At a glance, the blockchain and larger cryptocurrency space seem to be just another Silicon Valley hype machine at work once again: initial coin offerings (ICOs,) $6.3 billion in the first quarter of 2018 alone without creating any real impact on our lives.
Beyond the select few trying to keep the hype machine alive and those technical enough to actually understand the system’s architecture, how much meaning (not impact, not value, not quantifiable metrics that venture capitalists can take credit for during pitches) does the space holds for the rest of us, the so-called “mass audience”?
Counting myself in the latter, I know that I can barely pay attention to a podcast episode about crypto buzzwords I must learn to appear smarter, or the occasional Medium post alleging to give the ultimate rundown for dummies I try to read but never finish.
Personally, the blockchain space has no real essence for me. And it probably doesn’t for you.
That’s because those writing the blockchain story are still trying to figure out how to tell it.
“Blockchain is still a very much engineering-driven culture, which means the marketing is still focusing on the features, the bells and the whistles. But they often don’t get to,why should I care?” Jesse Ratner, founder of the Blockchain Agency, said. A simple Google search of “how do people feel about blockchain” proves Ratner’s statement, with article headlines like “Blockchain is meaningless”, “What’s so great about blockchain”, and “Bitcoin is ridiculous, blockchain is dangerous” leading the search results.
It’s why Ratner decided to tackle this issue head-on, by founding a marketing agency that focuses on branding blockchain companies, just a couple of months ago. Ratner saw the dire need for storytelling in the space, especially since most of the marketing out there is highly technical. While there are blockchain businesses talking about seemingly tangible use cases, he argues that it’s not done well and perhaps, not the most realistically applicable.
“Your crypto kitties app, your new messenger on the decentralized Web, or various forms of decentralized identification — are these the right use cases?” he said. “It’s now the marketer’s job to go beyond the technical and get to the tangible value. You don’t want to go to the store to buy flour and butter, you want to eat cake.”
Ratner’s first step towards that, right now, is just creating clear, easy-to-understand websites for blockchain companies. He points out to me that his approach to writing isn’t any different than when he was a Creative Lead at Google. “You really don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” he tells me. “But I do think it will take some time to crystallize what the story is to developers, to investors, to journalists, to early adopters, and finally, to the point that the technology is contributing really in a global way on an everyday basis.”
Zi Wang, CEO of Timeless, a company aiming to actuate the service economy, really hopes someone will crack the code to blockchain in the next year.
“We must create some meaningful value, something people can bring home and say, Oh, I really enjoy this,” Wang said. “Other than the investors and the crypto holders, you don’t get joy out of blockchain.”
Wang tells me his ideal future scenario is one where everybody would be using blockchain and actually enjoy using it, just as today’s mobile apps work, but he doesn’t think the space is quite there yet.
It’s why Wang wanted Timeless to first narrow down the exact problem they aim to solve, in order to provide a tangible, helpful use case for the market. Wang tells me that the team collectively processed at least 200 white papers in the process of publishing their own.
What Wang finds interesting in this process is having discussions around topics he never thought about in his career in tech: basic economics. “Before this, it was just the business model of buying low and selling high,” he said. “Now, we’re digging deep into economic theories from the last 2–3 years to help us think about the market design for blockchain.”
Ratner agrees in that the space needs a system that more user-friendly. “That’s the real story of blockchain — how are we going to design a system that is easier to use?” he said. “Because right now, it’s not, which makes whatever associations blockchain has with the mainstream population isn’t necessarily positive. And changing the perception is going to be the biggest hurdle, along with technological ones, to move the whole industry forward.”
“That’s the real story of blockchain — how are we going to design a system that is easier to use?” Ratner said. “Because right now, it’s not.”
Even Jacqueline Kwok, Head of Business Development at crypto wallet company Arcana, tells me she finds it hard to keep track of all the updates in her industry, which makes me feel a little better about my own level of understanding. What differs between her and me (and perhaps everyone else outside of the space) is that she enjoys the constant learning process.
“I was actually debating between going into cannabis and blockchain, but I found that I was so much emotionally and intellectually drawn to blockchain,” Kwok said. “It’s so humbling to be in this industry. There are so many smart people in the industry who are willing to teach you. ”
Despite the non-believers, the cynics and the outsiders of the industry, the privilege of constructing the building blocks of Web 3.0 is still a joy for those working to craft the story of blockchain. “I was too old to participate in the PC revolution, and I was working for a big company in the middle of the mobile revolution,” Wang, previously a Creative Director at Google, said. “This time, we are getting a chance to reimagine the architecture of the Internet. Very few of us are going to have a chance to take a crack at it.”
Similarly, Kwok enjoys being a part of Arcana, a company she sees building an essential part of the blockchain economy. Since it is currently very risky to execute crypto trades using smart contracts alone, Arcana thus built a security framework to solve human negligence in digital asset management and create a custodian solution for retail investors as its first tangible use case. “Unless these problems are solved, this industry won’t take off,” she said.
It leads me to ask Kwok — how does she predict the blockchain industry will take off in five years? Kwok argues that those thriving in the space at that point should provide a viable meaning in their customers’ lives. “In five years, if a lot of current blockchain solutions or tokens don’t end up providing solutions to the user, I just don’t see them being around anymore,” she said.
Wang’s personal goal is to work towards that future: a point where all can not only hear about the joy of blockchain, but actually understand and experience it.
Because beyond the skepticism of the space, blockchain has provided a lot of real solutions such as streamline supply chains and enable a much easier global transaction of money. Kwok tells me that she is actually glad the hype around the space is dying down, because it was “creating a lot of distraction around the actual good projects that are happening.” But hey, even the Internet in its early days had its skeptics. That didn’t stop it from changing our lives as we know it.
Wang’s personal goal is to work towards that future: a point where all can not only hear about the joy of blockchain, but actually understand and experience it. “I hope that by 2022, we will reach the inflection point, the same point for those of us who were involved in the rise of iPhone or Android in 2012 or 2013,” he said. “There are roughly 25 million crypto wallets today. Hopefully, there will be 500 million users in blockchain in five years.”