Molly White and the Crypto Skeptics
In the year of crypto winter, the critics have been proven right more often than wrong. That’s why Molly White is one of CoinDesk’s Most Influential 2022.
An NFT of this image was sold at auction on Coinbase NFT. A percentage of the sale went to oneearth.org.
The headlines are brutal. They’re funny. They almost look fake. Just a few examples: “’Women-led’ NFT project, ‘Fame Lady Squad,’ turns out to be a bunch of dudes”; “Crypto.com wants back the $7.2 million they accidentally sent a customer last year”; “Bill Murray's NFT charity auction nets $185,000, which is then immediately stolen”; “CoinDesk reports that Decentraland has just 38 daily active users.”
The headlines come from Web3IsGoingJustGreat, a blog that chronicles the many scams, hacks, hiccups, rug pulls, missteps and cringe of crypto and blockchain. “There are these enormous promises being made by people in the industry, of how Web3 is the future of finance and will solve every little problem” says Molly White, the 29-year-old software engineer and longtime Wikipedia editor who created and runs the site. She argues that Web3 boosters promise the future but ignore the present, that they’re “writing checks they can’t cash, and in the meantime a lot of people are taking the fall.”
Read more: Presenting CoinDesk's Most Influential 2022
White is hardly the first crypto critic. Bitcoin is “fool’s gold and anybody buying it is ultimately a fool,” said longtime crypto antagonist Peter Schiff. Non-fungible tokens are “100% based on greater fool theory,” said Bill Gates. Bitcoin is “probably rat poison squared,” said Warren Buffett. The space is a “house of cards crypto cesspool,” tweeted the economist Nouriel “Dr. Doom” Roubini, who added a poop emoji.
Most of these critiques boil down to “it’s all a Ponzi scheme” or “it’s all going to zero.” But the space has evolved and so have its critics. “The skeptical space has changed quite a bit,” says Cas Piancey, co-host of the “Crypto Critics’ Corner” podcast. Piancey says that he and his co-host Bennett Tomlin see the space “mostly as a scam” but that “we are open to the idea that there’s something valuable there. How valuable, we don’t know.”
White, Piancey and the actor-turned-investigator Ben McKenzie are part of a new generation of crypto skeptics. More nuanced. Hyper specific. Fluent in the tech and the memes and the vibes.
From an intellectual perspective, sure, White finds much of the space interesting. She’s a software engineer, after all – she geeks out on tech. “One thing I think is important is to separate the interesting from the possible use cases,” she says. “There’s a lot of stuff that’s really interesting.” From an academic perspective, for example, she’s fascinated by the innovation with ZK (zero-knowledge) proofs, but “that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be world changing, or that the positive aspects of it will outweigh the negatives.”
Just over a year ago almost no one in the crypto space had heard of Molly White. Now she’s serving on White House crypto panels, giving a speech (“Is Web3 bulls**t?”) to a packed crowd at Web Summit, shares commentary in mainstream news outlets (from The Verge to Vox, to Fast Company). As the Washington Post put it in a glowing profile, she’s “fast becoming the cryptocurrency world’s biggest critic.”
And now with the meltdown of FTX, the icy panic of crypto winter and the latest drumbeat of crypto is dead, Molly White and the skeptics are having their moment.
It all started with a unicycle.
i. Moving the world forward
In 2006, 13-year-old White enjoyed riding unicycles. She now describes it as one of her “really weird hobbies;” others would include creating Twitter Bots – like one that automatically added the word “cyber” to random nouns in headlines, making it sound like an uninformed tech journalist.
White, like any normal online-savvy teen, looked up the Wikipedia page on unicycles. She found the page lacking. So unlike every other 13-year-old, she edited the page and fleshed it out. That was fun. What other pages could she edit? Soon she edited articles for bands like Disturbed, Evanescence and other emo rock.
Soon she faced a problem that every writer dreads. “I kind of ran out of things to write about pretty quickly,” she says with a laugh. Emo-rock knowledge would only take her so far. How else could she contribute? “I realized there was this whole group of people who weren’t just editing the things they liked, but maintaining the website as a whole.” They copy edited. They cleaned up entries. They even fought Wiki-vandalism, like when political extremist groups would attack pages with spam and fake edits.
What started as a lark turned into a passion. “As time went on I realized how important it is to have high-quality information available to people for free,” says White. You didn’t need to spend hundreds of dollars for an Encyclopedia Britannica. You didn’t need to live near a library. All you needed was the internet. “This feels so critical to sort of moving the world forward,” she says.
