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Crypto’s Cryptic Identities

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  • In crypto, many multi-billion protocols are run by pseudonymous teams.
  • Many of the largest influencers in crypto are known only by their profile pictures.
  • Crypto is experimenting with a new operating system for the future of work: fully remote and pseudonymous.

Background

Crypto’s obsession with anonymity started with the bitcoin white paper. When the world saw the bitcoin white paper, it was presented as the purest form of technology in some sense. No one could attack or ‘cancel’ the author. The only thing you could do is judge bitcoin on the merits of the technology. And there was no one person or group of people who were held responsible or looked at for direction when building the technology.

Part of the beauty of these crypto systems is that they do not require trust. The value of bitcoin does not depend on who Satoshi is or what his intentions were. Anyone can read the code and decide for themselves whether the system is to be trusted and is secure.

But there are pros and cons to being anonymous and the experimentation continues to this day. The story of Vitalik is a story that illustrates the power of public leadership. Vitalik was the face of ethereum from its inception. Since 2015, Vitalik has been evangelising his blockchain and has been a leader that has shepherded its development from a passion project to a blockchain that hosts hundreds of billions of dollars in value.

Vitalik’s public leadership was key to making ethereum work. Bitcoin was essentially a finished piece of technology that was given to the world, while ethereum was, and still is, a work in progress. Bitcoin didn’t need a leader. It is a simple system, at its core, that can theoretically run until the end of time, just off the basis of its economic incentives. The lack of a leader also institutionalised the idea that Bitcoin should be a stagnant and slow-to-develop protocol.

Although there are influencers and leaders in the bitcoin space, there are none with the legitimacy that come with being a founder. What this means, is that no one has the power to propose dramatic changes and win the support of the community. As a result, at a technical level, Bitcoin is similar today to the way it was 13 years ago when it first launched.

On the other hand, ethereum is still developing at high speed. They have an incredibly ambitious roadmap to scale the blockchain and allow for more transactions with fees hundreds of times cheaper.

Today

Today, crypto founders still make the choice to be pseudonymous and face similar tradeoffs that Vitalik and Satoshi must have faced as they made this decision. Many multi-billion dollar protocols, such as Sushi and Trader Joe, are run by teams of pseudonymous devs. Furthermore, many of the largest influencers in the space are anonymous.

Staying anonymous has its costs and benefits. But the unique environment of crypto has made this a legitimate option. This is probably a good thing. Ultimately, it is very freeing to be able to work and do great things without exposing your identity, and down the line it is the hope that people in other industries will have the choice to do the same.

Some benefits of pseudonymity are:

  1. No one to come after in the event of a hack/vulnerability
  2. No need to become a public figure/celebrity
  3. Potentially less need to worry about regulation

But there are downsides as well:

  1. Potentially more difficult to rally a community or team when they can’t follow an actual person
  2. More difficult to hire, especially non-crypto natives
  3. Potentially less trust

Crypto protocols can be hundreds of lines of code that can scale to support billions of dollars in assets. But they can get hacked. It can be comforting to hide behind a layer of anonymity in the event that this happens.

Regulation is a concern for every single crypto founder. The space continues moving forward at light speed, but there is little to no regulatory clarity on anything. If you take incredible security measures, as Satoshi did, it still may be possible to build something truly anonymously, without the regulators knowing who you are. But for the vast majority of founders, building anonymously will likely not offer much regulatory protection. It may be more difficult to find you, but if the government wants to go after you they will.

Leadership is a unique piece to this. Crypto has shown that it is still possible to build a cult following anonymously. People like @ChainlinkGod, @DCInvestor and others are some of the most trusted voices in crypto, while being anonymous. But at the same time, it is still difficult to rally a community and really connect with people while hiding behind a profile picture avatar.

For similar reasons, it is tough to hire and tough to build trust. Smart contracts can be verified by anyone, but there is more to a crypto protocol than just the core protocol. We saw one example with SushiSwap.

