This month, the Ethereum community experienced vicious infighting on social media as people reacted to Afri Schoedon's controversial tweet about Serenity and Polkadot. The alleged verbal violence directed at Schoedon resulted in his exit from Ethereum and a subsequent letter, signed by dozens of Ethereum contributors, calling the community to develop healthier discussion practices and to "protect each other from threats and violence."
This wasn't the first Twitter thread in the Ethereum community to turn ugly, but Afrigate renews pressing questions about discourse. How can members of the community disagree or offer criticism in ways that are generative? In light of this recent display of toxic communication, I sat down with Taylor Monahan of MyCrypto to talk about healthy communication in the blockchain ecosystem.
But before we talked about the mechanics of discourse, I wanted to dive into the nitty-gritty of the controversy that sparked Afrigate. Is Serenity really in competition with Polkadot, as many inferred from Schoedon's tweet?
Monahan said the jury is still out, and an answer won't be forthcoming for a few years yet. She pointed out that people asked the same questions about alternative blockchains like NEO, Tron, and EOS:
"Everyone has high hopes when their product launches … but the reality is that it takes a couple of years for things to really settle. You need to build the community … [and] the developer ecosystem … You need to find all those nasty bugs that come with every piece of software… As time goes on and these things get worked out, then they sort of level up, and that's when the competition may or may not occur."
Even if Polkadot and Serenity aren't yet rivals, it's clear that perceived competition between these different blockchains is upsetting to some. I asked Monahan why she thinks this is case.
Monahan put it down (at least in part) to human nature: Competition is natural. And competition can be a very good thing, she said, because it pushes everyone to create a better product. Monopolies tend to be bad for consumers, and competition can push the ecosystem forward and give people more choices. But it can also manifest in unhealthy ways if people express themselves angrily or don't keep the bigger picture in mind. There's also, she said, a financial component: If someone has a large investment in one chain, they will be more inclined to support that chain over others.
But Monahan still sees the diversity of chains and projects in the whole blockchain ecosystem as a good thing. Each chain has unique strengths and weaknesses and offers different qualities. Bitcoin's selling point is its consistency as a store of value: It's robust, predictable, and doesn't push changes quickly. Ethereum, by contrast, focuses on advancing decentralized applications and has a sort of "move fast and break things" approach, but the developer community is very strong. Other blockchains prioritize things like very high transaction throughput or have strong business savvy (like NEO, for example).
"I think they're all valuable," she said. "It just depends on what the end use case is … [these chains] provide different values to different people."
But differences of chains and mentalities can create friction and spark aggression. I asked Monahan what she thought disagreement within a healthy ecosystem looks like, and she talked about some of the issues with discourse the team at MyCrypto has experienced. The team is remote and relies on web communication. "[Healthy interaction] takes being super hyper aware about how different communication over the web is," Monahan said. She continued:
"[W]hen you're on the internet, you tend to forget there's an actual human being with emotions on the other side of the screen. Most people in these [social media] ecosystems have been on the web long enough that sort of yelling at each other or being mean or abrasive or very opinionated feels normal. Whereas, in real life, you would never say those types of things or in that way."
If the MyCrypto team has little dramas or incidents, they hop on video calls. "It just changes everything when you're talking and seeing people face to face," said Monahan.
Monahan acknowledged that this doesn't necessarily work on a large scale. The most productive and positive forums she's seen are smaller and more focused: "[M]aybe the answer is more intimate conversations or a forum or some sort of medium that really rewards not polarizing commentary, but very thoughtful and mindful commentary."
It was this kind of thoughtful commentary and disagreement that Monahan valued most during her transition from MyEtherWallet to MyCrypto. The feedback she received fell into three basic categories: nice messages of support or congratulations, well-expressed pushback from people who were concerned or disagreed with the transition, and vitriolic messages of hate.
In retrospect, Monahan said, it was that middle category – the people that communicated criticism from a place of concern – that touched her the most and helped her grow personally and professionally:
"That kind of discussion or debate is the most productive … where we are holding each other accountable, we are pushing each other to be better, we are questioning one another's decisions. And the people on the receiving end of it are actually more open to hearing that kind of feedback and carrying it with them as they continue on this journey."
This is all easier said than done, of course. We can say we value difference and even disagreement as tools to improve what we're creating, but it's easy for anyone to get tribalistic impulses. It's affirming to feel like you are part of the "in" crowd or have the "right" way of doing things.
I asked Monahan how she recommends confronting tribalism before it goes south. Monahan suggested that remembering the bigger picture – the larger goals of the whole blockchain ecosystem – could help address the toxicity of unfettered tribalism:
"[There are] much bigger things at play here than Ethereum versus Polkadot or us versus Afri or Afri versus us. We are all in this space and its very small and very niche still. We … who are interested in decentralized technologies, we should all be united and together fighting the traditional outside world: The corporate giants, the banks, the government. We should be trying to make the world better. Those types of things, rather than this bickering and infighting and drama and tribalism."
I tend to agree with Monahan: We've got bigger fish to fry. The relative smallness of blockchain communities should remind us not only that there are individual humans on the other side of the screen, but that we depend on them: We need all hands on deck if we want this promising technology to get off the ground. If blockchains have the revolutionary potential we say they do, the technology requires us to put our best foot forward. Are we?