The Endless Thread team is excited to introduce a new mini-series: Tales from the Crypto, or three windows into the wild world of cryptocurrency. It’s a landscape ripe for investors, gamblers, opportunists, and academic investigators — both online and offline. At every turn, our hosts and producers have turned to experts to make sense of this volatile, ever expanding terrain.
In the series’ first installment, co-hosts Ben Brock Johnson and Amory Sivertson dive into a viral tweet about NFTs aiding Ukrainians with the war effort against Russia, as well as plans for a crypto island paradise that was never meant to be.
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This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Ben Brock Johnson: Where were you on the morning of February 27th, 2022?
Amory Sivertson: (Laughs.)
Jathan Sadowski: (Laughs.) This is a great deposition now.
Amory: Ben and I are grilling a guy named Jathan Sadowski.
I have reason to believe that you were on Twitter.
Jathan: I was making a tweet that soon made a lot of people really mad at me is what I was doing.
Ben: Ah yes, the thrill of kickstarting the social media outrage machine. Like the Mad Hatter’s first cup of tea in the morning. Loki — God of mischief — swingin’ his legs out of bed.
Amory: And on what topic was Jathan about to tweet and live in infamy for? Not his opinion on the new Amazon Lord of the Rings TV series or making guacamole with peas. Don’t do that, guys. Not The Dress. No. Jathan was about to tweet about the most popular topic in Elon Musk’s tweet replies.
Ben: You guessed it. Crypto.
Jathan: Instead of selling war bonds, Ukraine has a golden opportunity to mint NFTs of unique and important moments in the conflict. Selling these NFTs will fund defense while generating community. World War III will be Web3 native. The winner will embrace the power of decentralized networks.
Ben: You can probably divide the people who read and heard Jathan’s tweet into two categories: people who understand terms like NFT and Web3 native and decentralized networks. And people like Amory.
Amory: (Laughs.) You know, that’s fair. But not anymore. I’m an expert. No, I’m not an expert. I’m crawling my way towards competency now.
Ben: (Laughs.) Yeah, me too. Sort of? Experts and non-experts on the various vagaries of cryptocurrency seemed to equally love Jathan’s comment about using crypto to support Ukraine though.
Amory: Because his tweet reached the stratosphere.
Jathan: And at some point, this tweet escaped my own kind of, you know, my own part of Twitter where people know who I am. And it got picked up by some really big accounts in particular, some really big YouTubers with like hundreds of thousands of followers.
Amory: And this is where the problems started. Because Jathan was kidding.
Ben: Totally kidding. He didn’t — and doesn’t — actually think that cryptocurrency — or the many technologies that the concept of digital currency has birthed — should really be involved in wars. In fact?
Amory: So I want to do a little word association. When I say cryptocurrency, you say…
Amory: I’m NFT Sivertson. Oh, do I really want to say that?
Ben: Yeah! Yeah!
Amory: What does that make you?
Ben: I’m Bitcoin Johnson. And you’re listening to Endless Thread.
Amory: We’re coming to you from WBUR, Boston’s NPR Station.
And for the next few weeks, we’re bringing you a few key stories on that big hairy, volatile, topic of crypto.
Ben: Will we tell you how to invest in crypto?
Amory: Definitely not.
Ben: Is this a definitive guide to crypto?
Amory: No. No, no, no, no.
Ben: But it is three different windows into just how weird and wild things are getting in the cryptoverse. What will we call our miniseries?
Amory: The Bitcoin Blues?
Ben: The Dao Te…Ch-Ching?
Amory: Block…chain party?
Ben: How about…Tales from the Crypto!
Amory: Today’s episode: Crypto Crazy. Just how hard it is right now to separate the concept from the hype.
So, Cryptocurrency is a massive topic. It’s also a highly technical, complex mathematical, mind-bendingly hard to explain technology.
Ben: Which is actually part of why Jathan was one of the first people we reached out to.
Jathan: I’m Jathan Sadowski. I’m a senior research fellow in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University. I’m currently living in Melbourne, Australia, but I am from Mississippi in the United States.
Ben: Senior research fellow, emerging technologies lab…what does that mean?
