Bitcoin: Women and Children Last
If you’re not yet familiar with Bitcoin, then you probably have more normal friends than those of the “techie” variety or have managed to avoid people in libertarian-leaning circles. Bitcoin is a digital “cryptocurrency,” a sort of online cash that is generated via a network of computers crunching numbers to solve a mathematical puzzle, so to speak. The technical aspects can be quite difficult to explain and comprehend, especially to those who wouldn’t consider themselves computer literate or those who simply cannot be bothered to care.
It was created in 2009 by a person or persons going by the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto” as an experimental proof of concept in building a trustless payment system for the “dangerously antisocial.” Banks and other traditional financial institutions are eschewed in favor of a point-to-point network that shares a public ledger of every transaction made throughout the system, the “blockchain,” which users must download (and upload) in order to participate in the network. There are some exceptions to this, but for the time being, we won’t be focusing on them.
The experiment went largely unnoticed at its beginning and was mostly the domain of cryptographers and other such geeks until mid-2010, when tech media attention increased and brought in a wave of new users. At this point people began to assign value to the Bitcoin, and Bitcoin exchanges began to spring up, allowing users to trade them for other currencies, most frequently the US dollar. As it gained popularity, it began to attract a different crowd of users, those who are ideologically opposed to governmental regulation and central banking, often identifying as libertarians or worse, anarcho-capitalists.
This was probably the beginning of the end, as far as we’re concerned. As the community grew and Bitcoin’s value on these exchanges increased, a third type of user was attracted: the speculator. These people saw the price of Bitcoin rising on these unregulated exchanges and wanted in at the bottom so they could cash out at the peak. Often these three types of user were one in the same; at the very least two of these three overlap, as many of the original users and other early adopters have long since abandoned the project, including Nakamoto.
This leaves us with the current Bitcoin userbase and their favorite online hangouts, most notably Bitcointalk and the Bitcoin subreddit. Bitcointalk is a sprawling forum run by a user known as Theymos and was founded in the early days of Bitcoin by Nakamoto and Sirius and hosted on the official Bitcoin website until July of 2011, at which point it was moved to its own separate servers to distance anything officially related to Bitcoin from the forum and its community at the height of the first get-rich-quick mania. As this split occurred, it was made clear that developers were uncomfortable with the growing community in which numerous scams, pyramid schemes, and various questionable goods. The altcoin subforum in particular was developing into something of a warzone, with developers fighting each other about which coin was a scam, which one was premined too much, and so on.
This was around the time that Bitcointalk (as it was now known) admin Theymos began soliciting donations to improve the forums software. He has collected over six thousand bitcoins now, a nominal value exceeding three and a half million dollars at the time of this publishing, implementing no significant changes or improvements. He had lofty aspirations though, and wanted a complete forum package written from scratch, with a lengthy list of requirements with, at one point, the demand that the software be perfect upon release so as to avoid needing upgrades or updates. This has been widely mocked and derided, since version 1 of many programs is hardly perfect and is often improved upon in future releases.
While many of Theymos’ concerns about SMF were unfounded, the forums’ security issues were highlighted a month beforehand, when they were hacked and the smiling visage of Bill Cosby was plastered all over every page alongside references to “Cosbycoin.” Security was never improved and two years later, the same exploit was used against the forums to similar effect. No appreciable amount of money has been spent to improve or secure the forums.
/r/bitcoin is a subforum of the massive website Reddit, and is home to some of the more vocal proponents of Bitcoin. It has a much lower barrier to entry, requiring only seconds to sign up to reddit and join the fray. The community here as a result is slightly less mature, and shares many of the worst traits of Reddit itself, including rampant misogyny, racism, and homophobia. /r/bitcoin is overwhelmingly white, male, and libertarian, often leaning towards the even more hilarious anarcho-capitalist views espoused by those who don’t understand economics. On any given day you can find posts about some unknown business now accepting Bitcoin, someone harassing Wikipedia, someone harassing some retailer, endless discussion of prices, ideas about how to explain Bitcoin, an article about buying drugs, and hype, hype, hype!
There are smaller communities and pockets of Bitcoiners elsewhere, usually gaming forums and Twitter, but most of the Bitcoin discussion is centralized in these two locations. Here bitcoiners mimic discussions about actual financial institutions, stock markets, and, more disturbingly, discuss proselytization, “faith” in the system, and in the occasional nearly self-aware post, the startling lack of women in their community. We’re here to focus on two aspects of this large community and its inability to recognize how they are negatively impacting it.
Bitcoin, viewed from the outside, seems to be vastly white, male, and very loudly libertarian. This is possibly just a result of a wider problem in the tech world, wherein men dominate the landscape, very often driving women away, whether through harassment, discrimination, or dismissal. “Likewise,” adds Dmitry Murashchik, an outspoken fan of the currency, “finance and business is still a very male dominated thing, too… [I]t’s not just a Bitcoin problem, but Bitcoin may be combining the problem of a male dominated field (Finance and Software) with a socially awkward group that doesn’t know how to deal with the problem (computer nerds).”
