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Is the Music Still Playing and Other Rhetorical Questions on My Crypto Journey

Can devs do something? Wen token?

When I started working in crypto in October 2021, I wrote a post on my journey into crypto and how I was drinking the web3 kool-aid but approaching everything with cautious optimism. It’s funny looking back — that cautious optimism quickly turned into naive euphoria as markets hit all time highs, then to a period of disillusionment, and finally back to a slightly different flavor of cautious optimism.

I recently decided to wrap up my time at Uniswap Labs after an incredible adventure of two and a half years. I’m eternally grateful for all the people I’ve gotten to meet, for all the places and communities I’ve gotten to experience, and for all that I’ve learned about software, markets, and crypto. As some say, never a dull day in crypto.

I’ve kept a note pinned to the top of my Apple Notes app where I jot down various thoughts and stories I’ve encountered along the way. I’ll saunter through these thoughts and stories — through the lens of three rhetorical questions:

  1. Is the music still playing?

  2. Can devs do something?

  3. Wen token?

Is the music still playing?

When I started full time in crypto in late 2021, the music was literally and figuratively playing. I joined Uniswap Labs to help build a self custody wallet, and when friends and family asked me what I was working on, I’d smile and put on my best impression of [insert your favorite web3 VC]: “the browser is to web2 as the wallet is to web3”. The music consumed my life: I was regularly buying ETH at 4k, checking NFT floor prices first thing in the morning, grinding whitelists on Discord, and on one hilarious occasion, collaborating with online friends to decode an Egyptian hieroglyph puzzle to get early bonding access to an ohm fork (if you know, hat tip).

DAOs were pitched as the future of human social organization. NFTs with 8 lines of text served as the future of building interoperable decentralized games. The global reserve currency was being built and three comma APY rates were the norm. We had entered the ownership era of the internet. It felt like everyone was talking about how web3 was going to change the world.

In retrospect, there were many top signals. During NFT NYC 2021, I was introduced to the fascinating subculture of crypto conference parties. It was surreal to me that pretty much every night of the week, all the nightlife venues around the city were booked out by some crypto company. It doesn’t matter who’s partying, so long as they are footing the bill, they will rise to the occasion (and get paid for throwing a good party). I remember one Tuesday night, a Telegram group chat I was in was debating whether to go see Kaskade or Sean Kingston.

“Oh, but you need one of those lobster NFTs to claim a ticket to Kaskade. Wait it’s only 0.05 ETH, aping now!”

My personal favorite top signal was at a party during Art Basel in 2021. The first top signal was that I was even at Art Basel. As the story goes, I found myself at a fancy party thrown by a fancy crypto company at a Venetian Island mansion. For 24 year old me, it felt like a movie - platters of lobster tails and trays of margaritas flowing freely amidst conversations of Solana price targets and NFT project ideas. I stumbled into a conversation with a group of three guys, and one of them introduced himself as his rapper name. It was a hilarious interaction. I hadn’t recognized what he looked like before, but after he introduced himself I realized he was an at least B+ list artist who I’d listened to before. He was looking for devs for his own budding NFT project idea. “The metaverse needs drugs.”

I once had a conversation with an investor who held an opinion that all consumer technology is oriented around only 3 things: greed, lust, and gluttony. Who needs the metaverse when you can get all 3 (well, maybe 2) at crypto parties?

It was all so novel and alluring to me. Sometimes in moments of solitude I’d look in the mirror and wonder how this was all happening, whether these narratives and experiences were too good to be true. But the music was playing, people were dancing, and I swept those doubts away to join the party.

You know that feeling when you’re talking to someone at a gathering, and they’re energetically telling you some big idea or opinion, and even though you don’t quite get it, you smile and nod along to match their energy?

Crypto cannot only be viewed as a technology, it is equally a social movement. The evangelical narrative of pitching how we individuals of web3 can take back our power and freedom from the evil big web2 tech companies hit the right nerve for many people, myself included. The cultural context of 2020 set this up perfectly. Amidst various reasons for dissatisfaction, it is only natural to reach for a new utopia of opportunity.

This isn’t new. We can observe changing power dynamics between centralized authority and individual welfare throughout history. Martin Luther’s publication of the 95 Theses in the 16th century challenged the power of the Catholic Church’s centralized religious authority, and my monkey jpegs and dog coins are challenging the power of centralized big tech of the 21st century (jokes). Crypto culture is a form of a contemporary religion suitable for the unique technological and political environment we live in today.