White became a Wikipedia site administrator in 2010, while still in high school. She spent six years (non-consecutive) on the site’s arbitration committee – effectively Wikipedia’s Supreme Court. She kept editing Wikipedia while working as a software engineer for HubSpot. Eventually, she left the charm of unicycles for editing the grislier pages on incels, the far right and gender-based extremist groups.
“Those guys do not appreciate my work, and are very vocal about it,” she says, again with a soft laugh. But with extremist groups there’s very little that’s funny. She says one “particularly persistent sort of stalker type” published her address, tried to publish her family’s address, sent her information to the Proud Boys extremist group and even threatened to send someone to her apartment posing as a hopeful renter, who would then take videos from inside her home – just “crazy, unhinged stuff.”
She kept editing the pages. In total White has edited 100,000 Wikipedia articles, although she’s quick to point out this estimate is hard to quantify and “not really meaningful” because sometimes a simple click of “revert to prior version” can count as an edit.
Whether it’s 100,000 articles or 10,000, all of the years editing Wikipedia taught her a few things. She learned to appreciate open-source communities and how to evaluate media with skepticism, honing what she calls good “[crap] detection skills.” And in late 2021, White came across a term that needed a Wikipedia article. A term that had no clear definition. A term that was widely used but perhaps not widely understood: Web3.
ii. Just bonkers
Editing the page for Web3 was not White’s first exposure to crypto. In the early 2010s, when still a teenager, she learned about bitcoin – then in its infancy – and even explained it to her family. She found much of it appealing. “It had a great online community, and a strong group of privacy advocates,” she says now. She didn’t consider buying any because “I wasn’t trying to buy drugs online, and that was the big use case.” As a teenager she didn’t happen to have random stacks of money sitting around for crypto speculation. But she remembers thinking, “Okay, cool, I love the idea of [bitcoin] funding whistleblowers.”
Fast forward to 2021. White took another look at crypto and was startled by what she found. “I thought, how did we get from bitcoin funding dissidents to celebrities buying Bored Apes? What just happened?”
So she would research what happened. White did what she has done for her entire adult life – she tried to track down sources, investigate and gain command of the subject. Except Web3 sources were tough to find. She scrolled through an endless stream of press releases that, as she describes it, were all about “this huge potential for Web3 and how you should definitely pay attention to it” but “never would say what Web3 actually was. You couldn’t just get a two-sentence description.”
White’s first tweet that mentioned Web3 came on Nov. 10, 2021: “wrote a whole wikipedia article on web3 last night and i still don't think i know what it is.” So she kept investigating, kept reading, kept marveling at the absurdity – the projects she thinks of as “just bonkers,” where “people were doing the weirdest stuff with blockchain.”
Take, for example, a blockchain project called “Realms of Ruin,” where a group of bestselling Young Adult fiction authors would create an imaginary universe – they’d establish the setting and characters – and fans would write fiction to contribute to this world. The fans could mint these stories as NFTs, and buy and trade NFT character artwork.
There were many questions about the project. Who will own the intellectual property of these kids’ stories? Are the fans being paid for their work? “I remember seeing that and being like, “They’re trying to get kids to buy NFTs,’ says White. It seemed crazy. Most fans of YA, almost by definition, are young adults. They’re not 18. The whole idea struck her as poorly thought out, and likely a cash grab. Realms of Ruin was not long for the world – within five hours of going public the project was scrapped. (Part of this was because of an outcry over NFTs’ environmental impact; CoinDesk’s Cheyenne Ligon offers an alternate take.)
White acknowledges that the intentions of the project could be innocent, but argues that good intentions are not enough. For her, that’s a global theme in crypto. “I think there are a lot of people who are running these crypto projects who genuinely believe in what they’re trying to do, and have good intentions around empowering artists,” says White. “But I also think that it’s really important to pay attention to the impact, as well as the intention.” In the case of Realms of Ruin, she says, you have to make sure that “you’re not just ripping off these kids.”
The more White explored the space, the more projects she found that seemed misguided, goofy, grifty, predatory or somehow likely to cause harm. And it felt like there was no one publication or website that captured all of the collateral damage in one place. Most mainstream and crypto publications, says White, tend to mostly cover the “good” side of the crypto coin.
Enter Web3isgoinggreat. She started the site as one of her many “dumb hobby projects” that she does for kicks, like the time in college when, during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, whenever she read articles about Hillary Clinton and running mate Tim Kaine, her mind would first see this as Clinton and Kanye, as in Kanye West. This amused her. So she wrote a script that changed Kaine to Kanye, a joke that has aged either poorly or gloriously.
