The Endless ThreadTeam is excited to announce Tales from the Crypto – three windows into the wild world that is cryptocurrency. It’s a landscape ripe for investors, gamblers, opportunists, and academic investigators — both online and offline. Our hosts and producers have reached out to experts to help them navigate this complex, constantly changing terrain.

The series’ first installment features co-hosts Ben Brock Johnson, Amory Sivertson, and a viral tweet about NFTs helping Ukrainians in the war effort against Russia. Also, they discuss plans for a crypto paradise that was never meant.

Show notes

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Full Transcript

This content was originally intended for audio. For clarity, the transcript has been transcribed from our original script. Be aware that certain elements (e.g. Some elements (e.g. music, sound effects, tone, etc.) are more difficult to translate into text. 

Ben Brock Johnson: Were you there on the morning February 27th 2022?

Amory Sivertson (Laughs.

Jathan Sadowski: (Laughs. This is a great deposition right now.

Amory: Ben, Ben and I are interviewing Jathan Sadowski.

I have every reason to believe you were on Twitter.

Jathan: I was tweeting something that made a lot people mad.

Ben: Ah yes, the excitement of starting the social media outrage machines. Like the Mad Hatter’s first cup of tea in the morning. Loki — God of mischief — swingin’ his legs out of bed.

Amory: On what topic was Jathan going to tweet and live in infamy? Not his opinion about the new Amazon Lord of the RingsMaking guacamole using peas or TV series. Don’t do that, guys. It is not The Dress. No. Jathan was about to tweet about the most popular topic in Elon Musk’s tweet replies.

Ben: You know what? Crypto.

Jathan: Ukraine has an opportunity to mint NFTs commemorating unique and significant moments in the conflict, instead of selling war bonds. These NFTs can be sold to fund defense and create community. World War III is Web3 native. The winner will embrace decentralized networks’ power.

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. People like Amory.

Amory:  (Laughs.) You know, that’s fair. But that’s not all. I’m an expert. No, I am not an expert. I’m crawling my way towards competency now.

Ben: (Laughs.) Yes, me too. So it’s kind 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: His tweet reached the stratosphere because he tweeted it.

Jathan: At some point, the tweet got lost in my own, you know, part of Twitter where people know me. It was picked up by some very big accounts, YouTubers with hundreds of thousands of followers.

Amory: This is where the problems began. Jathan was lying.

Ben: That’s totally a lie. 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 says: I would like to do a little bit of association. You say “crypto” when I say cryptocurrency

Jathan: Scam.

Amory: I’m NFT Sivertson. Do I really want that to be said?

Ben: Yeah! Yeah!

Amory: What does it mean to 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: Can we show you how to invest crypto?

Absolutely not.

Ben: Is this a definitive guide for crypto?

Amory: No. No, no, no, no.

Ben: It’s three windows into how wild and bizarre things are in the cryptoverse. What will we name our miniseries?

Amory: The Bitcoin Blues

Ben: The Dao Te…Ch-Ching?

Amory: Block…chain party?

Ben: How about…Tales from the Crypto!

[Tales from the Crypt TV show audio:

(Maniacal laughter.)]

Amory: Today’s episode: Crypto Crazy. It’s so hard to tell the difference between the hype or the concept right now.

Cryptocurrency, therefore, is a big topic. It’s also a highly technical, complex mathematical, mind-bendingly hard to explain technology.

Ben: That’s why Jathan was among the first people we reached out.

Jathan: Hi, I’m Jathan Sadowski. I’m a senior research associate in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University. While I live in Melbourne, Australia, I am originally 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 is behind this creation? Right? Then, you can understand their bigger implications for society and our lives.

Amory: See? Great guy to chat to about crypto. Because If you’re like us, you’re probably a little bewildered trying to follow the news.

[Newsreel audio:

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: You hit the tone so hard that even a little doubt was left. I know. I know.

Amory 2: Watch your tweet go viral and people will beg you for your ideas.

Jathan: In other terms, you like Jathan know,Will this thing not come into existence by making fun of it?

Ben: Step three? Oh no.

Jathan: And then, a few more days later, I happened upon, um, the Financial Times had a headlineThat’s what it says “Ukraine plans to issue NFT collection to fund armed forces. Kiev moves further in embracing digital assets to raise money for the war.”I took a screenshot from my original post and a screenshot from the Financial Times headline when I saw this headline. I then compared them and said, “Well, what can you say?” I am very sorry and accept full responsibility.