Jathan: I’m very interested in trying to understand new technologies, you know, not just in the sense that they emerged from nowhere, but really paying attention to those questions of why are new technologies being created? Who’s behind that creation? Right? And then, you know, try to then understand what are their larger implications for our society and how we live our lives.
Amory: See? Great guy to talk to about crypto. Because If you’re like us, you’re probably a little bewildered trying to follow the news.
Anchor 1: The sex industry is turning to crypto.
Anchor 2: Talking about the falling prices for Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs that have been dominating the market.
Anchor 3: Joining us now to talk about whether these headlines are indicating if we’re emerging from the crypto winter.
Announcer 1: I want to give you this video because some people are lying to you about what’s happening in the market right now.
Announcer 2: Crypto Kitties is a blockchain-based game that runs on Ethereum.
Woman 1: I’m a shake my ass if you get over here to shake my ass.
Man 1: It’s your NFT.
Woman 1: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
(Cat meow sound.)]
Ben: He didn’t know it, but Jathan, a guy doing research and sometimes tweeting inside jokes about that research, was about to become a part of the news. Step one: make a joke that both crypto enthusiasts and converts will retweet without knowing it’s satire, and your friends will retweet because it’s satire, and others will ask if you’re okay.
Jathan: I hit the tone in such a way where there even was a little bit of doubt. I know. And some, some people who have followed me for a very long time, and they were like, please say psych please, please say please say this is a joke.
Amory: Step two: watch as your tweet goes so viral, people start begging you to reconsider your idea.
Jathan: In other words, like, you know, won’t this thing into existence don’t materialize into existence by making a joke about it?
Ben: Step three? Oh no.
Jathan: And then a few days later, I happened to see, um, the Financial Times had a headline that says, “Ukraine plans to issue NFT collection to fund armed forces. Kiev moves further in embracing digital assets to raise money for the war.” When I saw this headline, I did take a screenshot of my original post and a screenshot of the Financial Times headline, and I put them side by side and I just said, Well, what can I say? I’m very sorry and take full responsibility.
Amory: A reminder for us all this is a show about the blurred lines between online communities and the real world. And a reminder that cynicism and satire aside raising money to resist Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a completely understandable response.
Jathan: I cannot blame anybody in Ukraine for using the tools at their disposal to generate a lot of money and donations from nothing.
Ben: But for the most part, Jathan says his research tells him that the kind of money floating around the growing crypto universe isn’t going to help Ukraine resist the Russian invasion. Or some other cause that most would agree is a “good cause.” It’s more about general speculation.
Amory: In other words, sure. The Ukraine thing might actually help raise money to fight the war. But your average example of investing in crypto currency isn’t about saving lives. More often it’s about getting involved in a scheme.
Ben: That can be a good scheme. Or it can be something Jathan thinks more and more about.
Jathan: There’s this theory called the theory of Greater Fools. Right. And it’s this idea that if I buy this thing for $10,000, this NFT for $10,000, then there’s going to be a greater fool down the line. He’s going to buy it off of me for $12,000, and then they’re going to find somebody to buy it for $15,000. And it just goes on and on. I mean, that’s not a really solid way to base an economy.
Amory: Okay, time out. We almost need a crypto glossary here. NFTs? Web3? Blockchain? Woof.
Ben: Woof is not a crypto term.
Amory: You know what I mean. Woof to all of this!
Ben: Yeah. And honestly a glossary is a good idea. Or at least a good explanation of the foundational principles here. Before we get too deep into Elon Musk’s crypto bot Twitter mentions.
Amory: Oh please, spare us from traversing that section of the internet. Let’s stick closer to home for WBUR. Let’s hear from Neha Narula.
Neha Narula: I’m the director of the Digital Currency Initiative, which is based out of the Media Lab at MIT and I’m in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Ben: Neha is maybe a tad less skeptical than Jathan. Or at least in a different academic zone.
Neha: The Digital Currency Initiative is a group of software developers, cryptographers, researchers and we work on the technology behind digital currencies.
Amory: Neha is doing this work for a simple reason.
Neha: Money makes the world go round. Our economy, our financial systems, you know, people make decisions on where to live, on who to marry, on what to spend their lives doing based on money. And you know, I just realized it was really powerful. And I’d always thought up until that point that technology was one of the most powerful levers we had to change the world. And I realized, you know, in the course of going down the rabbit hole, that actually wow money is also very powerful, and the combination of money and technology is extremely powerful.