Being a woman in this environment isn’t easy, and bitcoiners are blissfully unaware. Sure, there are some women involved in the community, but it is a comically small number and for the most part only tangentially related to Bitcoin itself; they’re either tech writers or bloggers, or the occasional small business owner. The Bitcoin Foundation’s Board is 84% male; Elizabeth Ploshay is the only woman present on the currently seven-member board and her Bitcoin Woman Magazine presents itself as “providing women with breaking news about Bitcoin,” but it simply regurgitates the same news articles and blog posts that the rest of the community constantly churns out, having nothing to do with women, feminism, or anything new.
Not every “Bitcoin woman” is on a board of directors or head of a magazine. More often they’re treated as a spectacle, or some example of why Bitcoin isn’t ridiculously male-dominated, trotted out as if to say “See? We do have women!” Users have compiled a helpful image highlighting the “Women of Bitcoin,” as they are frequently called. It shows twenty-nine women and a baby. Interestingly enough, this list omits Arianna Simpson, a woman who gained a fair bit of attention after attending a Bitcoin meetup in New York City and was marginalized and groped, then treated little better than a child. I reached out to her to see if she wanted to further expand upon her experience, but was told she was concerned with her “story being used to shed negative light on the bitcoin community.” I’m afraid it’s far too late for that. The community’s reaction to her exposé was as vitriolic as could be expected:
Fitting neatly into the misogyny like a puzzle piece is a baffling religiosity; bitcoiners have deified and canonized certain individuals in the community and express an unflinching faith in algorithms and math. The only problem with that is that scripts, algorithms, and math can be manipulated to better serve shady admins, just as basic tenets can be twisted to serve corrupt clergy.
As Bitcoin rose in popularity, a handful of people rose in popularity alongside it, a strange cult of personality coalescing around them. One of the first was our good friend Bruce Wagner, whose Bitcoin “TV” show was wildly popular and cemented him, for a while at least, as the face of Bitcoin. Other early “investors” and proponents were quickly raised above the rank and file and names such as Erik Voorhees, Charlie Shrem, and Roger Ver became well-known in the Bitcoin world. Ver was especially idolized, as he’s sunk quite a lot of money into Bitcoin-related businesses and stunts, such as BitcoinStore or the infamous honey badger billboard. He’s been dubbed “Bitcoin Jesus” by many, though his status as a savior is questionable. The BitcoinStore goals were never officially met, after moving the goalposts several times, and Ver himself has faced the US federal court system and lost at least once, pleading guilty to selling and mailing explosives through eBay and the USPS. He’s vouched for the now-collapsed Mt. Gox exchange and seems to mostly stay out of the spotlight now.
More recently another “personality” has been thrust to the forefront, also dubbed “Bitcoin Jesus,” though he’s less willing to accept this title than his predecessor was. This man is Andreas Antonopoulos, a self-described “Bitcoin evangelist” and “serial tech-entrepreneur,” which is to say he’s had his fingers in quite a few ill-advised Bitcoin pies, most of which appear to be little more than efforts to promote Bitcoin. He spends a great deal of time on twitter preaching about Bitcoin, its appeal to various horrible anarcho-capitalists, and his completely unnecessary confrontations with police.
Antonopoulos takes all his pay in Bitcoin and often speaks at events, on YouTube, and in interviews with various fringe sources (such as RT, the Joe Rogan Experience, and the David Seaman Hour,) all lauding Bitcoin while ignoring its flaws, impracticality, and community. With Bruce out of the picture, Antonopoulos is the latest person bitcoiners have chosen to represent them, believing him to be charismatic and well-spoken. He can’t really be considered that well-spoken, however, as his response to criticism or opposition is to block or ignore the questions asked instead of effectively defending his position.
Aside from having unnerving fixations on certain people, bitcoiners are very prone to flat-out proselytizing. It’s clear that they view others as subjects to convert and often preach, sometimes in ways that obviously parallel methods utilized by street preachers, sometimes in utterly ineffectual ways such as tipping, and even going so far as to plan out religions based upon Bitcoin. Even Bitcoin itself makes references to the Bible, as it begins with the Genesis Block. Many see themselves as adherents or disciples, and do their best to spread “the word” of Bitcoin to everyone around them, often on social websites such as Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. Often met with opposition, they see this as either another opportunity to preach, or when the opposition is firm enough, as a form of persecution by disbelievers who will learn the folly of their ways when the endtimes come and traditional government-issued fiat currencies around the world are replaced with Bitcoin.
None of this is to come about, however, as one of Bitcoin’s largest and longest-running institutions has collapsed into a singularity over the past few days. This is, as many would say, good for Bitcoin, because the excision of a corrupt party, be it a scandal-ridden politician, inappropriate priest, or the largest and most popular Bitcoin exchange, could only be good, even if it takes with it the trust and confidence of the public. In the days following the death of Mt. Gox, the Bitcoin community has doubled down, further embracing their bizarre mix of antisocial views, distrust, and evangelism. Mt. Gox’s failure has only strengthened the true believers, unshakable in their faith, while in the public eye, they’re still the butt of jokes or worse, a strange insular community who swallow wholesale positive messages of faith in the face of the overwhelming evidence that’s stacked against them.