Sushi and Trader Joe

Chef Nomi was the founder of SushiSwap. This pseudonymous identity first tweeted on 24 August 2020, saying that he was building Sushiswap. Chef Nomi created Sushi in August 2020. Sushi is a decentralized exchange protocol that is very similar to Uniswap. It launched 26 August and was a rocket ship from the day it was released.

Initially, Sushiswap was a copy of Uniswap, except that it included a protocol token that was distributed to users of the platform. At the time, there was some public pressure for Uniswap to release a protocol token, but they had so far refused to do so.

By adding a protocol token, Sushiswap rewarded its users, making it an obviously better alternative to Uniswap. By 31 August 2020, just five days after launch, Sushiswap surpassed Coinbase Pro in volume. And on 1 September, Sushiswap was the largest Defi Protocol by total value locked.

But on 5 September, crisis struck the young project. Chef Nomi, as the creator of Sushiswap, had control of a share of sushi tokens which were considered to be the “dev share,” or rewards, for the developers of the project. On 5 September, Nomi decided to withdraw half the dev fund’s share of sushi tokens and sell them on UNiswap, cashing out $14m worth of ETH.

This event caused turmoil for the project. But eventually, on 11 September 2020, Chef Nomi decided to return the $14m in ETH to the Sushiswap treasury.

After the fiasco, Sushiswap lost a lot of confidence with the public, but it still retained a community that was passionate about the project. Chef Nomi was no longer the leader he once was, but 0xMaki and Joe Delong took over the mantle of leadership.

Today, Sushiswap is one of the largest projects in crypto. It is the 12th largest by total value locked, with $5.5bn. They have expanded beyond just being a Uniswap clone, and have released new lending and NFT products.

Chef Nomi was a Twitter Account created on 24 August, and within two weeks they found themselves in control of millions of dollars of sushi tokens. They probably thought that being anonymous, they would not really have to face the repercussions of their actions and decided to betray the trust of the community and liquidate their holdings. This wouldn’t be the first time that Sushi runs into problems relying on an anonymous team.

Almost exactly a year after Chef Nomi’s scandal, there was yet another test for the Sushi community. This time, the event was perpetrated by an anonymous Sushi developer who went by the name of AristoK3. AristoK3 added malicious code to the frontend of MISO, Sushi’s token launchpad project.

MISO was a place for new projects to launch their tokens and sell them to the public. AristoK3 replaced the wallet address of the token creators with his own wallet. He was able to steal $3m in ETH this way. This was another incident illustrating the dangers of anonymity.

There are also crypto founders that have done well with the anonymous route. One example is Trader Joe. Trader Joe currently has $2.5bn in value locked. Over the last three months, they have had a meteoric rise to success in a story that parallels Sushiswap. Trader Joe is also a decentralised exchange built on the Avalanche blockchain that is a copy of Uniswap.

Similar to Sushiswap, they were not the first of their type on Avalanche. In fact, Trader Joe was the 12th decentralised exchange on Avalanche. Before Trader Joe, the largest Dex on Avalanche was Pangolin. But like Uniswap, they failed to properly use token rewards to incentivise users. This, and a lack of community engagement, meant that Trader Joe had a gap in the market they could capture. The entire Trader Joe team is publicly anonymous. But the community has grown to trust the founders, Cryptofish and 0xMurloc. Institutional venture backing and a consistent history of speaking the truth have given the Avalanche community confidence in the project. The code is public and, ultimately, users should be able to trade on Trader Joe safely no matter who the founding team is.

Conclusion
Crypto is an experiment in a new anonymous style of work. It is one of the few areas of work where this is an acceptable option and we’ve seen success and failure through this experimentation. Anonymity is in line with the crypto ethos, where everyone can be judged only on the quality of their work in a way that is not biased by who they are as a person.

Nothing in this article constitutes professional and/or financial advice. The content is provided exclusively for informational and/or educational purposes. Nothing is to be construed as an offer or a recommendation to buy or sell any type of asset. Seek independent professional advice in regards to financial, tax, legal and other matters.

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