Ben: That last bit Jathan can probably agree with. Okay. Here it comes folks. The essential, the obligatory, the thing us public radio journalists love to do, or get over and over, because in point of fact we all continue to need it. An answer to the question: what is a crypto currency?
Neha: Cryptocurrency is a string of bits on millions of computers around the world that let you change those bits in some ways. That’s it.
Amory: Is that it?
Neha: Some people call it a Ponzi scheme. It is something that only has value if, people believes it has value, but that’s true of a lot of things in the world. Actually, it’s not unique to cryptocurrencies.
Ben: Also true of gold.
Neha: Yeah. Yeah.
Amory: And the housing market.
Ben: And sandwiches.
Amory: Ben I’m not sure how you got to sandwiches but that statement seemed to suggest to Neha that she needed to take another swing at it.
Neha: It’s a network of computers around the world that are running software, and the software is keeping an accounting of a currency and people can move that currency around. And the thing that’s really unique here is that there is no government, there is no bank. There is no backing. It’s just this network of computers that are being run by humans around the world. So it’s this way of people coming together in a network to agree on the accounting behind a new currency, a new accounting system, a new ledger.
Ben: We should say that cryptocurrency and the technologies around it is really an idea that has been in our minds for a long time. This idea of digital credits. Computer money. Whatever you want to call it.
Qui-Gon Jinn: I have 20 thousand Republic daktaris.
Watto: Republic credits? Republic credits are no good out here, I need something more real.
Qui-Gon: I don’t have anything else but credits will do fine.
Watto: No, they won’t.
Qui-Gon: Credits will do fine.
Watto: No, they won’t!]
Ben: Jedi mind tricks don’t always work. Though, it can feel like this is a Jedi mind trick. In the case of crypto, it feels like this is already a thing that has been really established for a long time.
Amory: But unless you’re talking about the process of getting your credit card information onto the internet so you can use it or hackers can steal it, et cetera. For many decades, digital currency was just more of a longtime sci-fi dream.
Neha: And then in 2008, this post appeared on this mailing list by someone who went by the moniker Satoshi Nakamoto. And we don’t know who Satoshi Nakamoto is. We don’t know if it’s a he or she or they. But Satoshi posted on this list for an idea that they had for a new type of currency called Bitcoin and Bitcoin was really interesting because it brought together all of these ideas from e-cash and from other areas actually in computer science and computer systems. But they’ve never really been put together in this way before.
Ben: This was the origin of Bitcoin. Which took this idea of digital cash and combined it with complicated math to create a finite digital currency resource. One that had to be mined. Just like silver or gold. With computing power. At this stage of the game most of us are familiar with this part of the idea. Though the fact that we still don’t know the inventor of bitcoin is concerning to me.
Amory: Same. But the early days of bitcoin were also a bit sleepy. I mean, what can you do with an invented currency that only exists in the form of, as Neha described it, computer bits?
Neha: But then what happened was in, I think it was 2010 or 2012. This guy posted on Reddit that he wanted to actually buy something with Bitcoin.
Amory: Reddit. We try to get out but it pulls us back in, man. Every time.
Ben: (Laughs.) Truth. Every night I have to be like that’s enough interneting for me today. But yes. Neha says the first real transaction in Bitcoin happened basically on Reddit. Can you guess what was bought and sold with Bitcoin?
Amory: The first person to tweet your correct guess at us, that’s at Endless Underscore Thread, we will send you some of the correct answer. Seriously. Tweet at us and we’ll send you some of the first non-Bitcoin commodity bought via Bitcoin.
Ben: Anyway, it took off. And pretty soon there were other currencies based off of the same technology. Ethereum. Dogecoin.
Neha: And all of a sudden people started creating copies of Bitcoin. (Laughs.) So there were a lot of copies out there. And of course, there’s a financial incentive to do this because if you create a copy and you mine a bunch of the coin by yourself first, then you have a bunch of the coin. And if you can convince people that it’s going to be worth something like it’s the new Bitcoin, then the price goes up and then you’ve just made a ton of money. So this happened over and over and over and over again. There are hundreds and if not thousands of copies of Bitcoin.