Every good party (and bubble) eventually ends. As the music stopped playing when the market crashed in 2022, so did my motivation. Ideas that had sounded brilliant months prior turned into questions of “wait, why does this need blockchain?”. One failed side project that I worked on with a few friends was in collaboration with an NYC ice cream shop, where patrons could purchase a membership NFT for special benefits like private tastings and the ability to vote for new flavors. We had a spreadsheet to lay out the fixed costs of providing these benefits and how much the corresponding NFT mint price should be to ensure a profitable operation. In March 2022, the =GOOGLE_FINANCE(ETHUSD) number kept trending downwards, and the cultural zeitgeist started to mock NFTs as a tainted word. I remember when a PR firm asked why this new membership had to be an NFT, the best we could muster was a word salad of “interoperability! open marketplace! true ownership of the membership, on the blockchain!”.

I certainly do believe that blockchains are valuable and enable net new use cases. But I learned that when the music is playing, it’s too easy to get caught up in the euphoria and lose intellectually honesty around what we are really building.

Can devs do something?

note: the next two sections are a tad crypto specific and may feel like a big word salad to those who aren't chronically online in crypto internet spheres

One of my favorite memes of crypto is this copypasta from the 2021 era:

ok I need PRICE TO GO UP. like VERY SOON. I cant take this anymore. every day I am checking price and it is staying the same. every day, check price, same price. I cant take this anymore, I have over invested, by a lot. it is what it is. but I need the price to GO UP ALREADY. can devs DO SOMETHING??

During the “bear” market of 2022, I personally struggled to clearly articulate why I believed in what I was working on in my day to day. A wallet with good UX to view, discover, and trade NFTs and tokens was so clearly valuable when prices were going up, but as liquidity dried up and prices went down, so did my emotional temperature around crypto. Looking back, I can attribute at least part of this to an emotional overcorrection from the highs I’d experienced before. I absolved some of my inner tension by focusing on growing as an engineer and enjoying the process of building something new with a genuinely fun and talented team. I’ll always look back fondly at my time working through in trenches with the Uniswap Wallet team - you know who you are. They taught me that regardless of what you work on, the people who you spend your working days with is the most important.

I remember working on the first iteration of the “top tokens” feature in mid 2022. I’d have VSCode side by side with iOS simulator showing me a list of the top 100 tokens on Ethereum. ETH was hovering around $1,000. The top 100 tokens were more or less stagnant, with all the stablecoins and WBTC (and BNB) taking up the simulator’s visible screen real estate. I’d think to myself, what’s the point of this list if it’s the same tokens and they’re going down? Who even needs real time data on token prices? Why does it matter that we support newly launched tokens immediately?

As it turns out a year later, the top 100 tokens would not be the same and they’re going up, real time market cap data was critical, and I was swapping tokens that were launched minutes prior. Bits and pieces of the speculation mania were back. When memecoins first started to pick up steam in mid 2023, I was still in a lightly skeptical headspace. At social gatherings I’d self deprecatingly tell others “wow, your work sounds like it’s making a difference in the world, I’m just helping random internet dudes buy green frog tokens”.

The average Crypto Twitter permabull would accurately label my stance as “midcurving” the point of memecoins. When PEPE crossed the 1 billion dollar market cap mark, my opinion shifted towards the left side of the bell curve. Sometimes in life, you have to respect the pump.

When your job is to literally make swapping tokens on your phone easier, it’s hard to ignore the memecoin mania. I knew some friends who worked in other non-crypto industries who would sneakily trade memecoins in between tasks at work. On the other hand, if you walked by our team’s row of desks in the office, there’s a good chance you’d see iOS and Android simulators showing $PEPE, $BITCOIN (HarryPotterObamaSonic10Inu), $WSB, $SPONGE. At one point a new narrative was proposed: memecoins should be first class citizens in our wallet experience. Amidst the bear market, we stumbled into what some call the Casino On Mars - possibly one of the funniest casino experiences you can have. I used to laugh at Discord messages “don’t worry, Asia’s waking up!”, and now I laugh at “dev dumped, community takeover!”.

I won’t belabor the debate on whether memecoins are good or bad. I think your opinion on memecoins is directly correlated with whether you’ve made money on them at least once. It is just gambling but the house can either be rigged (rugged) or in your favor (community takeover!). We generally know that gambling isn’t the healthiest for your mental wellbeing. A couple weeks ago, a few coworkers and I had a spontaneous Solana memecoin trading competition. It was an incredibly fun social experience, both making and losing magic internet money together on the most ridiculously named assets.

Biden’s State of the Union is tonight, should we dump jeo boden in case it’s bad?