White didn’t think Web3isgoinggreat would get much traffic. But the site quickly found eyeballs and traction from HackerNews and “Buttcoin,” a crypto skeptic subreddit. People began to notice.
The site is funny and droll, almost a throwback to early Gawker and the 2008-ish era of blogs. At first she tried to write it in her neutral Wikipedia-editor voice, but the jokes just came too easily. “Some of the stuff is so stupid,” she says, “and you just can’t help but laugh.”
White has a film critic’s gift for spotting a target and dryly, without mercy, ripping it to pieces. “An up-and-coming crypto scam – er, project – has managed to dunk on crypto bros better than any satirist i've seen so far, with one of the most painful-to-watch youtube videos i've seen in a while. join me in hell as we watch this together,” she tweeted on Jan. 4, 2022, beginning a thread that gleefully mocked the project “Crypto Land.”
The thread went viral. It put her on the crypto radar – as did Web3isgoinggreat’s cameo in Dan Olson’s “Line Goes Up – The Problem With NFTs” two-hour video, which now has 9 million views and counting. Her site (and her tweets) became must-read media for many in the space.
A self-described introvert, at first White was reluctant to speak to journalists, appear on podcasts or speak at conventions. In 2022, when the White House asked her to be part of a panel on cryptocurrency, her first reaction was, “What? I’m a software engineer who just makes jokes about crypto in her spare time.”
Eventually, she began saying yes. She said yes to giving a lecture at Stanford on Abuse on the Blockchain. Yes to appearing on podcasts. Yes to the White House. (This stemmed from President Biden’s Executive Order to research crypto; White was asked to give a statement to the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which she published here.) 2022 would be the year of yes.
The reason for White’s change of heart? She had a realization. “It felt like so many people in crypto were speaking so confidently about things that they know nothing about,” she says. “Well, I know at least as much about this as they do.”
iii. The temperance movement
If a critic says, “Crypto is all a Ponzi scheme” or “crypto is all a scam,” this is relatively easy to refute. One counterexample is enough to do the trick. Oh, so crypto is all a scam? Tell that to the Ukrainian troops who received immediate global fundraising thanks to crypto.
What makes the critiques of White, Piancey, and the other skeptics so effective is they acknowledge the occasional use cases, they understand the tech, they have taken the time to research the space and, after all of their analysis, they believe, on balance – in the real world of today (as opposed to the Web3-powered utopia of tomorrow) – the bad outweighs the good.
“The experiment of bitcoin is really cool,” says Cas Piancey. “There’s nothing to argue about that. I love the idea of a non-nationalized currency.” And Piancey says there can be the occasional use for cryptocurrency, such as a Chinese dissident receiving funds that are censorship resistant. Yet, how common is this? “That’s a niche use case,” says Piancey, “but the reality is that it’s not something that’s going to dominate the world.”
This is a similar worldview to one held by Jacob Silverman, a longtime tech reporter and fellow crypto skeptic. “I’m not on a mission to burn it all down. I don’t have an activist mission,” says Silverman. In August 2021, Silverman received a random direct message from the actor Ben McKenzie (of “The OC” fame), asking if he wanted to talk about crypto. “He jokes now that he slid into my DMs,” says Silverman.
They met for beers and burgers. They clicked. They talked about the problems with crypto, they swapped ideas, they traveled to conferences together, they did research, and then they sold the book “Easy Money: Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud,” slated for a July 2023 release. In a description that crypto bulls will find chilling or dismiss as FUD, the book promises an exposé that “points in shock to the climactic final days of cryptocurrency now upon us.” (Especially in the wake of FTX, McKenzie has taken a flamethrower to Crypto Twitter. “If you think FTX is the worst/biggest fraud in crypto, I have bad news for you,” he tweeted. Good luck to the players remaining at the table.”)
FTX is now an easy (if perfectly appropriate) target. And although White and I happen to speak during the implosion of FTX, for an example of Web3 going sideways she points to something less obvious: Axie Infinity. On the surface, sure, there’s the $620 million hack, which might have involved the North Korean government. But look deeper. “The project itself is a good example of how crypto incentives are often really twisted,” she says. Axie Infinity was the poster child of the “play-to-earn” game, which White admits is an attractive concept – you gobble up crypto rewards for doing something you already enjoy. This is a fine theory. (It’s a theory I’ve written about, repeatedly.)
