Ethereum as Lifestyle Brand: What Unicorns and Rainbows Are Really About

The lights were dimmed during the last day of Devcon in October 2019. A hush fell over the auditorium in Osaka, Japan. A haunting melody rippled through the crowd of roughly 1,000 people. Everyone knew the dance was about to begin.

Ethereum leaders, including inventor Vitalik Buterin, plus Hudson Jameson and Aya Miyaguchi of the Ethereum Foundation, would lead a goofy dance to close out the annual tech conference.

Cheers erupted when the Ethereum influencers took the stage, nodding respectfully to conference organizers and thanking the crowd. Soon the whole crowd was following along, jumping up and down, turning in circles. Critics might say they were simply mimicking the technologists on stage, but on the ground, people were adding their own moves or simply nodding along. Every Etherean dances his or her own way, or smiles and sways timidly. (Ethereum Foundation developer Vlad Zamfir, for example, dislikes the dance and said he prefers not to partake.)

The tongue-in-cheek ritual offers a microcosm of the carefree Ethereum lifestyle brand, inspired by the cryptocurrency founded in 2015. Over the past five years, Ethereum, the blockchain platform that birthed so many ill-fated ideas, also launched a crop of products and services that are currently multibillion-dollar endeavors.

The dance is a promise “until next year,” the leaders say on stage. It’s a celebration of what the community has achieved so far and what it will achieve. The dance is a way to communicate with Ethereans from all around the world, even if they don’t speak English.

Devcon 2019
Source: CoinDesk archives

There is roughly $3.7 billion worth of cryptocurrency locked up in Ethereum-based decentralized finance (DeFi) platforms used by people around the world like Gerald Nash, a computer science student who interned at Coinbase and leads programs at the Howard University Blockchain Lab.

“I wouldn’t consider it a hard money because of the economic decisions the core team makes,” Nash said, describing the difference between bitcoin and ether. Bitcoin is digital money, he said, unlike ether.

“But I am fascinated by the other technological aspects [beyond money], like Turing-complete smart contracts,” he added.

As a young Black man without a wealthy background, Nash said he uses DeFi to access “more complex or sophisticated finance [tools],” than he previously could through banks. He acknowledges these are risky software projects and uses them with deliberate caution. That hasn’t dampened the allure.

Scaling diversity

Ethereum was able to outgrow the pop culture affiliations of its predecessor, Bitcoin, and develop a distinct culture where more people feel welcome to participate.

Law professor and Maker Foundation board member Tonya Evans offers another example of a DeFi fan.

“I’m a Black, queer woman in crypto … focused on education and financial inclusion,” she said. “You don’t have to come from a technical background to have a lot to add.”

From her perspective, cryptocurrency projects should “start off with some level of control then work toward decentralization.” She added this may not be the Bitcoin approach, often referred to cheekily as “Satoshi’s Vision.” Although different, she said, Ethereum represents a “good-faith march” toward a similar goal.

“These platforms and protocols aren’t developed in a vacuum, especially those developed for heavily regulated industries like finance and healthcare,” she said, describing Ethereum experiments. “It’s not about a foundation or any one person.”

Indeed, the DeFi industry attracted some of the shrewdest women in the blockchain industry, from Evans to Volt Capital co-founder Soona Amhaz and Optimism co-founder Jinglan Wang. None of these women danced with developers in Japan in 2019. But they may engage with the Ethereum lifestyle brand in other ways, like wearing unicorn swag.

Ethereum chic

It’s impossible to mistake an Ethereum event, which may include dancing or goofy rap performances (like the one at EDCON 2019 in Australia), in addition to unicorn graphics and rainbow or pastel-colored decor.

Attendees often dress with more pizazz than other tech conferences and may be openly inclined to use recreational drugs.

“Like many digital countercultural movements, who have always been anchored in a bohemian and hippie-like ethos, Ethereum is no exception,” said anthropologist Ann Brody, a crypto fan in attendance in Japan during the fifth Devcon.

She compared Ethereum to thought leader Stewart Brand and his Bay Area circles of influence in the 1960s and 1970s. However, the contemporary band of Ethereum thought leaders isn’t yet a “social movement,” Brody said.

