse takes place. He believed that America was moving toward an entertainment-oriented culture where the content of sustained, thoughtful conversation would be exchanged for empty discourse based on sound bites, informational snippets, and trivia. Instead of the dystopian world of Orwell's 1984, Postman predicted the world would look more like Huxley's Brave New World, where culture becomes a burlesque:
"In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility."
And that was long before Twitter and reddit.
Postman's work is admittedly apocalyptic, and he didn't envision the positive contributions the internet and social networks would bring to the world. The internet makes global collaboration and awareness possible like never before. Social movements like #MeToo have generated widespread public discourse in ways that wouldn't have been possible before social media.
At the same time, the barriers to having sustained, non-combative discourse via public forums like Twitter and reddit are every day more apparent, and the apparent attacks on Afri Schoedon are just the most recent example. People don't tend to respond on social media so much as react. Twitter and reddit are stages, and it's more entertaining to get annoyed at a performance (tweet/comment) and post a derogatory response than to take time to assess the tweet/performance and engage with it thoughtfully. And once the negative reactions have started, it's easy for them to snowball because each new comment further cements and affirms the combative, tribalistic tone of the discourse.
Maybe it's time for Ethereum to have a conversation about how we have conversations. Does consensus mean everyone has to talk at once? Does transparency mean all discourse must be public? Should there be ground rules for engagement via social media? What should these rules be? Who should make them? What steps can we take to have discourse that does not devolve into theatre? Are there other mediums of engagement that are more conducive to facilitating healthy public discourse?
It's a truism that Ethereum is not just a technology, but a community. Maybe it's time to think about how "old" technological mediums like Twitter are shaping the discourse of newly forming blockchain communities.
Correction: This article originally stated that Afri Schoedon worked on Polkadot.