Amory: Suddenly I’m reminded of Jathan’s reference to the Greater Fools theory.
Ben: Yeah, but it’s also true that there’s been this explosion of technologies from this. And like most technologies, they can be used for dumb stuff. But also potentially for smart stuff. That’s why people are excited for instance about not just bitcoin. But also NFTs.
Neha: Nonfungible tokens are very different. They’re, you’re trying to create a digital token that is not totally interchangeable. It’s actually unique. It’s something, it’s something sort of special.
Amory: The best thing I think we’ve heard about NFTs to explain what they are is that they’re like POGs. Remember POGs? Or Baseball cards. Tradeable, unique, digital items. It can help artists get paid and separate people from their money.
Ben: NFTs are tradeable, unique, digital items. It can help artists get paid. And also…separate people from their money. Gotta take the good with the bad.
Amory: Do you though?
Do you see crypto currency as being the future of money, the future of the economy? Like, how far does this go?
Ben: The future of everything Amory.
Amory: Well, that’s what I need to know, because I am not. I have zero interest in. I’m interested in crypto, like for the purposes of understanding more about what it is, how people are using it. But my interest in crypto is like, Do I need to be interested in crypto? Is this, am I going to have to? Do I need to like get rid of, not that I have a bag of cash, but you know, do I, do I need to get on the crypto train?
Neha: Yeah, do you need to get on the crypto train? So, if you’d asked, if you’d asked me that question a couple of years ago, I would have said, I don’t know, it could go either way. You know, maybe this becomes something. Maybe it doesn’t. Probably you should learn a little about it, you know? Keep, keep, keep up with it. Learn what’s going on. Figure out if it makes sense for you or not. But now I think, yeah, this is, this is, this train is not stopping. This train is accelerating. This train is starting to infiltrate everything.
Ben: She’s right. Anyone watching the last Superbowl saw all those crypto commercials.
Actress: We’re putting a man on the moon.
Larry David: Are you out of your mind? I can’t even get tuna without celery! No one’s going to the moon…ever!
Actor: Like I said, it’s FTX. It’s a safe and easy way to get into crypto.
Larry: I don’t think so. And I’m never wrong about this stuff. Ever.]
NFTs have been all over Twitter. And Neha says crypto is being used everywhere from microloans to privacy protection online.
Neha: One thing I think that cryptocurrency is doing, which is really valuable, is sort of reshaping the dialogue around internet platforms and our data and privacy and data portability and data ownership. So I think that’s really interesting.
Amory: Which is maybe good because there have been so many stories of people losing life savings after investing money in crypto and then getting hacked. Or the third party services they use getting hacked. These stories are everywhere. Still. Neha says…
Neha: It’s possible for something to be under hyped and overhyped at the same time.
Ben: One of the best examples of the latter. Maybe. Is the weirdest, truly weirdest thing I’ve seen on late night TV recently, on The Tonight Show with Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon.
Amory: Where they were talking about selling NFT Bored Apes, which is a collection of images of apes, which have been minted as custom NFTs and an NFT of a collage she made?
Paris Hilton: Well, If you love it so much I want to give you the first one.
Jimmy Fallon: I would be honored.
Paris: And I want to give one to everyone in the audience…
Jimmy: Everyone gets an NFT?! What!? Come on. I think this is the first NFT giveaway in the history of television! We love you!]
Ben: If you think a commercial for digital images in the content of a late night show in which both the host and the guest are basically hawking crypto technology is weird…
Amory: It sure is. Which is how we get to a thing that went so, so sideways.
Ryan Broderick: But every, every version of the Internet has had the like, Internet Weirdo Island, like the Redditor community has tried to buy their own island several times. Fyre Festival is kind of a version of this where it was like, what if influencers had their own island? And we know how that ended.
Ben: Crypto’s version of Fyre Fest, in a minute.
Amory: Okay. For this next bit, we’re going to go to Tales From The Crypto Part One, guest three.
Ryan Broderick: My name is Ryan Broderick. I publish a newsletter about web culture and technology called Garbage Day, and I produce a podcast called The Content Minds, which is also about web culture and technology.
