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Maybe you’ve read about the blockchain and you’re not getting a fuss. (I raise my hand in embarrassment.) Perhaps you’ve never heard of it.

My colleague Nathaniel Popper will explain what you need to know and separate blockchain hope from hype.

Nathaniel spoke to me about why some technologists can’t silence the blockchain, and what he found while researching his latest article about how it might – or might not be! – Helping people reshape the Internet with less control from giants like Google and Facebook.

Shira: I have to keep explaining to myself. What is the blockchain? And how is it different of bitcoin?

Nathaniel: The blockchain is, in its simplest sense, a ledger – a method of recording – that was invented for Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency. Unlike traditional records kept by a bank or accountant, the blockchain ledger uses a series of computers, each adding new entries that are visible to all.

The Bitcoin-inspired blockchain design has been adapted for other types of data sets. The underlying principle is that there is no central authority that controls a single ledger. Everyone who is part of the system controls a decentralized and shared data set.

What is an example of how this might work?

A normal currency exchange can take your money, hold it, and also hold the currency that you are buying. If it’s hacked, you can lose your money. With a decentralized financial exchange based on the blockchain design like the one used by Bitcoin, you don’t have to entrust your money to an authority. Two people are automatically matched by software and exchange information directly with one another.

Blockchains sound like heaven.

I believed in that for a long time. But these blockchain ideas are shifting from concepts to living – albeit still clunky – experiments.

On social networks like LBRY and Minds, people can see for themselves how it is different from YouTube or Facebook. The concept is that no company is in control or can delete your account. Anyone can see that a published video or other material has not been changed by anyone else.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with Twitter for terminating Donald Trump’s account after the Capitol attack, it’s an interesting idea that under a blockchain-based design, he could potentially turn his 80 million+ Twitter followers into one other social network instead of losing them all.

It will be a while before people can judge whether these blockchain applications are really doing what they suggest and are an improvement on the status quo. Bitcoin has been around for a while and smart people still disagree on whether it’s useful.

There are always disadvantages. What are they for the blockchain?

A major disadvantage is that central authorities can efficiently create and repair reliable software when problems arise. With a decentralized network of computers and programmers, no boss can say that this error needs to be fixed in 20 minutes.

And if there is a central system in financial or social networks, a government or other agency can prevent terrorists or other criminals from using it. With blockchain-based designs, it is more difficult to exercise control.

Business & Economy


Jan. 26, 2021, 4:58 p.m. ET

Why is there so fanatical devotion to Bitcoin and Blockchains?

Bitcoin is like a social movement. The users of the system feel responsible for essentially making the system work. This also applies to blockchain designs. They make people feel empowered in ways they can’t with traditional software.

Bitcoin started with a lofty idea of ​​democratizing money. But now it’s like beanie babies – something people buy earn money. Will the blockchain concept also degrade to something less pure?

It’s true, a lot of people who use Bitcoin are just betting that its value will go up. But Bitcoin also gives people an incentive to get used to the strange concept of large systems that are not controlled by a single agency. It is likely that the excitement, and even some of the greed for Bitcoin, fueled these blockchain experiments.

I’ve been blown away by the saga of a Reddit message board and its crusade with video game retailer GameStop for days.

The short version: Several Wall Street pros are betting that GameStop stock will fall and are smugly confident they’re right. A Reddit group called Wall Street Bets has been trying to prove them wrong or just mess with them by organizing to boost GameStop’s stock price. The company’s shares are mixed up. It’s all weird and there are no heroes in this story. (See Matt Levine’s column in Bloomberg Opinion.)

When I see the Redditors versus the Wall Street guys, I’m reminded of how the way we interact with one another has changed when we’re online. There is no clear line between internet life and real life.

Showcasing the same kind of engaged, hyper-online social dynamic that helped propel Trump and Andrew Yang’s presidential candidates forward, Wall Street Bets stands behind Korean pop fans making sure their favorite bands online are trending and political engage.

The GameStop campaign gushing demeanor, unity about a common cause, and inside jokes – like the one about chicken tenders – have similar mechanisms to the gaggles harassing gay and transgender video artists on TikTok and a research vessel called ” Boaty McBoatface ”before. (To be clear, stock trading campaigns aren’t the same as molesting teenagers.)

Ryan Broderick, an internet culture writer, wrote in his Garbage Day newsletter that the GameStop saga highlights the similarities between social media and the stock market. “If you can create enough hype about something through memes, conspiracy theories, and harassment campaigns, you can turn it into a reality,” he wrote.

My colleague, Nellie Bowles, wrote this week about the way screen working fills office culture with the worst elements of aggressive internet conversations. It’s not dissimilar to what happens to this dark corner of stock market speculation. People adapt to online life in ways that sometimes feel exciting – and sometimes nihilistic and terrible.

May we all experience the joy Nia Dennis, a UCLA gymnast, takes from this routine. (Thanks to our California Today writer, Jill Cowan, for the video.)

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