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A Brief History of 'Cancel Culture' in Crypto

Cancel culture or just consequences? Here's how Web3 is grappling with the personal views behind the avatars.

5 min read

Brantly Millegan is not a household name—not even in the households of crypto users. His Twitter account, with an NFT avatar, subtly underlined his relative anonymity in the space. He’s a builder, not a founder or CEO.

But last week, the director of operations of the Ethereum Name Service (ENS) came under public scrutiny for a tweet he wrote in 2016 in which he stated: "Homosexual acts are evil. Transgenderism doesn't exist. Abortion is murder. Contraception is a perversion. So is masturbation and porn."

Millegan called his critics a "mob," though they weren't bringing pitchforks or flames—mostly just outraged retweets and rebuttals. After defending his remarks, which he ascribed to his Catholic beliefs, Millegan watched as the nonprofit that funds ENS terminated his employment.

A similar dynamic played out over the past few days with Ashley Christenson, a community manager for NFT marketplace SuperRare. Christenson tweeted out Kanye West song lyrics that contained the n-word back in 2011 and then, much more recently, excoriated unnamed people for not recognizing the contributions of marginalized groups to Web3.

After the apparent contradiction was pointed out by eagle-eyed Twitter users, Christenson apologized and ultimately stepped down to "reflect and learn from my mistakes." According to a post from SuperRare, which did not name Christenson, the company has "parted ways with the person involved." 

The concept of "cancellation"—at least in its current, post-Civil Rights era iteration—has long been percolating in American culture. From one perspective, it's mob-fomented ostracizing that uses a person's views to expunge them from their job, remove their platforms, or lower their cultural status. From another view, it is fairly holding people to account for their past actions. Most people, however, can agree that it's become a messy practice of determining what should be considered beyond the pale in society today. For some, it's being a Nazi. For others, it's tweeting Kanye lyrics that contain the n-word.

While much ink has been spilled on this phenomenon, it has until recently been a foreign concept within cryptocurrency thanks to the industry's small size, libertarian leanings, and comfort with pseudonymity. Crypto was more likely to welcome social outcasts than shame them. Within this small tent, even the most vocal proponents of typically anti-progressive politics have been tolerated (and even adored) as long as they love Bitcoin and don't totally trust the government. Take Nick Szabo, who some people believe is Bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakamoto. He regularly retweets controversial opinions about race, COVID, and transgenderism.

But as the industry has matured, it has naturally come into contact with the world outside of crypto.

The first inkling of the shift was likely Coinbase's attempt to insulate itself from the modern political culture. In a September 2020 blog post, CEO Brian Armstrong, anticipating the coming U.S. presidential election (the results of which President Donald Trump would go on to dispute), took stock of "social unrest, widespread protests and riots" and other problems before concluding that the company would not engage on issues "unrelated to our core mission" of creating a global financial system that is open to all. 

Armstrong remains firmly ensconced in his leadership of the now-public company, but his comments ruffled feathers. He predicted that employees might resign and offered them severance packages. He was right: 60 staff members, about 5% of its workforce, took him up on it. 

A 2021 bull market—fueled by stimulus checks, DeFi, and NFTs—reframed most of the cultural conversation around crypto back onto its price. And for a while, headier topics took a breather.

But now, with more people "in" crypto than ever, the group is attracting new scrutiny from within and outside its swelling ranks. Externally, the debates over scammy Ponzi schemes and environmental impact are louder than ever. Within the crypto community itself, a class of people that has been accustomed to toiling somewhat anonymously—whether they use a pseudonym or not—thanks to the industry's obscurity, is now taking a long look at itself.

Cooper Turley is a good example of this. Turley is a twentysomething crypto influencer who is highly involved in the DAO space. Through his "Cooopahtroopa" Twitter identity he spreads the gospel of decentralized organizations and tweets inspiring platitudes. Alas, as a teen, he used the same handle to write the n-word multiple times, something for which he has since apologized.

After the tweets resurfaced, he stepped down from his leadership positions within several DAOs. (Turley was an early advisor to PubDAO, the media DAO Decrypt launched with other partners.)

A comment in reply to Turley's Twitter announcement is telling. "Just go anon," said "BowTiedNightOwl," whose avatar is an animated owl. "Let the blue haired people try to cancel everyone until all they have left is each other."

For the moment, plenty of prominent crypto folks build products, lead projects, and opine on issues of the day from behind their avatars. But as the industry goes mainstream, anonymity won't be an option for much longer.

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