Stop chasing degens

If recent history is any gauge, most teams still opt for the “sugar high” of short-term degen adoption over pursuit of more sustainable users

OPINION
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Artwork by Crystal Le

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Blockchains as we know them have been around now for over 15 years.

Yet, the applications for interacting with them are still stubbornly hard for the average person to use, despite the many brilliant minds in the industry. This has been a problem for so long that the way we talk about it has become a cliché.

Product teams don’t make the time to think more about mainstream users.

They forget lean-startup principles and their prescribed conversations with actual customers.

They don’t invest the time to convey highly technical details in terms that the general, non-technical populace can understand.

They allow features possibly required for mass adoption — like multi-party computation (MPC) — to languish perennially over the horizon of their roadmaps.

They fail to deliver an end-to-end lifecycle experience that new users can complete in minutes, not hours or days.

These points are all true, but it’s easy to mistake effect for causality. One might hope that incentives would drive product teams to deliver a substantially better product for an emerging market of mainstream users (helping crypto truly “cross the chasm”). 

Instead, they’re driving teams to fight continually over market share among the earliest adopters — the so-called “degens,” who are willing to ape into any new protocol with the most minimum of minimal viable product.

What’s going on here? Why can’t we do better?

Across the retail market, it comes down to one simple fact: The “casino” side of crypto has become too big, trapping teams in short-term ways of thinking with customers who are happy to churn on a moment’s notice.

There’s this elephant in the room. Many of us joined the crypto industry (and specifically the Bitcoin ecosystem) to work on its long-term values and ideals. We were attracted by the society-preserving need for decentralized money and applications that could replace the persistent dominance of Web 2.0 and fiat. This is a mission that takes years of building out use cases with customers who demand long-term security, wealth accumulation and brand trust.

However, many early adopters have now amassed merely to play the speculative game with crypto’s volatile — yet seemingly predictable — market cycles. This makes it easier for teams to aim for those easy wins serving a hyper-short-team market of chain-agnostic degens, with little regard for building anything that can last longer than the latest hype cycle.

It’s very tempting to conclude this is all fine and natural (if not necessary) for pushing crypto along the adoption curve. And that’s true to some extent, since hype helps inject new waves of capital and attention and keep the “rags to riches” narrative of crypto alive.

However, having worked on crypto-related products now for six years, I can say confidently that it also has a toxic effect on the quality of product and market productivity. I fear it cancels out the positive benefits of pursuing degens as a beachhead market.

Chasing degens doesn’t build a better product

Crypto teams are essentially pushed (or push themselves) to ship half-baked features in support of new, half-baked protocols, tokens and NFTs in hopes of capturing a wave of degens. 

Since these degens value acquisition speed above all else, they must be given the fastest, most janky solution — or they’ll leave for the competition.

Read more from our opinion section: Don’t let bitcoin be defined by its price

Teams that follow this playbook find themselves with very impatient user bases that insist on further, faster growth (with little need for deeper improvements), since they’ve already learned to deal with glitches and confusion as part of their investment strategy. As a plus for these degens, the prevalence of confusing and glitchy products helps keep normies out of the rawest of price opportunities. 

We saw this dynamic writ large over the past year in the Bitcoin ecosystem with Ordinals, Stamps and related meta-protocols. A flood of (mostly pre-existing) Web3 developers and users (re)discovered the possibility of minting, buying and trading an infinite range of fungible and non-fungible tokens on Bitcoin as a base layer.

It was amazing to see a revival of interest in Bitcoin as a layer for Web3, something those of us who’ve been working around Bitcoin as a Web3 primitive for years now have certainly appreciated.

However, the teams working in this space — myself included — tripped over themselves to deliver new, lightning-fast protocol support, leading to a whole host of issues. This was exacerbated by the relatively high complexity of building Web3 on Bitcoin, a blockchain simultaneously renowned and loathed for both its simplicity and complexity.

Solving the Bitcoin problem

Bitcoin’s simplicity (lack of smart contracts) has meant the pushing of much “contract-like” logic to off-chain indexers and emerging API providers, which aren’t without their standardization and reliability problems.

This complexity has meant the juggling of advanced power user needs with basic ones, often with mixed success. It’s also worsened the need for human-readable explanations, which teams aren’t willing to produce given the time pressure.

With time, my hope is that the downsides of Bitcoin’s simplicity and complexity can be addressed with thorough design improvements on the client, infrastructure and protocol sides. 

However, those of us working on these layers need to make that time, since it won’t make itself. And sadly, if recent history is any gauge, most teams will opt for the “sugar high” of short-term degen adoption over pursuit of more sustainable users.

While it’s fun watching the next Bitcoin-backed mooncoin or artist collection come out of nowhere, focus must be more on long-term value. I encourage my peers in the Bitcoin ecosystem (and the crypto industry more widely) to have the sort of conversations necessary with their investors and teams to create an environment in which longer-term thinking and design is rewarded over short-term hype. 

Only then, I believe, will we see our industry raise the bar and cross the chasm with millions, then billions, of retained users.



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