Dark Star

Posted on Mar 07, 2023Read on Mirror.xyz

Making "The Blockchain" the Next Place you Need to Be

If you were a GenX kid with even a small amount of tech familiarity, you almost certainly had the following experience: Sometime around 1995, an older relative or friend would come to you and ask for help ‘getting online.’ They would explain that they had heard about this amazing new technology called e-mail (or gopher, message boards, or if they were a little too honest, chat). And they had suddenly realized they needed to be *there.* There was a place where you could do these specific amazing things with information, without which they would be at a disadvantage. They needed to be 'online.'

This was the moment, in retrospect, that the Internet became inevitable. Not because of the people interested in the technology because it was interesting or cool, like us, but because it had become specifically useful to the ones that weren't, and in a way they could understand. With this understanding in mind, they embraced an invented metaphor ("online") and were willing to overcome the friction to adopt it. It became a place to be. This is the famous juncture of crossing the chasm. It occurred because they grasped the significance of the place on the other side of that chasm. 

A similar thing happened a few years later with the notion of the World Wide Web. That same older relative or friend had now heard of a place where amazing content was available, almost always for free, that was essential for his professional success or personal happiness. How had he heard of it? Because people he knew at work or  his pickup basketball game told him about stuff they had found there. 'On the Web' had soon become a shorthand for the source of all sorts of hard-to-get information. "Where did you see that?" "Oh, I saw it on the Web." It was a new place where you could get content, and if you weren't *there,* you were missing out.

The business community went through this same recognition with the rise of software-as-a-service products. Driven by relentless marketing from these companies, but grounded in genuine and significant utility, people everywhere began to speak colloquially about a place known as 'the cloud.' Within a few years, almost everyone who used these systems spoke about the location of their data or files using this phrase. CIOs and CTOs were given budgets to get their enterprises 'on the cloud.' What did it mean? Simply put, the cloud was a place where software could run and information could be stored, and they could be accessed from anywhere. From potentially scary ("um, where exactly IS my file?") to simple and essential, once you understood it.

For crypto to cross this chasm -- and we must be honest that it has not yet-- the blockchain will need to become the next similarly understood notion. It will need to become an information-place where everybody has to be. But what are the unique and beneficial properties of this place? How does it differ from 'online,' 'The Web,' and 'The cloud.' What can you do there that you cannot do anywhere else? 

We would argue that the simple answer is buying and selling. The blockchain is the only place where you can buy, sell and collect information objects. And that is massive. Blockchain enables things to become Things in the sense that everything on-chain is now unique, tradeable and sellable.  Anybody who wants to sell anything that can be represented digitally needs to put them 'on the blockchain.' Anybody who wants to buy those things needs to have access to it. "Where'd you get these tickets?" "On the blockchain." "How did you sell your handbag?" "On the blockchain."

So you ask, is that big enough? Should I care? Well, we will argue that commerce absolutely can be the entire thing. The current eCommerce market alone forecasts 1.2T in 2023, and like advertising and other transactional businesses online, is pretty absolute in its ability to continue to grow in a positive trajectory. And because the blockchain makes not only first purchases but reselling vastly easier, the market size will grow. 

The truth is the blockchain space has a knack for wanting to constantly spin itself beyond where it currently sits. You can argue this is the achilles heel of the industry today, a resilient focus to find product market fit but also the inability to be satisfied and pay attention to the areas that already show real promise. We know people want to transact on the web. We know blockchains serve as a unique foundational layer to expand this passion. We have an arena to really play in. However, before making that an absolute, we move to immediately spin beyond it to argue against “Facebook holding our data”, “the problem with the existing gig economy” and “protection against authoritarian regimes”. The desire to find more use cases instead of capitalizing on the obvious one has led to additional friction totally brought on by ourselves. And to be clear, we’re not advocating against this energy– the more arenas blockchain can evolve in passion areas, the better. But we shouldn’t do that at the expense of the obvious use cases of today. Just look at OpenSea, Coinbase and Uniswap– people are buying, selling and collecting digital goods en masse in a way that was previously impossible. That’s something!

Can blockchains do more than this? Of course they can. Vitalik has offered a long list of uses from identity to governance. But almost all of these are functions that can be solved by existing technologies, and in any case, primarily exist to serve and take advantage of the blockchain's transactional nature. We all know about using tokens for voting. But that can be done in other ways. What can't be done any other way is selling your right to vote or buying it from someone else. Similarly to how online catalyzed interest of the new, and “the web” showcased how the internet can be built into something completely bigger and useful than what was originally imagined, the notion of blockchains as a vehicle for digital objects will shepherd this new wave of utilities that over time, because obvious as they become a part of what we do.

Isn't focusing on the transactional accepting a pejorative framing? Wouldn't it lead inevitably to the wild speculation that has been so distracting and destructive to crypto? Absolutely not. Speculation was a result of specific tokenomic design choices, the inevitable result of the lack of utility that real transactions provide. If and when the blockchain becomes the place to buy and sell things, speculation will be a small percentage of the transactions rather than the raison d'etre of the entire system.

We’re currently at an interesting crossroads as it relates to what it means to do things on “the blockchain”. The broader understanding is it’s a place where you can get rich… or get scammed. To be fair, that’s the result of “permissionless” but it’s also lacking the context of the good. It’s purely a reflection of how it’s been used to date, postured by hyperbolic takes of unique situations that have happened through the course of the past decade. This is in the absence of a directional purpose, which we believe, already exists in buying, selling and collecting. As of this second, Bitcoin, Ethereum and Solana have ~$20T, $6B and $369M 24 hour trade volume respectively. OpenSea peaked at nearly $5B monthly volume, and still sits around $500M today. This is what people should care about.

We spend a lot of time talking about how early it is, and finding product-market-fit, but really we may be closer than we think. And that may mean staying focused and convicted on what we know blockchain does well and building towards a framing. Then, we can make blockchain a place that everyone knows useful things can happen, just like going online, storing in the cloud and surfing the web.