Ben: Ryan’s a friend of the pod. He’s been on before. And he’s deep into the world of crypto. He’s got lots of examples. Good examples and…yikes.
Ryan: I did see a dating app only for NFT owners the other day, so that’s, that’s about as grim as you can get, I think.
Ben: I think that there’s going to be you’re optimistic one.
Ryan: Well, I’ve joined it. And now I’m very excited to be there.
Amory: When I say cryptocurrency, what springs to mind?
Amory: And this is how we get to Cryptoland. But before we maroon ourselves on that island. Another glossary term. DAO. Decentralized Autonomous Organization
Ryan: And the way it works is think of a typical corporate structure of a company or a startup. But imagine if that existed on a chat program like Discord. And instead of buying shares of a company, you bought what are called tokens, which are little blockchain pieces of code that represent an ownership stake. And so DAO or a DAO can start with a crazy idea. And as long as you get a bunch of people to buy in via tokens which they can share and sell among themselves, you can you can raise a lot of money really fast.
Ben: An example of a DAO from earlier this year appeared mysteriously and at light speed. And it was for this thing called Cryptoland. And the story of its meteoric rise and fall is quite a yarn.
Ben: Can we sit at your feet cross-legged while you tell us the story of Cryptoland?
Ryan: So Cryptoland was a… a great idea. (Laughs.) No…
Ben: A very long time ago, far, far away.
Ryan: Cryptoland was a very bad idea, organized by a small group of Web3 developers. They decided that they were going to sell essentially timeshares on an island that they did not own yet in Fiji. They put together this lofty prospectus and advertised different crypto themed real estate opportunities that people could buy into.
Amory: Now. The way these Web3 developers. Wait. Web3…
Ben: Supposedly the next version of the world wide web. We’re in Web2 right now. And people say that Web3 is a decentralized version of the web, powered by all of these cool technologies created around cryptocurrency.
Amory: Right, right, right. Okay, so these Web3 developers created a DAO. Decentralized Autonomous Organization. And that organization was going to buy an island in Fiji.
Ryan: And when I was like, I was looking into it and I was blown away by was that there are multiple versions of this same project, all in different states of failure, which I think is amazing.
Ben: I mean, it is a tale of as old as time, right? In a way. It’s like: I and my friends would like to buy an island where that is going to be awesome because we’re awesome and we’re going to make it awesome and it’s going to be great. Right?
Ben: I feel like I have made that plan before. It was probably when I was like 11.
Ben: But this idea got really far along.
There was also a marketing video, which was one of talk about creating Internet cringe like, yeah.
Ryan: That was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. That was I mean, there are a lot of bad videos on the Internet, but this one had a talking Bitcoin walking around…
“Sir, welcome to Cryptoland!”]
…and it was animated and it was all about I mean, it just it just showed like a really grim, a really grim view of life. Like, imagine if you lived in a tech convention, 24/7. That’s kind of what it looked like.
Amory: I mean, it was grim. But it was also just weird? Tech conference feels right. But also, video game?
Ben: You know when they’re doing a tour of the self-contained theme park facilities in various Jurassic Park movies and you get this feeling that something is definitely, seriously, wrong? It was kind of like that.
[Cryptoland video audio:
“All the other King Cryptolanders have been arriving from all corners of the world. When we get to the Blockchain Hills, you’ll understand what we mean by first class crypto lifestyle, man!”]
Ben: Cryptoland was supposedly the brainchild of two enthusiasts: Max Oliver and Helena Lopez. The project manager supposedly represented the interests of a hotel group.
Amory: The video promised 60 exclusive plots of land in the Blockchain Hills that could be bought with NFTs. There was a Vladimir Club, which is a reference to an online user from crypto legend who bought enough bitcoin to become a millionaire a hundred times over. It was billed as a place for crypto heads, built by crypto heads. With beaches, 360-degree views of the island, and ocean, and an economy totally run with crypto.
Ben: Crypto was everywhere. As was the cringe.
Amory: There’s a weird, like, re-imagining of a song from Grease in there. You guys remember that part?
Ryan: I still don’t understand why that happened like that. All musicals. Was it Grease? I just don’t get it.
[Cryptoland video audio, in the tune of “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease:
“I don’t want to leave. I feel like it all. Crypto is in my chromosomes!”]
