Cover photo

Crypto Tribalism Needs to Die…

…And interoperability will be its killer

Illustration by me

The crypto industry is in a strange phase right now. For the past five years, small communities have arisen with the clear desire to push, shill, and outwardly support their favourite crypto projects as hard as they possibly can. People constantly try to pit different coins against each other, hoping that rivals to their favourite ones will eventually wither and die. For instance, not a day goes by without somebody discussing what will be the ultimate Ethereum killer, or what will finally topple Bitcoin.

This line of thinking might feel helpful at the time, but ultimately this causes more harm than good. There is nothing wrong with wanting to support an idea that you believe in, but when your support manifests in battling against other (very similar) ideas, that is nothing more than tribalism, plain and simple.

And it tears the community apart.

What exactly is tribalism?

“Tribalism” is a tough word to navigate, particularly because of its origin. As the Social Scientist Archie Mafeje notes, the word itself was largely used as a “catch-all” term that European anthropologists used to describe any society located within Africa. While the word itself might not automatically be derogatory, the fact that White researchers were so trigger-happy with its usage when studying African communities means that it can be hard to locate a proper understanding of the word.

A common definition of a “tribe” is “any group of people which is distinguished, by its members and by others, on the basis of cultural-regional criteria” (provided by Canadian Anthropologist Philip Gulliver). Although, when we usually speak about “tribalism” nowadays we are not speaking about physical tribes.

The term “tribalism” is mostly used to describe a collective of people who find themselves bound by a concept that they have a strong, positive, emotive response to.

Marshall D. Sahlins describes “tribalism” as “consisting of segmentary lineage (kinship binding tribe members together), social structure (tribe members’ perceived sense of unison), sense of community (tribe members’ ability to harmonically coexist), and defense of the tribe (tribe members’ emotionally charged enmity toward opposing tribes).”

Here, we have a criteria we can work with. Tribalism consists of:

  1. Segmentary lineage

  2. Social structure

  3. Sense of community

  4. defense of a tribe

Let’s analyse these ideas.

What is segmentary lineage?

This is where groups of people are held together by shared values. The term is usually applied to small units of people, specifically families. When Sahlins used this term, they were referring to people who had a blood relationship between each other, but we can interpret it differently. Harry A. Taute and Jeremy Sierra note that segmentary lineage can exist outside of blood bonds, being substituted by other forms of generations, or where things are referred to as being family members. As an example, they note that:

“[M]arketers may discern segmentary lineage in the Apple brand as users of Apple II, Macintosh, the iPod, the iPhone, and more recently the iPad. In the Latin or postmodern view, this dimension may capture the linking value of the brand, the common bond members feel beyond the use of the product”.

Looking to cryptocurrency brands, segmentary lineage arises from developers providing progress reports and roadmaps. Followers of a project can use roadmaps as a means of tracking how early they are when it comes to the success of a project, with the roadmap playing an active role in binding followers by showing them what stage of the project they are at and where the project is aiming towards.

Take Ethereum’s roadmap for example. The developers chose to give their milestones these grandiose and enigmatic names: Olympia, Byzantium, Serenity, etc.

Tezos does this with their roadmap: Athens, Babylon, Carthage, Delphi, Edo, Florence…

They are building a legacy, and it is helping to form bonds with their users.

Segmentary lineage can also arise from any other form of technological or conceptual change. Ethereum’s switch from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake is a huge technological change that has ignited its fanbase to the point of pandemonia.

Bitcoin has its own example of this, although it was less coordinated. Bitcoin miners may have a segmentary lineage based on the type of technology they use to mine. The change from CPU mining to ASIC mining is a huge technological shift that has bound its community in physicality.

What is a social structure?

This is the connectivity that people feel within a collective. It is very similar to a sense of community (discussed below), but there is more emphasis on a supposed hierarchy or construction of the social environment.

The crypto and blockchain world definitely has a distinct social structure. Developers and architects take the helm, with fans often eager to learn more about these people and defend them online if they feel they are being attacked. For instance, Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, is revered as the model of a perfect crypto developer. An even more fascinating example would be how people view the elusive Satoshi Nakamoto, with many crypto fans consistently arguing and defending what “Satoshi’s true vision” is.

