Decentralization and its misconceptions.
This week, one of DeFi’s most renowned founders and developers Andre Cronje revealed, through and alongside a colleague, that he was leaving the world of decentralized finance and crypto.
The result? Pretty much any project that bore Cronje’s fingerprints took a haircut in terms of token price and total value locked (“TVL,” or basically nerdy “AUM” for everyone else). This was largely driven by a misunderstanding of the relationships between Cronje and his projects, as well as between the projects themselves.
All of this got me thinking of the human aspects of DeFi as well as the ideal of “decentralization” itself. This is my examination of “Andrexit.”
This has been in the mail for a while now — Cronje has said that when he builds or examines a project, he’s often bewildered as to why no one had thought of it before. Similarly, my first reaction to Andrexit was to ask whether anyone had been actually paying attention this whole time. Cronje was not at all shy about expressing his desire to pull the ripcord on developing in DeFi, punctuating this sentiment with lengthy posts over the last two years. (Part One and Part Two.) Andrexit was unpredictable only to the most obviousness-impaired observer.
This is not a “failure of decentralization…” — It’s easy for critics of DeFi and maybe more than a few supporters to point at Andrexit’s dramatic impact as “evidence” that truly “decentralized finance” is either an impossible goal or the latest digital snake oil. The reality is that when you have an environment that is truly open and with the basic tools provided, the relative influence of participants will inevitably trace a power-law curve. That is, some person (e.g., Cronje) or project (e.g., Yearn) will grab the lion’s share of attention and influence. We saw a much lower-stakes version in the Web 2.0 buildout of the 2000s. “If media is so ‘decentralized’ now, why am I not as famous as Andrew Sullivan or Michael Arrington?” went various mutations of the usual sophistry from the whinier, Klout-grubbing panel participants of the era. In the end, it turned out much like Doc Searls’s corollary to Andy Warhol’s famous maxim: “Everyone is famous to fifteen people.”
…but it does demonstrate the limits of the term in the popular imagination — About three years ago, we launched a cloud-based blockchain infrastructure-as-a-service offering. A so-called “fact checker” at one of the big crypto media outlets sniffed something like “Um… Cloud == centralized == fail.” Only after I challenged them to point me at a fully deployed, at-scale alternative that satisfied their smugly doctrinaire standpoint did the article go through. My point is that people are conditioned to think of decentralization as a binary, not a continuum. A light switch, not a rheostat. A photograph, not a movie. The basic human desire to seek out and identify leadership figures will never go away, no matter how many developers, validators, nodes, bakers, farmers, or miners participate.
Misalignment between a project’s goals and community expectations take their toll — The evening after Andrexit, I must have accidentally shut off the Do Not Disturb on my iPhone. It madly buzzed to life at around 3:30 a.m., giving me in real-time the kind of messages I find very easy to ignore when the Do Not Disturb normally ends and my workday starts.
Only lightly paraphrased, these messages go like:
“You’re doing a terrible job. Execute my favorite tactic or I will tell more people in our community that you do a terrible job.”
“Wen big youtuber?”
“This other community gave me [x] when I asked for it. You didn’t. You suck.”
“Ser I can get you to trend on CoinGecko for 11 BNB. Please accept my proposal.”
“Hi, it’s Jef Garzeck. I am in room with investor man of many much important. Please send 5 ETH to 0x12345kdksfjsl…”
You know what I do pay attention to? Inputs from actual users who care about how the product works.
So, in the context of Andrexit, I remembered the following point from Cronje’s “Building in DeFi Sucks, Pt. II” essay:
So there is already immense pressure to constantly be releasing new updates and this creates a very stressful development environment. And what happens after you release it? “when is the next upgrade?”, “what is being built next?”, “give us an update!”. Because, you see, no one was actually waiting for your development, they were waiting for a “price shifting event”. They don’t actually want to use your product, they only want to use the “narrative” of your product to make money.