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Amory: It’s a reminder to all that this show is about the blurred line 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 can’t blame anyone in Ukraine for using their tools to generate lots of money and donations out of 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 most would agree on is a “good cause.” It’s more about general speculation.

Amory says: In other words, it is certain. The Ukraine thing could actually help raise money for the war effort. 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 could be a great scheme. It could be something Jathan is more interested in.

Jathan: This theory is called the theory of Greater Fools. Right. It’s the idea that if I purchase this thing for $10,000 and this NFT for $10,000, then there will be a greater fool down in the future. He’ll buy it off me for $12,000, then they’ll find somebody to purchase it for $15,000. It just keeps going. It’s not a solid way to build an economy.

Amory: Time out. We almost need a crypto glossary. NFTs? Web3? Blockchain? Woof.

Ben: Woof does not refer to a crypto term.

Amory: I know what you mean. Woof to all of it!

Ben: Yeah. A glossary is a good idea. Or at the very least, a clear explanation of the basic principles. Before we get too deep into Elon Musk’s crypto bot Twitter mentions.

Amory, please spare us from that section on the internet. Let’s stick closer to home for WBUR. Let’s hear from Neha Narula.

Neha Narula: I am the Director of the Digital Currency Initiative. It is based at the Media Lab at MIT. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ben: Neha is a bit less skeptical than Jathan. Or at the very least, in a different academic area.

Neha: The Digital Currency Initiative is an association of software developers and cryptographers. It works on the technology behind digital currencies.

Amory – Neha is doing this job for a simple reason.

Neha: Money makes the universe go around. Our economy, our financial systems, you see, people make decisions about where they live, what they do with their lives, based on how much money. And I just realized how powerful it was. And technology was always something I believed in, up until that point. I came to realize, as I was going down the rabbit hole that technology combined with money is very powerful.

Ben: Jathan can probably understand that last bit. Okay. Here it is, folks. It’s the essential, the mandatory, the thing we public radio journalists love to do or get over and again, because it is something that we all need. The question “What is a crypto currency?” has been answered.

Neha: Cryptocurrency allows you to change bits on millions of computers all over the world. That’s it.

Amory: Is it it?

Neha: It’s sometimes called a Ponzi scheme. It’s a thing that has no value unless people believe it does. However, this is true for many other things around the world. It’s not a unique phenomenon, however.

Ben: Gold is also true.

Neha: Yeah. Yeah.

Amory: The housing market.

Neha: Yeah.

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 is a network of computers in the world that runs software. The software keeps track of currency movements and allows people to move them around. The thing that makes this unique is the absence of a government and no bank. There is no backing. It’s just a network of computers that are being managed by humans all over the globe. This is how people come together in a group to agree on the accounting behind new currency, a different accounting system, and a fresh ledger.

Ben: The idea of cryptocurrency and the technologies that surround it has been a thought that has been around for quite some time. This idea of digital credits. Computer money. It can be called whatever you like.

[Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace audio:

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. However, it can feel as though this is a Jedi mind trick. It feels like crypto is a well-established thing for a long period of 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. Digital currency was a long-held sci-fi dream for many decades.

Neha: Then, in 2008, this message was posted to the mailing list by someone whose name was Satoshi Nakamoto. We don’t know Satoshi Nakamoto. We don’t know if this is a he, she, or they. Satoshi, however, posted on the list for an idea for a new currency called Bitcoin. This was very interesting because it combined all of the ideas from ecash and other areas of computer science and computer systems. They’ve never been combined in this manner before.

Ben: This is the source of Bitcoin. This took the idea of digital currency and combined it with complex math to create a finite resource for digital currency. One that needed to be mined. Just like gold or silver. With computing power. This part of the idea is well-known at this stage. Though the fact that we still don’t know the inventor of bitcoin is concerning to me.

Amory: Same. However, the early days were a bit sleepy. What can you do with an invented currency, which only exists in the form, as Neha said, computer bits?

Neha: Then what happened? I believe it was 2010 or 2012. Reddit user Neha posted that he wanted Bitcoin to buy something.

Amory: Reddit. We try to escape, but it pulls us back in. Every time.

Ben: (Laughs.) Truth. Every night I have to be like that’s enough interneting for me today. Yes. Neha claims that the first Bitcoin transaction was made on Reddit. Can you guess what was purchased and sold with Bitcoins?

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: But it took off. It was soon followed by other currencies. Ethereum. Dogecoin.

