The crypto elite has plenty of smart people but too few good people. There's something about making it big—most likely the money and fame—that leads crypto stars to succumb to greed, narcissism and terrible Twitter manners.
That's what makes Vitalik Buterin so exceptional.
The man who wrote the Ethereum white paper while still a teenager is worth billions and is the most famous crypto figure after Satoshi. And yet he retains a deep sense of grace and humanity, even in the face of the slings and arrows of social media jackasses.
The latest example came after he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, which prompted a torrent of nasty insults about his appearance, likening him to a disfigured version of Tom Brady. In response, Vitalik didn't sulk or lash out but instead tweeted a round-up of the worst insults while also admitting he had no idea who Brady was. This touched off a rather nice Twitter exchange with the famous quarterback.
Vitalik's singular lack of ego is also evident in Laura Shin's new book The Cryptopians, which dishes up a wealth of details on Ethereum's early days and the project's multiple "co-founders"—some of whom clearly contributed relatively little, yet sought to cheat and diminish the naive young developer at every turn. Despite this shabby treatment, which has persisted to this day, Vitalik has refused to return fire or put them in their place.
Rather than reveling in money and status, Vitalik has instead immersed himself in learning. His insatiable curiosity has led him to learn Chinese and other languages (in addition to English and his native Russian), and to publish thoughtful essays on crypto, economics, and political theory. He has spoken out about Russia's invasion of Ukraine with total moral clarity. In his Time interview, he warned of the "peril" of "$3 million monkeys" representing crypto.
His writings on decentralized governance have made him one of the leading public intellectuals of our century. I expect it's only a matter of time until he joins other famous economists like Marx and Keynes as the subject of biographies.
During all of this, he has had to endure the travails of fame: getting mobbed at public appearances; countless scammers seeking to exploit his name and image for crypto hustles. Amazingly, he has managed to be a faithful steward of the marvelous blockchain he gave to the world. Instead of seeking to personally represent Ethereum, he has stepped back, providing only the occasional nudge and guidance as the project inches toward what should be a major upgrade.
Vitalik is no saint, of course. Like the rest of us, he has flaws and weaknesses, some of which are laid bare in Shin's book. But he has carried himself with a sense of humility and decency even as he has obtained wealth and fame beyond imagination. Could most of us do the same? Probably not. But what we can do is look to Vitalik as a model of what crypto celebrity can be—even if we don't deserve him.
This is Roberts on Crypto, a weekend column from Decrypt Editor-in-Chief Daniel Roberts and Decrypt Executive Editor Jeff John Roberts. Sign up for the Decrypt Debrief email newsletter to get it in your inbox every Saturday. And read last weekend's column: The Bored Apes Get Richer—and More Cringey.