I can only imagine, then, what even the most carefully managed inputs into Cronje’s brain must have looked like: Floods of people, despite tons of test-in-production warnings and category-wide user experience issues, expressing disappointment or rage.
Which brings me to the final and most important point…
You can’t ignore the mental health issues anymore — In this Defiant interview, Cronje makes some pretty raw-nerve admissions about what his dedication to his DeFi projects has cost him.
That's why almost yearly, like clockwork, I wrote those “building-in-DeFi-sucks” blogs because it does. That's not that's not an over-dramatization or anything. Try and be a builder for a few months and see how it goes for you, because you will be emotionally, mentally, physically… choose a metric and it will drain you. Even on those metrics, my relationships have deteriorated, my family relationships have deteriorated, my mental health has definitely deteriorated, and my physical capability has deteriorated. … You need to make sure body, mind, and friends are your top three priorities and I can very easily say those have not been my top priority since I got into this industry.
We too often throw around the word “community” in our industry. Many participants use the word as both a sword (as a platform to make demands of a project team) and a shield (as a means to deflect any criticism or rebuke coming from the project team itself). If there were a community, inasmuch as most people outside of crypto understand the term, could it have retained one of the DeFi category’s most valued and prolific contributors?
Obviously, absent a flux capacitor, we’ll never know the answer. Cronje’s projects will live on, of course, as will the DeFi category at-large. We were fortunate that someone so talented gave so generously of himself. As the beneficiaries, the least we can do is wish him the happiness he seeks.
Hey! I’m glad you’re here. Are you into communications, marketing, or media? Do you ply your trade in the technology industry? With this whole work-from-home thing, do you miss the guy in the break room who always has a tip or a quip? Slack or Discord (or Teams, if you’re nasty) just not filling the void? Well then, subscribe. I will turn you into either the smartest person on your team OR an insufferable know-it-all.
TECH: “Everything You Wanted to Know About the Metaverse—But Were Too Afraid to Ask,” The Robb Report (2022) — It’s highly relevant when a publication like The Robb Report outlines the potential impact of the metaverse for its audience — folks in the luxury industry. “Despite the revolutionary rhetoric around the future of the metaverse—and there’s a lot, much of it with a passion for decentralization, to be anchored in a next-gen, block- chain-based internet iteration called Web3—the unsexy reality of the current metaverse is that it runs on Web 2.0 and is most often accessed through the portable little supercomputers we still think of as phones.” While you’re at it, check out Decrypt’s “How DAOs, NFTs and DeFi are Disrupting Hollywood.”
TECH: “The Many Escapes of Justin Sun,” The Verge (2022) — I always bristle when business, government, and the drive-by punditry depicts the crypto industry as an unredeemable den of criminals. But I will say that, when we do have our share of shady characters (as any industry must), there’s a special kind of panache.
HEALTH: “Alcoholism and me: ‘I was an addicted doctor, the worst kind of patient,’” The Guardian (2022) — Probably one of the bravest, rawest and most harrowing explorations of addiction I’ve ever read… and I have a collection of rock-star autobiographies. “I watched his face for any signs of an opening. Instead, after a long pause, he leaned across the table and told me that he’d be testing my hair for drugs. ‘Tell me now,’ he asked portentously, ‘what will we find?’”
HEALTH: “I Gave Myself Three Months to Change My Personality,” The Atlantic (2022) — “Don’t get too excited: Personality typically remains fairly stable throughout your life, especially in relation to other people. If you were the most outgoing of your friends in college, you will probably still be the bubbliest among them in your 30s. But our temperaments tend to shift naturally over the years. We change a bit during adolescence and a lot during our early 20s, and continue to evolve into late adulthood.”
I love playing Minecraft with my kids. In that world, I enjoy making fantasy machines that I wouldn’t mind having in real life. This one here launches chickens and fireballs from opposite ends, instantly creating fresh BBQ’ed chicken in the middle. Life should be like this.