Then Axie took a darker turn when people tried to squeeze as much alpha as possible from the project, effectively loaning capital to groups of low-wage workers in places like the Philippines and Venezuela. (The cartoon blobs could cost $300 or more.) So in White’s view the loaners of capital, more or less, became landlords exploiting people – often in poor working conditions – who were grinding out the game. “This is certainly a far cry from the idea of a fun game you play after work, and also making a few bucks,” says White. She suspects that even without a hack the game would have cratered because “the whole economical model is completely unsustainable. There was no actual value being created by [people] battling Pokemon.”
Okay, so maybe NFT play-to-earn isn’t her jam, but what about NFTs in general? Can’t they have merit? Don’t they empower artists? (I’ve long viewed this as a win for crypto.) White is happy to see creators monetize their work, but argues that this has very little to do with blockchain, decentralization or breakthroughs in technology. “The revolution here is not the tech,” she says. “The real change is the speculative bubble that emerged around it.” From this perspective, artists are “empowered” because a cadre of millionaires became billionaires and the froth has trickled down.
NFT advocates have a comeback: But there is a technological breakthrough. Now, thanks to blockchain, for the first time, people can truly prove ownership of digital assets. This allows for digital scarcity. This fundamentally changes the online game.
White has a quick comeback to the comeback: “The technologically interesting thing [about NFTs] is not the cryptocurrency, it’s the cryptography,” she says. “That’s something that we can do for decades.” In one of many essays, she laid out the technological steps – using something called PGP (Pretty Good Privacy) encryption – for an artist to sell unique digital goods without using blockchain. The tech has been there all along. No artists have been using this tech, says White, because there has “never been a speculative market.” When the hype around NFTs dies down, she suspects the markets will dry up.
Part of White’s exasperation is that many in the space view blockchain as a solution for every problem, and seem ignorant of all the work that had come before crypto. Take decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO). “A lot of them are saying that, for the first time, now we’re going to be an online self-governing community, unlike everything else on the internet,” White says with a laugh. “Well, no. That’s not really true.” She found this particularly amusing given her 15 years with Wikipedia, a highly functioning (if imperfect) online, decentralized, self-governing community.
Don’t get her started on the Web3 projects that try to make a “better Wikipedia,” but with crypto. “Those projects have hilariously failed in several different instances,” she says. To her it smacks of hubris. While the idea was to pay people with tokens to edit – seems reasonable – this creates what White argues is a flawed incentive model. One incentive is to create high-quality information. Another incentive is to make as many edits as possible so you can rack up more tokens. “Those two things are not aligned,” she says.
Sure, maybe you can cleverly tweak the incentives towards some kind of voting model, but even that will eventually get gamed, says White, in a kind of “I’ll vote for your spam edit if you vote for my spam edit.” In yet another viral Twitter thread, she excoriated “Golden,” a prominent Wikipedia-but-with-crypto project, noting that “70% of the article on ‘Dog’ is dedicated to the Shiba Inu,” and that “there is no article on carrots, the vegetable. There are, however, articles about many different companies and cryptocurrencies with that name.”
The crypto community, of course, has a classic defense for most of these arguments. It’s still early. Blockchain is in the early 1990s days of the internet. “I got so tired of that argument,” White says, and has two rebuttals: “One is that it’s premised on the argument that blockchains are equivalent to the internet in some way, that they’re similarly revolutionary.” The internet was clearly transformative to nearly every slice of culture; why should we presume that Web3 will have the same sweeping impact, and therefore allow the same leisurely timeline?
Her second response: It’s flawed to apply the developmental time frame from an early tech to a later generation tech. Take computers and the internet. It took decades to develop the transistors, CPUs and hardware that would lead to modern computers. By some accounts, the invention of the computer dates back to the 1830s and Charles Babbage, a British mathematician, who devised plans for an “Analytical Engine.”
Progress begets progress. The internet developed faster than the computer because no one had to reinvent laptops. Blockchain should develop even faster. “Every technology basically develops exponentially quicker than the one before it,” she says, and expands the argument in an essay “It’s not still the early days.” Or as Silverman puts it, “Crypto has been around for 13 years, almost as long as the iPhone.”
Whether you agree with Molly White or not – and I, personally, confess to more optimism for the space – you can benefit from exposure to her arguments. Debate is healthy. And skepticism is a core ingredient for intellectual honesty. Skepticism is good for the individual and, I would argue, good for the industry at large.
“You need skeptics,” says Piancey. “You need people to head-check you.” He estimates that the majority of his podcast’s subscribers are bullish on crypto, and they’re listening to understand and appreciate the other side.
We’ve been hearing, for years, that “crypto is the future.” That might still be true. But ultimately, says White, we need to “temper these really optimistic visions of the future with how the technology is functioning today.”
And in 2022, whether people liked it or not, the skeptics delivered that temperance.
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