Neha: People started creating copies Bitcoins all over the place. (Laughs.) There were many copies. There is a financial incentive to do so. If you create a copy of the coin and then mine some coins by yourself, you will have a lot of the coin. If you can convince people it’s worth something like it is the new Bitcoin, then it will rise in price and you’ll have a lot of money. This happened repeatedly. There are hundreds, if no thousands, of Bitcoins.

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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. They can also be used for dumb stuff, as with most technologies. But they can also be used for smart stuff. That’s why people are excited for instance about not just bitcoin. NFTs are also possible.

Neha: Non-fungible tokens can be very different. You are trying to create a digital currency that is not completely interchangeable. It’s unique. It’s something.

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 be used to help artists get paid and to separate people from their cash.

Ben: NFTs can be traded and are unique digital items. It can help artists get paid. And also…separate people from their money. You have to take the good with bad.

Are you still a slave to amory?

Are you a believer in crypto currency being the future money, the future economy? So, how far can this go?

Ben: The future for everything Amory.

Amory: That’s all I need to know. I am not. I have zero interest. I am interested in crypto for the purpose of learning more about it and how people use it. My interest in crypto is based on the question, “Do I need to be interested? Do I really need to do this? Is it necessary to get rid of my cash?

Neha: Yes, you do need to get on board the crypto train. So, if I was to be asked that question a few decades ago, I would have replied, “I don’t know, it could go any way.” Maybe this is the beginning of something. It might not. You should probably learn a bit about it. Keep at it. Learn the details. Find out if it makes sense to you. But now, I see that this train isn’t slowing down. This train is moving at an accelerating pace. This train is beginning to infiltrate all things.

Ben: She’s right. All those crypto commercials were evident to anyone who was watching the Superbowl.

[Larry David FTX Superbowl Commercial audio:

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.]

Twitter is abuzz with NFTs. Neha said that crypto is being used in every aspect of life, from microloans to online privacy protection.

Neha: I think cryptocurrency is doing something really valuable. It is sort of reshaping internet platforms and our data privacy, data portability, and data ownership. That’s what I find really fascinating.

Amory says: It’s possible that this is a good thing because so many people have lost their life savings after investing in cryptocurrency and then getting hacked. Or their third-party services being hacked. These stories are all over the internet. Still. Neha says…

Neha: It’s not impossible for something to be overhyped while being underhyped.

Ben: One of the finest examples of the former. 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: Was it about the sale of NFT Bored Apes? This is a collection ape images that have been minted into custom NFTs.

[The Tonight Show audio:

Paris Hilton: Well, If you love it so much I want to give you the first one.

Jimmy Fallon: I would be honored.

(Applause.)

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. That is how we get from a thing that went so, very wrong.

Ryan Broderick Fyre Festival is a kind of an example of this. What if influencers owned their own island? We all know how it ended.

Ben: Crypto’s version of Fyre Fest, in a minute.

[SPONSOR BREAK]

Amory: Okay. For this next bit, we’re going to go to Tales From The Crypto Part One, guest three.

Ryan BroderickRyan Broderick is my name. Garbage Day is a newsletter that I publish about web culture. I also produce a podcast called The Content Minds which is also about 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 believe that there will be a you’re optimistic one.

Ryan: Well, I’ve joined it. And now I’m very excited to be there.

Amory, What comes to your mind when you say cryptocurrency?

Ryan: Libertarians.

Amory: Okay.

Amory says: This is how you get to Cryptoland. But we must first make our way to that island. Another glossary term. DAO. Decentralized Autonomous Organization

Ryan: It works by looking at a typical corporate structure for a company or startup. Imagine if this existed on a chat platform like Discord. Instead of buying shares in a company, you could buy tokens. These are small pieces of code on blockchain that represent ownership. A DAO or DAO can begin with a crazy idea. You can quickly raise a lot of money if you get enough people to buy tokens that they can share or sell amongst themselves.

Ben: A DAO that appeared in the early part of this year appeared at light speed and mysteriously. It was for the thing called Cryptoland. Its meteoric rise to and fall is quite a story.

Ben: We can cross-leggedly sit down at your feet and listen to you tell us about Cryptoland.

Ryan: So Cryptoland was a… a great idea. (Laughs.) No…

Ben: It was a very long time ago, far away.

Ryan: Cryptoland, a group of Web3 developers, was a terrible idea. They decided to sell timeshares on an uninhabited island in Fiji. They put together a prospectus and advertised different opportunities in crypto-related real estate that people could invest in.

Amory: Now. These Web3 developers know how to do it. Wait. Web3…

Ben: This is supposedly the next version the world wide web. We’re in Web2 right now. People say that Web3 is a decentralized web version powered by all the cool technologies built around cryptocurrency.

