A Crypto Community ‘Cancels’ One of Its Own

A Crypto Community ‘Cancels’ One of Its Own
Graphic: Gizmodo

For years, crypto stans have maintained that the blockchain is a powerful tool to fight censorship. You can find any number of op-eds arguing that the immutable nature of the ledger protects free speech, and, relevantly, Bitcoin bros have often deemed it a haven from political correctness — a place where “cancel culture” does not functionally exist. But, it turns out Web2 and Web3 have more in common than some may have thought.

A crypto DAO, the Ethereum Name Service (ENS), recently booted or, to use another phrase, “cancelled” its former director of operations, Brantly Millegan, over a tweet he made some five years ago. Millegan has played a pivotal role at the DAO since it launched last year, but he is also a self-avowed Catholic and tweeted some statements in 2016 which, needless to say, haven’t gone over too well in certain quarters of ENS coin’s investors:

Screenshot of the homophobic tweet that prompted the controversy. (Screenshot: Lucas Ropek/Twitter)Screenshot of the homophobic tweet that prompted the controversy. (Screenshot: Lucas Ropek/Twitter)

The unearthing of the tweet and the subsequent scandal led to something that many in the crypto community have oft claimed was impossible: the “cancelling” — i.e., the firing or punishment of a person based on something they said or did or believe — of a crypto leader.

Indeed, after an uproar on Twitter and at the company, the community delegates of ENS voted over the weekend to remove Millegan from his role, and the DAO’s non-profit, True Names Limited, officially terminated his position. “Brantly has been a valued team member of TNL for the past three years. However, as a team we felt that his position with TNL is no longer tenable,” tweeted Nick Johnson, founder and lead developer at ENS, on Sunday. Johnson also said that Brantly had been removed from his position as a community steward — one of the critical leadership positions within the DAO.

DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organisations, are a little like the crypto equivalent of cooperatives, in that they’re supposed to be democratic and ruled via consensus. But they’re also a little bit like a hedge fund, in that you have to buy in to be a member, particularly if you want influence. Often, the more you invest, the greater “say” you have within the organisation. DAOs are said to be playing a pivotal role in the blossoming of Web3, the supposedly transformative internet movement which seeks to wed all of our online activity to the blockchain. The primary difference between a DAO and any other group working cooperatively is that a DAO can encode its rules on the blockchain, automating enforcement of the decision-making process.

Despite his exile, Millegan has apparently remained largely unrepentant, appearing during a meeting over the weekend but refusing to apologise for his views. On Saturday, he tweeted out:

In a post to Discord, the recently exiled Web3 dev also shared his perspectives on what had occurred. In it, Millegan argued that the “web3 industry” shouldn’t “exclude the many traditional-minded Christians, Muslims, Jews and others who agree” with his views.

Screenshot: Lucas Ropek/DiscordScreenshot: Lucas Ropek/Discord

Millegan’s claims that his beliefs represent mainstream Catholicism are… complicated. Even after progressive gestures by Pope Francis, the Catholic Church still does not look fondly on LGBTQ rights, abortion, or even, yeah, condoms, despite growing support for such things by American Catholics, if not so much in other parts of the world.

But that’s really beside the point. The point is that after his tweet was dug up, the ENS community turned on Millegan. During a three-hour meeting held via Twitter Spaces on Sunday, community members chimed in to relay their emotions about the incident. Most of the people were enraged by the newly discovered tweet and said they felt betrayed by the DAO. One member, who identified as gay and trans, said that they felt the organisation had to remain inclusive. “We have to make a decision about what the community is,” said @cult_leader_en. “Either we’re a homophobic, transphobic company…and I’m leaving or, we aren’t, and I’m staying.” Many others who spoke up on Sunday expressed similar sentiments.

