My experience with cryptocurrencies actually had two different beginnings, but I’ll start with the second one first: in 2018 or so, I got interested in a new journalism startup called Civil (I wrote about it here). Civil’s founders had a model for a community-based journalism publishing platform that was based on cryptocurrency — namely, on tokens that it offered to journalists and others, which gave members voting power over the organization’s bylaws, etc. (it had a constitution and an advisory board as well, to make it more difficult for crypto holders to take over the organization). In effect, it was an early version of what is now called a DAO or distributed autonomous organization.
The idea was that journalists and readers could support journalism by buying tokens, and the newsrooms based on the platform could pay their writers in tokens, etc. I decided to buy a few tokens to see how this model might work, so I went to Coinbase to set up a crypto wallet, and when I went to create a login, it said I already had an account. That’s when I remembered that I had bought some Bitcoin a year or so earlier, as an experiment. At the time (early 2017) I bought about $20 worth, and then totally forgot about it. As I looked at the chart of the price of my holdings over the years, I noticed that the $20 worth had reached a peak of about $2,500 at one point in early 2018, but had since fallen back to around the $500 level. So I bought some Civil tokens.
Buying Civil meant converting some Bitcoin into Ethereum, because that’s what Civil’s tokens were based on. In any case, it seemed as though ETH (which was created by a Canadian, Vitalik Buterin) had more potential for expansion than Bitcoin, since it allowed for the creation of smart contracts, etc. that could be recorded in the blockchain. Unfortunately for Civil (which was soon defunct), the market tanked for a variety of reasons, and my holdings dropped to the $100 to $200 level — a tenth of what they were worth in early 2018, but 10 times what I had spent to acquire my initial holding. Cryptocurrencies stayed low for almost two years, from late 2018 to early 2020.
In 2020, cryptocurrencies started climbing again, and rapidly — in March of 2020, my stake was worth about $170, and by the same time in 2021, it was worth almost $3,000. When it passed that mark, I decided to “take some profits,” as professional investors like to say, so I sold about $600 worth — meaning I turned it into “real” money, or what crypto types call “fiat” currency (which just means that its value is set by governments and central banks). When it climbed again, I sold another chunk of $600. I did that a third time, and what I had left was still worth about $2,500 or so. Everyone was getting into crypto, it seemed, and the related market for NFTs or “non-fungible tokens,” which were basically JPEGs that were recorded on the blockchain, but which lots of people were spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for — money I assume they generated the same way I did, i.e. by accident.
Here’s where the cautionary tale part comes in: around this time, I read about a startup called the Ethereum Name Service, which was trying to replicate the Domain Name Service used by the internet (which turns an IP address of numbers into something like mathewingram dot com). It was offering people a version of their domain that ended in .eth, which could be linked to your existing domain. So I bought one for about $30 and forgot about it. Some time later, the company did an “airdrop” of tokens to those with .eth names, because it wanted to become a DAO. Airdrops had become fairly commonplace, and in effect it gave people free money (or tokens) for doing nothing.
All of a sudden, I had ENS tokens that were theoretically worth about $4,000 — even though they weren’t trading on any official crypto exchanges, people were buying and selling them anyway, by converting them into other cryptocurrencies. Just to be on the safe side, I took about $1,000 worth of the ENS tokens and converted them into Ethereum and put it in my Coinbase wallet. The other tokens were in a so-called “hot” wallet run by Metamask, which has a browser extension that allows you to easily connect your wallet to various services like ENS. And then I joined a Discord server that ENS had to allow holders of the tokens to talk about what was happening. And that’s when things went sideways.
One day, not long after the airdrop, I got a direct message from an account that looked official, and it said I had to register my tokens, and gave me a link — so I went to the page, and up popped an official-looking Metamask dialog box asking me to connect my account. So I did — or at least I tried to. But the box gave me an error when I put in my password (which was not uncommon), and asked for my “secret phrase,” which is a string of about eight words which is basically a super password that gives users access to their wallet even when their password doesn’t work. Not thinking, I typed it in — and immediately regretted it. So I went to look at my Metamask wallet, and it was empty. In a matter of seconds, someone had taken about $3,000 worth of ENS tokens.
Since the blockchain has a distributed ledger that records every transaction (one of its best features, if you want to track illegal transactions), I was able to follow the trail of my tokens, as the thief moved them from wallet to wallet, until they wound up in a wallet held by what was obviously a fake name — a wallet that at the time had tokens worth about $6 million in it. And that’s where the trail went cold. Dozens of other ENS holders on the Discord server said they had also been taken in by the same scam, with some of them losing as much as $10,000 worth of tokens, and the Discord server sent out multiple warnings about people pretending to be official representatives, and how it would never DM people links.
It was an expensive lesson. But it became a lot less expensive over the next few weeks and months, as the value of cryptocurrency of all kinds continued to tumble. As of this writing, the $3,000 I theoretically lost would now be worth about $600 or so. And the way I thought of it — even when it was worth $3,000 — was that I never really did anything to earn those tokens in the first place, so in a sense it was kind of free money. That said, the experience definitely left me with a bad taste in my mouth when it comes to crypto, as have all the various “rug pulls” and scams and hacks that the sector has seen.
I still believe that cryptocurrency and the blockchain have some theoretical value, or could be used to do interesting things — like Civil, for example. Some might argue that you could structure a publishing platform without cryptocurrency, one that allowed users to buy shares and vote on how the platform should be managed, and therefore the blockchain isn’t necessary. Some of those who published through Civil, however, argued that the crypto model did have certain features that might be interesting — such as the ability to publish something on the blockchain, making censorship impossible, since every distributed copy of the blockchain would also have a copy of the story in it.
Will any of this come to pass? I honestly don’t know. There is another publishing platform based on cryptocurrency called Mirror.xyz that has been trying to do some similar things as Civil — voting, a distributed organization, etc. And their model does something interesting that Civil didn’t: since Ethereum allows for smart contracts, people can decide to fund a piece of writing and then effectively gain an ownership stake in it, and so they can profit if the article or work is resold at some point in the future (I used Mirror to publish this post on Axie Infinity, a “play to earn game” based around NFTs). also wrote about . Does any of this make any sense? Will anyone want to do it? Again, I don’t really know. Maybe if cryptocurrencies ever go back up again we will find out.