Amory: Right, right, right. These Web3 developers created a DAO. Decentralized Autonomous organization. And that organization was going buy an island in Fiji.

Ryan: I was amazed to see that there are multiple versions. They all have different states of failure.

Ben: It is a tale that has been around for as long as time. In a way. It’s like this: My friends and I would like to purchase an island that’s going to be awesome because it’s going be awesome. Right?

Ryan: Yeah.

Ben: It feels like I’ve done that before. It was probably when you were around 11.

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Ben: But, this idea got really far.

The marketing video also featured talk about Internet cringe-like.

Ryan: That was the most disgusting thing I have 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…

[Cryptoland video audio:

“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. Imagine living in a tech convention all day. This is a good example of what it looked.

Amory: It was very grim. But it was also weird. Tech conference feels right. But, what about 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 sort 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 allegedly the brainchild of Max Oliver and Helena Lopez. The interests of a hotel group were represented by the project manager.

Amory: The video promised 60 exclusive parcels of land in Blockchain Hills that could all be purchased with NFTs. The Vladimir Club is a reference a crypto legend’s online user who bought enough bitcoin to become a millionaire over 100 times. It was built by crypto-heads and was advertised as a place for cryptocurrency heads. It has beaches, 360-degree views over the ocean, and an entire economy that is run entirely on crypto.

Ben: Crypto was everywhere. The cringe was also everywhere.

Amory – There’s a strange, like Grease-inspired reimagining in there. Do you guys remember that part?

Ryan: I don’t know why it happened that way. All musicals. It was 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, Your marketing video may be off-target. This was only for those who love new technologies that can generate millions 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. Remember Ryan’s association of bitcoin with Libertarians in his tweets? One of the problems with crypto is that digital currencies can be associated to fringe politics. You may have heard people talk about communism being great in theory, but horrible in practice. Crypto enthusiasts can fall into this category of civil libertarians. Even anarchists. There are also areas where these types of political ideas don’t have great answers.

Ryan: Things spun out of control after a Twitter troll discovered the situation. He tweeted at the Twitter account of Cryptoland to ask them what the age consent laws would be for the island. This is a common internet trolling for all libertarian-leaning communities. If you really want your group of free-market enthusiasts to become disorganized and not want to be told what they should do by the government, then you can ask them what their ideal age of consent law would be for their libertarian paradise. This had the exact same 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. Later it was discovered that the Twitter account manager didn’t speak English at all and didn’t understand what they were asking.

Ben: It didn’t matter if that was a valid excuse. The Cryptoland community devolved into a shouting contest between people who were horrified that there would not be an age of consent and those on principal who wondered why there should.

Amory’s Cryptoland was a failure just like Fyre Fest. It was a dumpster fire. The island, which was listed at 12 million US dollars, was not sold. Still available for sale.

Ryan: This is a bit of a bummer. I do believe that blockchain, cryptocurrency, Web3, and Web3 are all good options. All of this stuff isn’t perfect. No technology is perfect. But it’s interesting. I’ve spoken with a lot developers who said, “I really wish I could actually play around with this stuff because that would be fun.” But losing social capital by engaging in public Web3 with blockchain and crypto is just too much. It’s so polarizing.

Ben: Neha is going to experience this in the topsy-turvy world that is crypto.

Neha: People are going to be taken advantage. There will be many scams. I’m not sure where I stand at this point. It’s impossible to stop it. You know that there are likely to be people who will put money into cryptocurrencies that they cannot afford to lose. They will also lose a lot of money as it is 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, large fish, schools of fish. They’re swallowing, hook line and sinker.

Amory: Even though Ryan Broderick is describing the failures of groups crypto enthusiasts to obtain their private crypto utopian islands of their choosing, others are finding real-world examples of this mentality taking root in a large way. From the little players…

Alex Gladstein – You have to think about the jobs it is bringing. It’s like gentrification on steroids.

To the big ones…

President Nayib Bukele: I will send a bill that will make Bitcoin legal in El Salvador.

That’s next week on Tales from the Crypto.

[CREDITS]

Amory: Endless ThreadWBUR Boston produces this production.

Ben: Want early access to events, swag or 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 Coproduced and co-hosted By me, Amory SIvertson.

Ben: Editing assistance from Jeb Sharpe, Grace Tatter, Nora Saks and Quincy Walters. Megan Cattel is our web producer. Mix and sound design by Paul Vaitkus.

Amory: Endless ThreadThis is a show about how the lines blur between digital communities and tweeting war financing 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 to WBUR at ORG

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