But the decision to eject Millegan was also divisive, and not everybody has shown support for the decision. Tweets defending the recently outed DAO executive could be seen right up next to those standing with ENS trans and queer members:

A number of community members have also posted criticism of the decision on community forums, trotting out familiar arguments about “wokeness,” etc. “Brantly contributed to ENS success and deserves to be here. I respect the fact that he stands by his words and doesn’t pull the usual ‘It was four years ago, I’m different now, blablabla,’” wrote one user, in a discussion thread. “Woke and cancel people are more toxic than Brantly ever could be, pure herd mentality at work.”

Not so cancel-proof

As previously noted, crypto acolytes have long promulgated the idea that the blockchain is a shield against “cancel culture.”

In a recent New York Times op-ed, one such acolyte, James Poulos, argued that “Bitcoin Can Immunize America from Cancel Culture.” Dramatically alleging that political correctness and financially-backed “cancellation” means we’re headed towards a Chinese communist party-level “social credit system,” he also vaunts the claim that investing in cryptocurrency can somehow stop this momentum:

“Facilitated by technology, financial companies’ expansion into our private lives threatens to herd Americans into a de facto social credit system that punishes them for making choices — and even voicing opinions — that the people at the controls don’t like,” Poulos writes. “The fast-emerging social credit system erases the line between private and public; Americans need Bitcoin and the like in order to take back their destinies in the digital world instead of entrusting it to more private or public sector overlords.”

Whether you agree or not that we’re being shepherded into an Orwellian culture of censorship (and that buying Bitcoin will somehow save you from that), Poulos may be correct in deducing that money often has a lot more to do with questions of “cancellation” than most of us would like to admit.

Controversy and pissed off customers aren’t particularly good for a company’s bottom line, and, in many cases, now familiar denunciations about *insert moral issue* are typically not the earnest reflections of a business that has suffered through a long, dark night of the soul (corporations don’t have souls) but, rather, the dead-eyed platitudes of a PR team seeking to stop its customer base from abandoning them for a competitor. Decisions to keep or lose a person based on public responses to them are thus, ultimately financially motivated. That’s why, despite the familiar calls for “accountability” regarding Covid-19 misinformation, Spotify hasn’t cancelled Joe Rogan yet — because the cost-benefit analysis has determined he’s still worth more to them alive than dead, so to speak.

Perhaps not so weirdly, a cost-benefit analysis will always exist in the cryptocurrency sphere, as well. In fact, in a world like crypto — that is openly defined by and regulated with pseudo-money — it may matter even more. A DAO can be governed in virtually any fashion — as long as the guidelines are settled at the beginning and changes are agreed upon by the stakeholders. But in many cases, some stakeholders will have a greater say than others. And if a situation represents a threat to the future of the DAO, you’re going to see a similar cost/benefit analysis go into decisions to remove members that Twitter deploys when deciding whether or not to ban a user. A DAO can set up rules of governance to settle tough decisions beforehand just like Twitter has its own terms of service. A DAO can vote to go beyond its predefined rules through a vote from stakeholders just like a corporation could change its rules based on a decision by the CEO, board of directors, or shareholders. That’s not to say that members of this particular DAO were thinking with their wallets, moral priorities can also play a role in decision making, of course.

Crypto-enthusiasts might argue that putting governance on the blockchain makes everyone a stakeholder but tech CEOs at social networks also listen to user outcries, shareholder complaints, regulator concerns, and media controversies. Would you like to be a stakeholder in Twitter? One share will cost you about $US36 ($50). It might not get you much of a vote but being a member of a DAO in which you get 1 governance token versus another member’s 1 million tokens, well it’s not that much different.

All of this is to say that, as is so often the case, crypto-converts are just trying to messily replicate technologies and processes that already exist. Plenty of people who evangelize for the web3 revolution are well-intentioned but over and over we just see them adding layers of work, jargon, and bureaucracy to systems without improving much along the way.

One thing that remains the same is people are making the decisions and people don’t like being told they don’t exist. Online or off, blockchain or not, that’s the kind of thing that’ll get you ‘cancelled.’