In Vancouver at the annual Ethereum Classic Summit on October 3, the Ethereum Foundation’s Virgil Griffith took to the stage to ruminate on the burgeoning friendship between two formerly bitter rivals: the communities of the Ethereum and Ethereum Classic blockchains.
The communities have reconciled their differences over the past year, as long-standing tensions ease and developers become more open to inter-blockchain collaboration. And that newfound friendship also brings benefits: as Ethereum inches ever closer to Ethereum 2.0, Ethereum Classic believers sense an opportunity to fill some of the void left by that upgrade.
Ethereum Classic is the original blockchain of the Ethereum network, which forked in 2016 to restore funds stolen in a $60 million hack. Ethereum Classic supporters have essentially clung onto the old network, and say the 2016 fork was a betrayal of the principle of “unstoppable” code. But now the communities are settling their differences.
To some, such as Ethereum Classic Cooperate staffer Yaz Khoury, collaboration with Ethereum will could bring in new recruits: Ethereum is set to transition from the miner-based Proof of Work algorithm to the less energy consumptive Proof of Stake algorithm. That could alienate scores of Ethereum miners, who believe it will hurt their business.
Others dream bigger, and predict that Ethereum Classic will eventually dwarf the Ethereum network entirely. Ethereum Classic Cooperative director Bob Summerwill, for instance, points to a spate of departures from the Ethereum community by developers who expressed fatigue at the long hours of unpaid, often thankless work.
The Ethereum Foundation declined to comment.
The blossoming friendship between the two networks began in 2018, at the EDCON conference in Toronto, when Ethereum Foundation Special Projects Director Virgil Griffith invited Anthony Lusardi, then head of the non-profit ETC cooperative, to attend the conference, as part of a broader drive for inclusivity. Lusardi gave a speech about interoperability.
“I think the Ethereum Foundation started to realize there was a benefit to working with other chains,” Lusardi said to Decrypt. The goal, he added, was about “exporting ETC politics to whoever will listen.”
The two communities are now working on a number of joint projects including a “peaceBridge,” funded partly by the Ethereum Foundation, that allows users to transact ether between chains. Likewise, some Ethereum and Ethereum Classic hardliners are coordinating resistance to a proposed upgrade, ProgPoW, which they allege was concocted by NVIDIA.
“There is a great opportunity for positive-sum collaboration between the Ethereum and Ethereum Classic communities,” said Terry Culver, the CEO of Ethereum Classic incubator ETC Labs. “They share values, and technical functionality. There is a complicated history, but there is a lot they can do together moving forward.”
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Ethereum Classic was born in July 2016, when some $60 million worth of ether was hacked from the world’s first “decentralized autonomous organization,” a leaderless, headless community built on the Ethereum network, in which thousands of participants had deposited millions of dollars of funds.
The hack came quick, and threw the dreamers involved into an immediate, ultimately devastating quandary: on a supposedly immutable, decentralized network, how could you help the victims of a hack? Could you simply reverse the transactions carrying the hacked funds?
To Summerwill, the answer was an absolute no. An obvious no. “My original reaction was ‘Of course we should not do anything,’” said the former Ethereum Foundation operative. But, “as that month developed, I could see that the majority of the community were in favor of intervention, and I came to understand the merits of both sides of the argument.”
But only one side prevailed. A majority of Ethereum developers voted to reverse the theft by engineering a hard fork, splitting the network and returning investors’ funds.
To the dissenters, the restoration gave the lie to the meaning of “unstoppable code.” “Immutability is the only reason we are in crypto,” said Khoury, the ETC Cooperative staffer. “It’s the Bitcoin model. The moment we abandon that and start bailing out the protocol, we become no different than traditional financial institutions.”
Thus Ethereum Classic was born, infused with an undisclosed investment from Digital Currency Group magnate Barry Silbert, and supported by the likes of Cardano co-founder Charles Hoskinson, Bloomberg Opinion columnist and Bitcoin maximalist Elaine Ou, and a group of pseudonymous contributors going by the name “arvicco”. The dissenters eschewed the post-DAO hard fork and continued on the old chain, letting the hacker get away with the theft. “It was about a week past the fork and ETC had a good resistance going,” recalled Lusardi.
And now, after years of relative stagnation, Ethereum Classicos believe they can do Ethereum one better. Khoury explains that he thinks Ethereum’s miners, hamstrung by the move to proof of stake, will shift their resources to Classic. There’s “no reason for them to mine a chain that can potentially be abandoned for a fresher new chain in Ethereum 2.0,” he said. “So the natural answer is Ethereum Classic. It’s technically the same as Ethereum 1.0, following the same technical roadmap.”
Similarly, he believes many developers of decentralized apps will feel stranded when Ethereum abandons the “Virtual Machine,” home to thousands of (often little-used) decentralized applications. Ethereum Classic makes a “great hedge” for those people, he said. “Yes, we would love that hash power,” agreed Summerwill, who nevertheless said the plot was less dastardly than it might appear to be. “ETC and ETH1 are kind of competitors, but ETC and ETH 2.0 are much more complementary.”
But Kristy-Leigh Minehan, a prominent miner, thinks it’s unlikely Ethereum miners will rush to Ethereum when proof of stake rolls out. While some of the more specialized ASIC miners will be forced to go to Ethereum Classic, she said, miners running adaptable GPUs will more likely quit Ethereum entirely and migrate to more liquid cryptocurrencies on blockchains like Grin and Beam.
“These ‘surges’ of miners swamping a new coin are never good,” she added. “Miners contribute heavily to the ‘sell’ liquidity for the coin. What is going to end up happening is miners—if they did switch to ETC all at once—would drown the exchanges in sell orders and push the price down.”
Lately, several prominent semi- and full departures have rocked the Ethereum community. Spankchain’s Ameen Soleimani announced last week that he was distancing himself from the protocol, after months of unpaid voluntary work left him exhausted. “I don't have enough ETH to justify [boosting Ethereum’s prospects] nor is anyone paying me to do it, so it's essentially volunteer work,” Soleimani tweeted. “I'm burnt tf out. It's not fun anymore.”
Lane Rettig, another developer, said he was stepping back for similar reasons earlier this month. Developer Afri Schoeden, meanwhile, formerly an Ethereum celebrity, defected to Ethereum Classic earlier this year.
Summerwill insisted in a Twitter thread that the Ethereum Classic community pays better, works better and coordinates better. Ethereum work, he argued, relies heavily on price swings.
That’s not to say the Ethereum Classic community and network are perfect by contrast. The sheer smallness of the network makes it an easy target for so-called 51 percent attacks, as happened earlier this year when some $1.1 million worth of fraudulent payments were made in a “reorg” (reorganization) of the network.
But despite this security threat and the lingering, simmering tensions, Ethereum Classic is still up and running, and the ETH-ETC bridge remains intact. “You could see it as being similar to the relationship between the British and the Americans,” said Summerwill. “At a certain point you get past ‘The War’ and can focus on common concerns, and be better for that.” Or perhaps the burgeoning “strategic friendship” will wind up more like the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.