The more I attempt to trade these memecoins, the more I feel like it’s contributing to my “brain rot”. I used to have a bad habit of watching YouTube in bed before going to sleep, but now I instinctively open the DEX Screener app on my phone. My new morning routine is to check if I got rugged or made it to Valhalla.

I worry about a kind of collective brain rot. How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, and when short term financial incentives give rise to playing short term games, we risk repeating the same cycles over and over. It’s not just memecoins, just look at the phenomena of airdrop farmers. Whenever a project announces their airdrop eligibility checker website, two factions quickly form – those who got a good airdrop, and those who didn’t. If you ever want to see internet chaos and greed, just go to the Discord of a project that announced airdrop eligibility. “E-beggars”, as one project founder controversially put it, isn’t too far off if you saw some of these chat messages. But, in the words of one ex-industry leader: “Some things are better left unsaid. Recommend no more news like these, for the sake of the people, our industry (and your business).“

As the markets have picked back up recently, I’ve found myself thinking back to how I felt in 2021. The music is playing again, people are bullposting their 10x or 100x or 1000x, optimized products for trading feel important. Remember NFT SaaS? Sweeping as a Service? I wonder if the Telegram sniper and trading bots will have a similar outcome. I too have taken advantage of the unique financial opportunity – trading memecoins with Telegram bots, trading keys for gated alfa groups, trading perps for points, bridging and staking for airdrops. Sometimes it feels like the same game, only with a new word salad: “Modularity! DePIN! RWA! Parallel EVM! Liquid Restaking! SocialFi! Points! AI agents!” I can’t deny that it’s amazing to make money on the internet like this. But, and I ask this as a fellow “degen” in the arena, what are we really doing here?

At some point in 2023, I felt like it became consensus opinion in my crypto circles that the true use case of crypto is speculation. I don’t even think that’s a bad thing - after all, we are testing and scaling our infra to support faster, better, more efficient speculation for when the real financial system comes. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a friend working in the AI scene, where apparently some brilliant AI researchers/engineers built an AI girlfriend website not because their end goal is to build AI girlfriend, but rather that it is the one current use case with enough user demand that they can test their inference infrastructure at scale with.

Aside from speculation, I have two more use cases of crypto.

  1. Financial rights are human rights. It is important to empower humans in countries with unstable financial systems to be able to hold and use stable assets. It’s funny to me how a lot of this usage lies squarely outside of the US based crypto scene - usage of USDT on Tron and Binance P2P is actually meaningful.

  2. Tokenization as a powerful narrative to align on a new standard in “tradfi”. “Tokenization” and “Blockchain” have become strong enough meme to push forward alignment on new standards. I’m not totally sure why exactly these have to be on a blockchain versus a centralized database (for private blockchains, what’s the difference?), but in order to push for change you need to have a good story and narrative.

Last year I went to a tradfi oriented event hosted by Coinbase, and I noticed this fashionable narrative of Tokenization being sold. One large traditional asset manager shared this convincing narrative:

“Tokenization is just a technology to take a stock or bond or art or house or music - anything that is a possession in the world and codify it in a way that can be standardized across assets. Frame it this way: there exists a new system that is moving around 1T of value. In the whole world, there is 500T of value being traded. The system is going to take over the rest of the assets because it’ll be a safer and more efficient way to move around assets.”

Later that day at the same event, investor Fred Wilson was on a panel about the intersection of crypto and AI. He commented on how the industries have evolved separately, and this stuck with me:

“The absolute failure in web3 is it has not brought any mainstream use cases into real life. People whose lives have been changed with crypto are believers (people who made life changing money). AI has graduated into being integrated into so many applications that people just accept it, and it benefits them.”

ok I need MORE CRYPTO USE CASES. like VERY SOON. I cant take this anymore. every day I am checking use cases and it is staying the same. every day, check use cases, same speculation use cases. I cant take this anymore, I have over invested [my career], by a lot. it is what it is. but I need there to be REAL USE CASES. can devs DO SOMETHING??

Wen token?

For any non-crypto readers - “wen token” is a common refrain from crypto netizens who (usually annoyingly) ask a company/project when they will launch their token, so they can receive money via an “airdrop” or have the ability to speculate on it.

Perhaps the strongest use case of crypto thus far is to make people rich.

There’s a phrase in the casual crypto Twitter trading world of “pump my bags” that is a beautifully succinct way to capture this kind of activity in crypto.

