Gambling on the Titanic sub sucks, but leave moral outrage in Web2

The Titanic sub prediction market is an iteration of a tired debate about free speech and censorship — let’s move on


Fer Gregory/Shutterstock modified by Blockworks


They say crypto traders are mentally unstable degenerate gamblers. Nihilists profiteering from others’ misfortune in a sadistic zero-sum game, providing no value to society.

So, when you hear that Polymarket, the blockchain prediction market (read: Web3 bookie), facilitated bets on whether the lost Titanic-hunting sub would be found before its oxygen runs out — it sounds about right.

Decentralized prediction markets (DPMs) like Polychain were some of the earliest smart contract use cases. Augur was the first on Ethereum, having crowdfunded about one year after the blockchain launched in 2014.

These platforms are a little bit like bitcoin ATMs when it comes to capturing mainstream attention. Physical cash machines are a widely understood concept, and so is betting on world events like the SuperBowl or US presidential races.

The idea of a seedy crypto gambling den easily translates. DPMs are pretty much that, except the den is the Ethereum blockchain and nobody runs that, so the cops can’t shut it down (or the morality police).

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When Twitter found out, some onlookers hated the idea.

These platforms let users open prediction markets about any topic whatsoever, with no permission necessary. Smart contracts maintain the odds and settle bets, in cryptocurrency, with no dodgy middlemen and most importantly — no censorship.

Like all interesting software, Augur’s limits were quickly tested after its launch in 2018 — by very dramatic assassination markets

One minute, you’re cheekily betting that the queen would live until 2025. The next, you’ve essentially put out a hit on a royal family member — someone could take the opposite side, kill them, and win the bet. 

In that case, your bet would be the bounty (alongside anyone else’s that believed the queen would live). 

Resourceful assassins could even, hypothetically, trawl prediction markets for celebrities with loads of cash and bet on their life expectancy with a mind to cut those lives short — and then take all the ETH. Donald Trump, Warren Buffett and Jeff Bezos have all had their own life/death prediction markets on Augur.

Augur has never inspired any real-life assassinations, but Polymarket’s Titanic sub market is a 2023 iteration of the same scenario, just on Polygon. Crypto edgelords betting on whether people would die.

Because these bets take place on apps such as Polymarket and Augur that serve as conduits for blockchain activity, censorship of betting terms is a very tricky subject. 

These platforms are commonly known as “decentralized apps,” as their associated smart contracts exist on chain, but they still rely on centralized front-end apps often maintained by a company or software studio. Without these apps, users would need to code their own so-called “raw” transactions to be added to the blockchain. 

But while the apps themselves are censorable — Polymarket developers really could figure out ways to censor its app for any input involving “death,” or “die” or “live,” just like Augur could’ve done — those efforts would surely go to waste due to the stubborn ingenuity of the internet.

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As Nic Carter pointed out in 2017, any human activity can be an assassination market — technically

And you can also always code prediction markets yourself, bypassing the app altogether. Once the associated smart contracts deploy to Ethereum, they can’t be censored (unless the chain was rolled back, however unlikely it may be).

Rather than opine on the morality of such betting activities — especially as one alternative is to codify moral absolutism on the blockchain, a whole other can of worms — it’s better to stress that absurd prediction markets like these are features, not bugs, of a decentralized Web3. 

At risk of “free speech” cliches, it’s a waste of time to fixate on all the deplorable ways decentralized tech can be used, especially for those even remotely interested in supporting the concept of permissionless systems. If you can censor prediction markets, you can censor the money, rendering this whole crazy endeavor entirely moot.

The Polymarket backlash shows a demand for censorship at the app level which almost completely nullifies the promise and benefits of these protocols. 

Censoring apps of any kind — be they gambling, social media or Ponzi game — for activity we don’t like is a very Web2 solution to a Web3 “problem” that can’t be solved.

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