“There are also those in the community that treat Ethereum simply as an experiment and that’s why I hesitate to call them a social movement at this time,” Brody said. “I think the dancing in itself speaks so much about Ethereum’s cultural values related to freedom, creative expression, fun, unconventionality, and even the desire for collective unity to some extent.”

TikTok commonalities

After all, the younger generation has a different relationship with brands than those who grew up before social media was omnipresent.

As the New York Times reported, it’s a popular pastime for teenagers to impersonate brands on platforms like TikTok and act out fictional storylines that often include dance moves. Likewise, Ethereans identify themselves with the Ethereum lifestyle brand, acting out the meme of a socially awkward nerd in the form of interpretive dance.

TikTok and Ethereum influencers can motivate thousands of people to download an app, sometimes garnering thousands of dollars in the process.

Ethereum has spawned many subcultures, comparable to how Twitter became a jungle of amorphous social groups like Weird Twitter and Bitcoin Twitter. Yet even Ethereans who never attended a conference use the same iconography, the ether symbol or pink-haired unicorn, often illustrated with rainbows. This visual aesthetic sets it apart from the (generally older or more academic) Bitcoin community.

On the other hand, one tendency crypto fans, Bitcoiners and Ethereans alike, share with teens on TikTok is the preoccupation with identifying “posers” who don’t belong to Elite TikTok or to a chosen crypto “revolution.”

At their core, TikTok, Twitter and Bitcoin are platforms. Ethereum’s tech platform cannot handle comparable volumes yet, but the Ethereum community is motivated to achieve that goal and maybe even become tech unicorns.

“There is something naïve and childlike to these symbols,” Brody said of the “uncorrupted youth” aesthetics in Ethereum. She added that, to some people, the rainbow “world computer” is subconsciously a metaphor for global unification.

Unicorns

Many people believe they can use the wizardry (Ethereans love magical metaphors) of software to fix the failures of previous generations.

“Ethereum is a wonderland, a confusing wonderland for abstractions,” said the Ethereum Foundation’s Zamfir. “It represented a super ambitious decentralization agenda that was very general and took Bitcoin’s ethos to the next level. It was never just about finance.”

Ethereum advocate and journalist Camila Russo said token creator Fabian Vogelsteller used cartoon unicorns in his videos, similar to the small unicorn and rainbow featured on early Devcon conference shirts and decorations, long before the token boom in 2017. Plus, “unicorn” has long been slang for a tech company evaluated at $1 billion. The aspirational unicorn metaphor was already common among young developers. Then, when Buterin was photographed in 2017 wearing unicorn shirts at tech events, Russo said the trend “blew up.”

“This is all in the context of the ETH community being young, millennial developers, where all these internet memes and unicorn images are already popular,” she added.

Years later, the Ethereum Foundation and the Brooklyn-based conglomerate ConsenSys, headed by Ethereum co-founder Joe Lubin, are still busy evangelizing their blockchain. While Lubin’s companies run a considerable chunk of the hardware supporting the DeFi ecosystem, Buterin’s nonprofit donates ether to organizations like the United Nations Children’s Fund. Both companies sponsor a variety of grants and scholarships, and they are rarely short on unicorn swag.

Most of the dozen or so Ethereum co-founders pivoted to their own projects long ago. Those that remain, like Buterin and Lubin, remain consistent.

Vision

One common gripe among Ethereum critics, that the project keeps changing focus, doesn’t hold up if we consider the community’s goal rather than its tools.

Longtime Bitcoin advocate Bruce Fenton said he met Buterin at a conference in Miami back when Ethereum co-founders were just starting to crystalize their idea. In the years to come, Fenton said Lubin’s ConsenSys sponsored many “fun and relaxed” events with unicorn art and hip vendors. He said “hacker commune-style spaces” popped up from Zug to San Francisco, all revolving around similar aesthetics and values.

“I’ve always loved the energy at Ethereum events – lots of excited builders,” Fenton said. “What this ultimately means is democratizing finance. … They don’t need to go beg the establishment for money, they can go directly to the people.”

Token Summit co-founder William Mougayar, author of the “Business of Blockchain,” said the project’s 2020 “brand strategy” is still similar to conversations he had with Ethereum co-founders in 2014.

According to Mougayar’s consultation documents from 2014, the project aimed to be “inclusive,” “empowering” and “visionary” in order to “bring people together from all disciplines for the common goal of something bigger than themselves.”

