Backfiring Hype Trains

Over the weekend, Mozilla became the latest in a long line of companies that are (disappointingly, IMO) getting involved in the crypto/NFT/web3 space. On the one hand, I can definitely sympathise with companies trying to muscle in on the hype surrounding blockchain technologies, particularly the non-profits. It can often seem that the people jumping into this emerging market are making money hand-over-fist, and for cash-strapped open source collectives and organisations like Mozilla who largely rely on donations to stay afloat, that can be very appealing[1].

On the other hand, regardless of whether or not web3/crypto becomes the norm in the future, right now it remains a polarising subject, particularly within tech circles. There are plenty of extremely outspoken advocates, of course, but there are just as many highly influential individuals openly mocking the trend or actively fighting against blockchain integrations. That high-level discourse seems to be fairly representative of broader public opinion; in fact, if anything, it seems that most of the public are actively in the latter camp, and a few very loud voices/groups are disproportionally propping up the pro-blockchain narrative, thereby making it seem more universal than it is. Either way, you have a very clear spectrum of opinions in play.

So it baffles me when brands go charging head-first into the crypto space without any critical thought put into where on that spectrum their own userbase falls, how blockchain talking points fit with their existing brand image, or what the likely fallout might be. Instead, there seems to be a pervasive feeling that hopping onto the blockchain is just a universal good and will be met with congratulations and applause, no matter who does it. Perhaps for the first couple of companies that opted to explore this route, this was an okay attitude to take, but we're a few years into this phenomenon and at this point, it's just bizarre.

I mean, there have been some very public, large-scale, well-documented examples of these decisions blowing up in the faces of the companies making them. Back in November, an innocuous tweet from the CEO of Discord resulted in mass boycotts and cancellations of membership packages in protest to the possibility that the platform was considering crypto wallet integrations, a position that the company then had to officially walk back days later. More recently, Ubisoft became the first large gaming company to try and integrate NFTs directly into a game, a move that saw such high levels of backlash that they ended up hiding the announcement videos on YouTube and Twitter, and yet still launched... to less-than-impressive sales.

Yet, despite the consistent controversies and utter lack of evidence that even non-vocal users are interested in these features, more and more companies are rolling them out. Everyone from 500px[2] to the Internet Archive have launched cryptocurrency integrations or NFT marketplaces or some other variation on the blockchain theme. For the most part, these continue to draw ire from some users and alienate others – a quick Twitter search of "archive.org + crypto" brings up many tweets along the lines of "the Internet Archive is great, but it's a shame about their crypto integration". To be clear, there are also tweets praising the organisation for their "forward-thinking", as well as neutral ones talking about how it's an interesting decision, but it's apparent that many people still feel that getting into bed with blockchain is a problematic step for a company. The fact that Archive.org took that step almost four years ago and are still drawing criticism for that decision just goes to show that this isn't a brand issue that fades away with time, either.

I'm sure that there are cases out there of companies launching blockchain integrations that are predominantly well received, but when mass-market players try to make that move it doesn't seem to go well. And yet, they keep on trying. What we seem to have is a disconnect between organisational boards/executives and the actual market they are serving.

Mozilla's most recent efforts are a great example. Here are the contents of their announcement tweet:

Dabble in @dogecoin? HODLing some #Bitcoin & #Ethereum?

We’re using @BitPay to accept donations in #cryptocurrency

So now you can donate to the Mozilla Foundation with cryptocurrency. At the time of writing, that tweet has been a major talking point for several days, garnered over a thousand comments (but just over 600 likes), and has a top comment from the original founder of the organisation blasting them publicly, which itself has attracted over ten thousand likes and seems to still be climbing.

As I said at the start of this post/rant, I can sympathise with Mozilla wanting to diversify revenue or donation streams. I've got no idea whether Archive.org's similar plan has worked, but they've certainly received some fairly sizeable donations in the past via Ethereum and Bitcoin, so perhaps this is something that is genuinely worthwhile for Mozilla to look into.

But the way they've gone about it is, once again, bizarre and baffling. It's announced with quirky meme-talk, in a way that implies it's just a fun new feature without any thought about the broader context or recognition that it's probably not going to go down too well with the kind of people who largely advocate for Mozilla. Understandably, the community are pissed, and overnight they have likely lost a significant number of people who would have previously been championing them as an organisation. On a personal level, I'll now be weighing up how much I push for coworkers and friends to switch to Firefox. I think the pros likely still outweigh the cons, but it's definitely another factor to consider and something I'll need to disclose. Are environmentally-destructive blockchain integrations worse than Google's privacy nightmare or Apple's anticompetitive market control? Probably not, but it would be nice to not have to think about it, honestly.

And, perhaps, if Mozilla had made this announcement alongside a reasoned, well-articulated block post outlining how they've considered the negative impacts of cryptocurrencies (both environmental and social) and weighed them against the possible benefits to the organisation and the web ecosystem, then maybe I wouldn't have that worry. If brands didn't just gung-ho their announcements into the ether, but actually showed that they've understood this could be a controversial move and are going to explore it anyway, because of specific documented reasons, then maybe none of these controversies would actually be controversial. But they don't do that, which makes me think that they just aren't, well, thinking about it. We're back to that disconnect again, and I really do wonder if that's all there is to it: the suits at the top of these organisations are so entrenched in their wealthy, techie bubbles and lifestyles that they're genuinely unaware of the ethical, social, and environmental issues these technologies have, the growing concern around them, and the fact that a lot of people outright oppose them entirely.

Or maybe they're just genuinely that greedy that they don't care. Either way, it's not exactly an encouraging look...

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Footnotes

  • <p>As more and more companies begin dabbling with blockchain tech, I'm increasingly bemused by just how blind they appear to be to the growing consumer concern over the same space.</p>
  • Murray Adcock.
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