Mercenary actors who are only optimizing for return on capital are very effective and powerful in crypto. In the last cycle, more sophisticated players have entered the arena. We may joke about that unhinged Twitter anon tweeting things to pump their bags, but the same things are happening on larger scales behind closed doors. The private venture SAFT funding model enables the easiest 100, 1000x returns in spans of 1-4 years. Market makers for hyped new tokens can do very well. Opportunistic founders who are raising money now include a new line in their quick pitch - “TGE Q2 2024” (token generation event in Q2, so you can get your presale tokens and dump on retail).

One problem with the incentives of crypto is that it doesn’t necessarily incentivize building real use cases. I enjoyed reading this intellectually honest blog post from Michael Dempsey about this unfortunate cycle of perverse incentives between founders and venture funds in crypto (well, unfortunate if you are not the founder or the venture fund). He writes that the highest EV thing to do as a builder in a bull market is to build new L1s or L2s instead of applications. Founders who are just after money can raise a massive round for a new chain, promise a token unlock, and then make everyone rich.

We’ll get new blockspace each cycle, with some value erosion happening for underutilized L1s and L2s, and maybe every now and then new value capture that looks a lot like an L1 narrative (Data availability, Restaking, etc.) will insert itself into a slightly smaller flywheel before a wave of copycats and the nth version of these protocols descending down the Euthanasia Coaster of Impossible to Fathom Billion Dollar FDV tokens.

And the best part is, these tokens will still probably be more highly valued than real applications with real usage and real utility.

All this blockspace, what for? But who needs a use case when it can print money? The myth of the infrastructure phase has become the "financial tarpit of the infrastructure phase". Infrastructure for infrastructure for infrastructure for the sake of Impossible to Fathom Billion Dollar FDV tokens.

In early stage investing, there’s a notion that the bigger your idea and less of a product you have, the more hype and upside there is. An idea can be intangible, immeasurable, but a product with user metrics can judged on what exists. That’s why memecoins can hit billion dollar market caps. There’s no usage metrics or revenue models to judge, and thus there is no cap to the upside. At least people who launch memecoins are intellectually honest that they are not trying to change the world with a new type of blockspace, they are just trying to make money.

I’ve been spending some time diving into the much hyped, technically elusive “Crypto x AI” narrative. Some of the projects seemed promising to me at first, but the further I dug into them, the more I realized they were word salads that sounded good. I am sure some of these companies/protocols will financially do well by crafting the right narrative to pump a token. I was lamenting over this reality to a trader friend of mine, who responded “that’s how crypto works, like clockwork”. Crypto has an uncanny ability to reinvent things under different names and discover for itself what works and what doesn’t. If you’re bullish on something in “Crypto x AI”, please shill me. I want to be convinced of something that makes sense.

Don’t Muddy the Waters

When I started at Uniswap, I wrote a kind of tongue in cheek line to conclude my blog post: “it’s time to build, with cautious optimism.”

I’ve since realized that cautious optimism can be a helpful mindset, but it’s not enough to navigate this dark forest of perverse incentives and narrative chasing. Cautious optimism comes with the risk of “mid curving” new technological and societal developments – observing it from the sidelines without actively participating. Perhaps “honest optimism” is what I’m more after.

There’s a Nietzsche line that resonates: “They muddy the water, to make it seem deep”. At the forefront of technology (especially crypto), it can be easy and tempting to muddy the water. I personally hope to participate in building the future of technology in society while staying honest to my values.

As for what’s next for me - just exploring! There are two immediate things I'm working on: finish an essay on taste and internet culture, and continue my streak of shipping a fun consumer iOS app once every few years (anyone into color analysis?). Beyond that, I'm exploring ideas all over from the crypto application layer to immersive memories on the Apple Vision Pro to thinking about the future of how we interact with the internet (something something AI/LLMs). I hope to share these soon. If you’re working on anything interesting or similar, please reach out! I’d love to meet with more smart, honest thinkers and builders.

It’s time to build, without muddying the waters.

“Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity. For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom: the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water.”


Sound like Bittensor to anyone?

I'm grateful for everyone at Uniswap Labs who have made my last couple years so special - I wouldn't have traded it for anything else. Shoutout to Connor for getting me there and stewarding my naive euphoria, the early residents of Wall(et) St. of Connor, Will, Justin, Tina, Maggie, Callil that grew into Tarik, Padmini, Ian, Thomas, Christine, Daniel, Chelsy, Adrian, Adrian, Andrew, Allison, and everyone else at the company who entertained me and my random thoughts at the lunch table. 🦄🙏

cover art generated by DALLE3 with this prompt: "generate an image of a watercolor style painting of a bike on a line that looks like a stock chart that goes up and down and up, and music notes and money icons around it"

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