The Ethereum community has generally followed these principles across a variety of software experiments over the past five years.

via CD flickr
Vitalik Buterin, Peter Kroll and Bruce Fenton in 2015
Source: CoinDesk archives

Roots

Millennials didn’t invent this moralistic and social approach to technology, as historian Benjamin Peters showed in his writings about Soviet tech culture. The Russian-Canadian Buterin said in public interviews he was interested in both socialism and libertarianism, offering a unique cultural mix. Ethereans, including fans of all backgrounds, are now putting their own spins on blockchain technology.

MyEtherWallet co-founder Kosala Hemachandra, who has been involved with the token economy since 2015, now spearheads a team of 18 employees serving at least 300,000 monthly active users, he said.

“Volumes went up nine times since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, starting in February, compared to previous months,” Hemachandra said. “We have way more help requests now than before [2017], which means new users are coming in.”

Bitcoin purists who claim Ethereum is failing aren’t measuring success the same way as Ethereans. Hemachandra said he is confident Eth 2.0, the blockchain’s latest technical overhaul, will launch a usable beacon chain in 2020. Regardless of the current state of the software, Ethereum fans see the experiment as a success. It inspired research and community-building efforts that changed thousands of lives, for better or worse.

ConsenSys alum Andrew Keys said he met Lubin in 2014 and was instrumental in helping create Ethereum’s first cooperation with Microsoft in 2015. In May 2020, he described Ethereum as a “huge success” in its “opening act.”

“It has proven the ability to digitize all assets, automate agreements and empower self-sovereign identity,” Keys said. “We’re still in the first inning, though, and bleeding-edge technology that already garners billions in value takes time to upgrade properly.”

Global reach

Even Ethereum’s critics can’t deny the lifestyle brand went global in 2017.

In addition to dozens of central bank experiments, Ethereum also inspired grassroots education initiatives that draw more emotional nourishment from the founders than financial incentives.

Awosika Israel Ayodeji, an Ethereum advocate in Nigeria since the token boom of 2017, said he’s helped train 150 local developers on how to write Ethereum smart contracts since October 2019. After having an “amazing experience” at the EthCC 3 conference in Europe in March 2020, he returned home feeling confident in his work and supported by the global community.

While Bitcoiners are often individualistic, Ethereans tend to be more collectivist. For Ayodeji, Ethereum is more than a software or even a project. It is a way of thinking.

“The fact that Ethereum allows everyone an [opportunity for] expression is why I personally like Ethereum,” he said. “The image I see of Ethereum is an innovation giving power to groups of people to express and govern themselves.”

Like Evans and Nash, Ayodeji is a token user, including the dai stablecoins minted on MakerDAO.

“I earn in ETH and convert to fiat when I need to spend,” he said. “Ethereum culture for me is decentralization. Although we might still be far from decentralization, as it might still be early, it’s gradually coming along.”

At least in terms of geographic decentralization, the Ethereum community has achieved some degree of diversity. Over in Taiwan, marketing associate Yahsin Huang has been involved with a local Ethereum meetup group since 2016.

“I’m interested in building the next generation of the internet,” she said. For her, getting involved in blockchain projects is “less about investment or career development” and closer to activism.

“I’m more of an idealist, very purpose-driven, believe in the core values, and also strongly believe in the future of the web,” she said.

Likeminded Ethereum Foundation developer Danny Ryan said, from his perspective, “Ethereum is about freedom of choice on the internet.” He added Hemachandra is correct to believe the Eth 2.0 beacon chain will go live this year.

“I’m deeply concerned about the trajectory of technology. … Ethereum might help us disrupt that and push it in the right direction,” Ryan said. “The beacon chain is the core of this new consensus mechanism.”

His coworker Zamfir said Ethereum is also “associated with” a type of discipline or practice beyond coding. Zamfir doesn’t dance, like some of his fellow Ethereans, but even he can’t deny the narrative-shaping power of the moment at Devcon when the lights turned low.

“I still believe that Ethereum, Bitcoin and the blockchain space create an incredible opportunity to do interesting research,” Zamfir said. “I’m more optimistic than ever about what it could be, despite not being optimistic about what it is now.”

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