There are other figures in the blockchain community who seem to have some perceived authority. Miners, validators, and node runners are seen favourably due to their actions in maintaining a community’s blockchain.

Retail investors who have sunk large quantities of money into a specific blockchain also appear to have some significance within the social structure (so long as they are not institutional investors, as centralized institutions are ideologically opposed to decentralization and most cryptocurrency projects).

What is a sense of community?

This is where supporters of a specific idea find themselves sharing similar characteristics, encouraging them to unify and communicate.

This is actually a huge part of contemporary marketing. “Community Marketing” (which is where a company fosters and develops a relationship with its customers in a way that encourages those customers to communicate amongst themselves) has been found to significantly help spread the word for a business and increase revenue.

This is why even the smallest and newest cryptocurrency projects will urge you to join their Telegram and their Discord. They want to bring you into the fold, and they want a sense of belonging to emerge within you.

Let me add, there is nothing inherently wrong with such a feeling. Communities are helpful for our well-being. A paper in the Journal of Community Psychology found that “quality of life is [positively] affected by sense of community”.

This sense of community is also strengthened by the fact that practically all members of that community will not only share the same ideas, but their shared values will be also be enshrined in finance, as they will have put money into their respective projects. This means that not only do they feel a sense of belonging through the sharing of thoughts but also through the sharing of successes and losses.

What is a “defense of a tribe”?

This is described as:

“[W]hen in competition for resources or under threat, there is a tribal massing effect, where tribal members will band together to oppose a stronger tribe or to take advantage of another weaker tribe”.

In the crypto sphere, this is where one collective of people constantly pit their project against other projects that serve a similar purpose, automatically viewing them as rivals. It is seen constantly with blockchain ecosystem projects such as Cardano, Polkadot, and Polygon fans consistently fighting between each other.

Why is any of this a problem?

You might be reading this and wondering what exactly the problem is with this type of tribalism. After all, what’s so bad about having an active community that supports the same project as you? It helps the project grow, and it improves member’s chances of making more profits on their earnings.

The issue, unfortunately, arises when looking at the crypto industry as a whole. This form of tribalism is such a successful means of building an active fanbase that many projects try their best to foster it, having little regard for their supposed rivals. It makes for a lack of overall care. It causes people to no longer celebrate the successes within the market– unless they directly affect their own project.

It is essentially turning the people against themselves.

(This is not to say there aren’t people who invest in multiple coins and tokens that are perceived as rivals to each other, but it would be fair to argue that even these people have one project they might prefer over another).

This is not so much of an issue currently, as the cryptocurrency industry is still relatively new, and most projects have not been around for a while, but if something isn’t done, it will get worse.

As some projects grow in age and build larger fanbases with more people investing significant sums of money, these communities will get more and more rabid. This is especially worrying as we are entering a time when the wealth gap has grown tremendously, meaning that more people are hoping that crypto will help lift them out of poverty.

It makes sense that the people associated with a failing coin will envy or feel bitter towards another that is performing well.

Interoperability– the enemy of tribalism

Enter interoperability: a simple, yet highly admirable idea within the industry.

Interoperability is the concept of separate blockchains communicating with one another. It is something that crypto fans have been speaking about for as long as I can remember, and for good reason, as this is the true antidote to tribalism.

The problem with the current makeup of the crypto world is that every blockchain stays internal, constantly locked away from other blockchains. This is because most current-day blockchains are built as stand-alone systems that operate within themselves.

However, interoperable blockchains are coming into existence, such as Polkadot, Cosmos, and ICON. These are networks that have cross-chain capabilities, meaning that people can transfer their assets through them with ease.

This a direct strike against tribalism because it breaks apart echo chambers and stops projects from seeming like walled gardens, where only projects on that blockchain can communicate and function with each other.

Don’t get me wrong, these projects also have their own tribalistic fanbases, but my prediction is that these communities will stop seeming as rabid once it becomes commonplace for blockchains to open up and communicate.

Final Words

We need interoperability sooner, rather than later. This is the one idea within the blockchain world that has the ability to truly unite everybody within it. The ability for blockchains to connect between each other will change the nature of each individual community, and will prevent the industry from fracturing.

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