Where Have All the Crypto Bros Gone?
Molly White, Web3's most visible skeptic, is busy debunking myths about tech before the next bubble
By Tom Cheredar, Fri., March 10, 2023
Cryptocurrency, NFTs, blockchain, and miscellaneous Web3 projects: Expect interest in them all to be in deep decline at this year’s SXSW thanks to an extended crypto winter that evaporated trillions of dollars from investors large and small, destroyed companies overnight, and even altered the name of an NBA stadium. This means, yes, you’re unlikely to suffer through a calamity of polite conversations about somebody’s Web3 platform that’ll revolutionize things like cheese, dog walking, and Doja Cat high fashion.
The air of smugness about the future of Web3 has not, however, disappeared. It’s just shifted to the skeptics, while the rest of the tech world trades its blockchain obsession for artificial intelligence. This is the natural progression of the tech industry, according to SXSW featured speaker and software engineer-turned-Web3 critic Molly White.
“More than anything, Web3 was one of the periodic hype bubbles that we see in tech. And like so many of them, the tech world just moves on very quickly to the next big thing,” White said, adding that the cratering of crypto prices really curbed enthusiasm in the sector. “So if you look at this year’s schedule, there’s not so much crypto/NFT/Web3 compared to last year, but there are a lot of AI types of things.”
White’s website and Twitter feed, Web3 Is Going Just Great, has gained much attention throughout the last year by highlighting massive failures in blockchain technology when much of the news media landscape was dominated by only its successes and transformative potential.
“My views toward crypto/Web3 are reflective of broader views I hold around the tech industry,” she said. “I think the mythmaking and hype cycles that society goes through are not good. But it is useful to have someone who is questioning the usefulness or the ethics of technology.”
Launched in late 2021, the site’s design is playfully colorful, with 8-bit elements and even a (clearly fungible) Bored Ape image in the top banner. Her frequent posts offer plenty of commentary about security failures leading to crypto theft, exchanges shutting down, and celebrities being sued for promoting what amounted to a giant pyramid scheme (among other things). But unlike a traditional news site, it does an incredible job of accumulating the negative impacts of Web3 – tracking overall financial losses with a running dollar total in the bottom-right corner and offering a timeline of embarrassing fails sorted by category and “leadership.” It makes it hard to ignore reality, as it isn’t concerned with serving you related links to stories with “gotcha” headlines optimized more for engagement than ethical authority.
“A lot of the headlines for Web3 were about how this was going to replace the whole financial system or completely oust most big tech companies ... that individual people were going to become millionaires overnight,” White explained. “Even if at the end of the article it mentions it’s also a very risky investment and you might lose all your money, it’s [still dangerous because] people don’t get that far. It really shapes the public perception quite dramatically.”
The tech news media, she said, has a tendency to be positive, excited, and hopeful in its coverage of emerging technologies, obscuring critical perspectives in the process. The crypto market downturn and FTX cryptocurrency exchange collapsing did force more critical reporting, but White said she’s still seeing plenty of fraud and enough interest to keep her posting to the website well into the future. Investments in Web3 companies haven’t dried up entirely, either. A sizable 894 startups (excluding virtual reality/Metaverse) are expected to receive funding in 2023, just 67% of the total funded the previous year (1,328), according to Web3-focused data intelligence platform EdgeIn.
White does think there are plenty of lessons to learn for the next big tech hype bubble as well as the responsibilities of technologists and journalists, which is the focus of her SXSW session, Popping the Web3 Bubble. “We’re seeing that same thing play out in AI already that we saw with Web3: The tech was described as this mythical, magical invention that was going to revolutionize the world. And when you actually look at [blockchain], it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s kind of just a database, except it’s slower,’” White said. “If you look at a lot of these ‘AI tools,’ it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s just a large language model.’” In other words, those AI tools like ChatGPT that college students are using to write their literature papers are essentially autocorrect on steroids, complete with their own sets of ducking problems.
While the issues with Web3 don’t parallel exactly with the emerging AI hype bubble, there’s absolutely a need for more projects like hers to toss cold water on the industry for the good of everyone. White argued that journalists need to learn lessons from the failures of earlier coverage. “Just understanding how the technology actually works versus how it is perceived to work, or how it is said to work by people with vested interest, is critical.”
Molly White at SXSW
Popping the Web3 Bubble
Tue 14, 10am, Convention Center, Room 16AB