Can "the media" stop crypto?
The Two Narratives of Media Failure
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Subscribers to the print edition of The New York Times were treated this weekend to a special Sunday Business section: "The Latecomer's Guide to Crypto," by Kevin Roose. "Recently, I spent several months reading everything I could about crypto," Roose writes in the introduction, but was unable to find "a sober, dispassionate explanation of what crypto actually is — how it works, who it’s for, what’s at stake, where the battle lines are drawn." His primer, clocking in at 14,000 words and spanning five internal sections, is an attempt to rectify this seeming absence.
I want to write a bit about the way Roose frames his guide vis-a-vis social media and tech journalism, but before I get to the meat of the post I need to make a small request of Read Max subscribers, some of whom may have found themselves apoplectic with rage at Roose's claim that he could not find an "explanation of what crypto actually is." While this seems at first blush to be a shocking omission of the world-famous Read Max Report on Web3, which is available exclusively to paid subscribers of Read Max and which many have hailed (privately) as the single greatest guide to the world of crypto available to the general public, if you read it attentively you'll note that Roose says merely that he could not find a crypto explainer that was "sober" and "dispassionate," qualifiers which exempt the Read Max Report on Web3, which could be accurately described as "very long," "aesthetically unfortunate," and "intermittently entertaining" but is at no point "sober" or "dispassionate."
So, and this is my request to the militantly enthusiastic "Read Max Hive": Please stand down. Do not cancel your subscriptions to the Times, do not write long letters to the editor, and especially do not harass Times employees on social media on my behalf. If you received the special Sunday Business section this weekend, simply use the extra paper to wrap presents for needy children, as you have already absorbed all the information contained therein simply by subscribing to this newsletter.
What "happened" with social media?
As part of a thread sharing the piece yesterday, Roose tweeted that he is
neither pro-crypto nor anti-crypto, but I am definitely pro-*understanding* crypto. In the intro essay to the series, I tried to explain a few reasons why. One of my big fears is that what happened with social media in the 2010s -- skeptics assuming it wouldn't work, not taking it seriously, then belatedly realizing it had major problems -- will happen with crypto in the 2020s.
Roose has received a lot of criticism, some of it unfair, from zealous anti-crypto factions online for the enthusiasm with which he has leapt into reporting about the world of web3 and crypto. (I'm proceeding ahead here without explaining terms like "web3." Paid Read Max subscribers can of course reference the Read Max Report on Web3 for definitions and histories of all crypto-related terms and personalities.) Here, he gets an opportunity to defend himself: The kind of reporting and writing he's doing about web3 and crypto is important because we need to understand, rather than dismiss, the implications of widespread adoption of the blockchain. It's framed within an implicit criticism of tech journalism and criticism over the last decade or so: that it was too skeptical, and its skepticism left it flat-footed and and uncomprehending as Facebook transformed into a global machine for liquefying brains.
Two stories about how the media failed
The idea that journalists and critics are too skeptical is a common refrain within the crypto community. There's an old clip of Bill Gates trying to explain the internet to a witheringly dismissive David Letteman sometime in the 90s that has become sort of totemic to web3 types: Look how stupid Letterman looks! You wouldn't want to look that stupid, 25 years from now, would you? This is Popular Narrative Number One About the Failure of the Media in Writing About Tech: The mainstream media has been embarrassingly skeptical of every major development in internet technology since the modem, and its skepticism has condemned it to decay, poverty, and bitterness.
This runs directly counter to Popular Narrative Number Two About the Failure of the Media in Writing About Tech, which is that the media wasn't skeptical enough about the internet or the platforms built on it. A foundational contention of the "techlash" that cracked in the wake of Donald Trump's election has been that politicians, investors, and especially the media were too positive and boosterish about the naturally beneficial effects of global information networks to examine exactly how those networks were funded, designed, or put to use. (I've made a version of this argument myself.) Indeed, just as Narrative Number One is a constitutive myth of crypto hucksterism, Narrative Number Two is generally a keystone of anticryptoism, and a significant reason for its vehemence: We weren't skeptical enough of the social-media industry, so we need to be extra-skeptical of the crypto industry.
What interested me about Roose's story of "what happened to social media in the 2010s" is that it shares the premises of Narrative One — we were too skeptical! — but gestures toward the conclusion of Number Two: we need to pay closer attention this time around! For Roose, the consequence of skepticism isn't missing out on investment returns but missing out on the opportunity to shape the direction of the internet. Only by holding open the possibility of web3's epochally transformative potential — rather than dismissing it — can we (journalists, critics, politicians, normies) hope to influence its future structures.
I'm sympathetic to this case. But I also think that, as I've pedantically complained before, two different kinds of skepticism are being conflated: skepticism about the practicality or novelty of the technology of cryptocurrency, and skepticism about the financial, political, and cultural forces arrayed behind cryptocurrency. Not all crypto skeptics are Letterman types who dismissively, in Roose's words, "assume it won't work": I personally am much too stupid to understand whether or not cryptocurrency works. But I do find the people who are pushing cryptocurrency to be at worst politically odious and at best utterly wack. I am not worried about looking embarrassed in 25 years because my prediction is not "this will work" or "this won't work" but "this Bored Ape stuff just completely sucks."
OK, but, which narrative is right?
If you extend your time frame back to the 1990s you can find plenty of evidence that "the media" was both too skeptical and not skeptical enough. In the early days of the consumer internet there was a lot of dismissiveness, in both the mainstream and industry media, about its practicality and longevity (a la Letterman) and lots of naive enthusiasm for its societal effects and business prospects (see, e.g., the entire 90s run of Wired).
But by the mid-2000s, and especially by the 2010s, you see a lot less reflexive skepticism — and a lot less boosterism. It's always hard to characterize the attitude of "the media" in any conclusive way, and you're always going to find exceptions, but it's flat-out wrong to say, as Roose does, that "nobody" was asking questions about the role social media might play in speech and politics in the early 2010s. You don't even need to sift through little-read academic or activist critique to find those questions being asked: The Times itself was asking them. In December 2010 the paper published a long article about the "complexities" around Facebook's relationship to free speech. "With Facebook’s prominence on the Web its more than 500 million members upload more than one billion pieces of content a day," Miguel Heft wrote, "the site’s role as an arbiter of free speech is likely to become even more pronounced." And how!
What the dueling narratives of media failure have in common is that they attribute a lot of power to "the media." If only "the media" had taken my preferred attitude, we might not be in this mess! (Or, at least, we'd be in a different kind of mess.) Is this true, though? Heft's piece is neither too skeptical nor too credulous: It's about as good a reported exploration of the problems posed by (and to) Facebook as you could expect in the Times at that moment. Nor was it the only time the Times wrote about Facebook and speech or Facebook and politics. And yet … none of that reporting seems to have made much of a difference in how Facebook's growth and development proceeded.
I dont mean to exonerate tech journalism for its many crimes against taste, judgment, good writing, the people, etc. But I'm also increasingly less convinced that a "better" tech journalism, by any definition of the word, would have made a particular difference in how the internet of the 21st century has unfolded so far. What strikes me looking back at tech journalism of the 2000s is how fast Facebook (to take the most prominent example) was growing: zero to 500 million users in just five years. I'm not sure any analysis or criticism, no matter how damning, could have slowed that kind of planetary momentum — and there was plenty of good analysis and criticism of Facebook at the time. What was missing was a coherent, organized, well-resourced political movement that could have matched Facebook's size, speed, and capital. I agree with Roose that we should take crypto "seriously from the start" so that we might steer it "in a better direction" in the event it takes off. But looking at the kind of people and money invested in crypto it seems to me the real question is: us and what army?