Amory: You might miss the mark on your marketing video. But this was for devotees of new technologies that are generating millions of dollars in digital currency. So, it’s got to take a little more than that to take out the concept of CryptoLand, the cryptocurrency utopian island of Fiji.
Ben: True. And remember when Ryan word-associated bitcoin with Libertarians? Well, one of the things about crypto that continues to be complicated is that digital currencies and their surrounding technologies can be associated with politics that might feel a little fringe. You know how people sometimes talk about how communism is great in theory but terrible in practice? Well, crypto enthusiasts can often fall into this civil libertarian spot on the political spectrum. Or even anarchists. And there are some areas where those kinds of political ideas do not have great answers.
Ryan: Things started to spin out of control when a Twitter troll found out about it and he tweeted at the Twitter account for Cryptoland and asked them what the age of consent laws would be on the island, which is a common internet troll for any sort of libertarian leaning communities. If you really want to destabilize a bunch of free market enthusiasts, a bunch of men who don’t want to be told what to do by the government, you can ask them what they think age of consent law should be in their fictitious libertarian paradise. And this had the exact exact effect on Cryptoland. The Twitter account tweeted something to the effect that their…they wouldn’t discriminate in terms of age, with like a winky face. It was later explained that the person running the Twitter account didn’t speak English as a first language and didn’t totally understand what they were answering.
Ben: Whether or not that was a valid excuse, the community that had sprung up around Cryptoland devolved into a shouting match between people who were horrified at the suggestion that there would be no age of consent and people who those on principal wondered why there should be on their free market liberatrian crypto island.
Amory: Cryptoland went the same way as that very unsuccessful influencer festival, Fyre Fest. It turned into a bit of a dumpster fire. The island, which was priced at 12 million dollars? Still for sale.
Ryan: It’s actually kind of a bummer because I do think that like, cryptocurrency, Web3, blockchain. All this stuff isn’t perfect. No technology is perfect. But it is interesting and I’ve spoken to a lot of developers who have said, like, I really wish I could actually mess around with this stuff because it would be fun. But the social capital that you lose by publicly engaging with Web3, with blockchain, with crypto is just, is just too much. It’s so polarizing.
Ben: For Neha, this kind of thing is unfortunately just going to happen in the topsy turvy world of crypto.
Neha: People will get taken advantage of. There will be a lot of scams and I’m really at this point, I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone could do anything to stop it. But you know, there are probably people who will invest money that they can’t afford to lose in cryptocurrencies. And they will lose a lot of money because it’s, it’s very risky. That said, I’ve only seen use of this technology grow, it’s just, it’s not worth betting against the rise of technology.
Ben: And that’s why a lot of people are betting on the rise of this technology. Small fish, big fish, schools of fish. They’re swallowing, hook line and sinker.
Amory: And even though people like Ryan Broderick are detailing a host of failures of groups of crypto enthusiasts to get their own private crypto utopian islands, people are also finding real world examples of where this mentality is taking hold in a big way. From the little players…
Alex Gladstein: You gotta think about the jobs this is bringing. I mean, it’s like a, a gentrification on steroids type thing.
To the big ones…
President Nayib Bukele: I will send a bill to Congress that will make Bitcoin a legal tender in El Salvador.
That’s next week on Tales from the Crypto.
Amory: Endless Thread is a production of WBUR in Boston.
Ben: Want early tickets to events, swag, bonus content? The coordinates of my crypto island, a picture of Amory’s bored ape? Join our email list! You’ll find it at wbur.org/endlessthread. This episode was written by yours truly, Ben Brock Johnson…
Amory: …and Co-produced and co-hosted by me, Amory Sivertson.
Ben: Editing help from Jeb Sharpe and the rest of the team: Dean Russell, Nora Saks, Quincy Walters, Grace Tatter. Our web producer is Megan Cattel. Mix and sound design by the illustrious Paul Vaitkus.
Amory: Endless Thread is a show about the blurred lines between digital communities and tweeting war funding propositions from the blockchain hills. If you’ve got an untold history, an unsolved mystery, or a wild story from the internet that you want us to tell, hit us up. Email Endless Thread at WBUR dot ORG.