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Main article: Balaji srinivasan

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Robinhood hires CapitalG partner to lead operations

18:00 | 29 November

Robinhood’s human resources department is keeping busy this month, announcing this morning that the zero-fee stock trading app and cryptocurrency exchange has tapped CapitalG partner Gretchen Howard (pictured) to lead operations.

The news comes two days after the well-funded startup hired Jason Warnick, a long-time Amazon executive, as its chief financial officer. Warnick, Amazon’s former VP of finance, joins Robinhood amid speculation the fintech ‘unicorn’ is gearing up for an eventual initial public offering.

Howard, who’s joining as a vice president, has been a partner at Alphabet’s growth investing arm since 2014. Before that, she was a vice president at Fidelity Investments.

Earlier this year, Howard helped source CapitalG’s first investment in Robinhood, though another partner, David Lawee, lead the deal. In addition to Robinhood, she’s worked closely with CapitalG portfolio companies CreditKarma, Lyft, Airbnb and Gusto.

Robinhood brought in a $363 million Series D funding round led by DST Global in May. The company raised the capital at a more than $5 billion valuation —  a 4x increase from its valuation one year prior. In total, Robinhood has secured $539 million in equity funding from ICONIQ Capital, Thrive Capital, NEA, Sound Ventures and several others since it was founded in 2013.

“I’ve been inspired by the velocity with which Robinhood builds and launches high-quality products and share their passion for democratizing financial services,” Howard said in a statement provided to TechCrunch. “While it’s bittersweet to leave Alphabet … I’m excited to remain in the Alphabet family and work closely with the CapitalG team from the portfolio side.”

While it seems to be more common for former operators to transition into venture investing, VCs, too, opt to switch sides of the table from time to time. Howard is a great example of this, as are two former Andreessen Horowitz investors Balaji Srinivasan and Asiff Hirji, who currently serve as Coinbase’s chief technology officer and chief operating officer, respectively. Coinbase is an A16z portfolio company.

 


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Coinbase hires Fannie Mae exec Brian Brooks as chief legal officer

23:43 | 19 September

Coinbase has made yet another addition to its c-suite. The cryptocurrency trading platform has hired Brian Brooks, the former executive vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of Fannie Mae, as its chief legal officer.

The hiring is part of the company’s effort to expand its legal, compliance and government affairs teams. Mike Lempres, who until now held the chief legal and risk officer title, will transition into the role of chief policy officer.

“From the time it was founded seven years ago, Coinbase has been a leading advocate for the adoption of cryptocurrency,” Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said in a statement. “We’ve engaged proactively with regulators as we built products and services that allow people to buy, sell and use cryptocurrency all over the world. In recent years, the industry expanded faster than we could have imagined with an explosion in customer demand and entrepreneurial activity pushing the capabilities of the ecosystem forward. As this trend continues, it is more important than ever that we contribute to a public policy and regulatory environment that fosters innovation while protecting investors.”

Brooks joined Fannie Mae in 2014; before that, he was the vice chairman of OneWest Bank and a managing partner at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers.

The news comes one day after Coinbase announced the hiring of Michael Li as VP of data. Li had spent the last seven years at LinkedIn, most recently as its head of analytics and data science.

Here’s an updated round-up of Coinbase’s other notable 2018 hires:

  • Michael Li, VP of data (September). Li was previously the head of analytics and data science at LinkedIn.
  • Tim Wagner, VP of engineering (July). Wagner was previously a general manager at Amazon Web Services.
  • Jeff Horowitz, Chief Compliance Officer (July). Horowitz was the former global head of compliance at Pershing.
  • Jennifer Jones, Chief Accounting Officer (July). Jones joined from EY, where she was a senior manager.
  • Alesia Haas, Chief Financial Officer (April). Haas joined from New York-based alternative asset management firm Oz Management.
  • Balaji Srinivasan, Chief Technology Officer (April). Srinivasan joined through the company’s acquisition of Earn.com, where he was CEO.
  • Rachael Horwitz, VP of communications (April). Horwitz was formerly a partner at Spark Capital.
  • Tariq Meyers, Global Head of Belonging & Inclusion (April). Meyers was formerly the head of diversity and inclusion at Lyft.
  • Emilie Choi, VP of corporate and business development (March). Choi joined from LinkedIn, where she was head of corporate development.

 


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Coinbase now supports buying and selling Ethereum Classic

08:51 | 17 August

Coinbase has added a new buying option for its customers after the crypto exchange added Ethereum Classic to its collection.

The addition was first announced in July but Coinbase took its time to implement its newest addition following criticism over the way it added Bitcoin Cash last year. Allegations of insider trading led the company to investigate the incident which saw service outages and wild price fluctuations for Bitcoin Cash right after its addition to the exchange. It later introduced a framework for adding new tokens.

Nonetheless, Ethereum Classic’s value spiked 20 percent on last month’s news. Today, though, it is down two percent over the last 24 hours, according to Coinmarketcap.com.

Coinbase has taken a conservative approach to adding more crypto. Today’s addition takes it to five tokens — Bitcoin, Ethereum, Litecoin and Bitcoin Cash are the others — but that’s likely to change this year. Last month, it announced it is “exploring” the addition of another five tokens while CTO Balaji Srinivasan hinted that the selection would grow further when I interviewed him at the recent TechCrunch blockchain event in Zug.

“We hear your requests, and are working hard to make more assets available to more customers around the world,” Dan Romero, who heads Coinbase’s consumer business, said in a blog post published today.

A note on Ethereum Classic — it was created in June 2016 following a major hack on The DAO, a fundraising vehicle for the project. In short: the Ethereum Foundation created a new version of Ethereum — known today as Ethereum — that rescued the lost funds, while those who opposed continued on with the original chain which was known as Ethereum Classic.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

 


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Catch Binance CEO Changpeng Zhao at TechCrunch’s blockchain event on July 6

11:30 | 4 May

Changpeng Zhao, CEO of Binance — the world’s largest crypto exchange — is the newest addition who will join us for TC Sessions: Blockchain, TechCrunch’s first event dedicated to blockchain technology, which takes place July 6 in Zug, Switzerland.

The event will bring together the startup/business world and blockchain community to explore the potential of the blockchain, where it is now, and much more. The location is Zug — the Swiss city know as “Crypto Valley” for its plethora of startups and forward-thinking governance — and our speak list already includes standout names such as Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin, Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan, and Hyperledger’s Brian Bellendorf.

Tickets are available now priced at 495 Swiss Francs, or around $500 — just head here. Don’t miss it!

Zhao, known as CZ, started Binance in July 2017 and it has enjoyed a meteoric rise. The exchange processes over $3 billion in crypto trades per day, which makes it the world’s largest by some margin, according to CoinMarketCap.com. Binance’s own token (BNB) is currently trading at over $14 — that’s up from an initial ICO price of around $0.10 and it gives it a total market cap of $1.6 billion.

Even in real-world financial times, Binance is huge. The company recorded a profit of around $150 million during its most recent quarter of business despite being less than a year ago.

Zhao himself started out in the world of financial trading, creating a company called Fusion Systems which enabled high-frequency trades for brokers. He got into crypto when he joined wallet app Blockchain.info, before moving on to Chinese exchange OkCoin for a stint as CTO. Spotting an opportunity for a new exchange, he exited to start Binance last year, raising $15 million in July to kick the project off.

There’s been controversy — including rumors of high listing fees and a legal spat with VC firm Sequoia — but Binance is the top dog and it remains the exchange that every crypto firm aspires to list on.

It is also pushing out overseas beyond Hong Kong. Binance has explored the global potential of crypto by moving its exchange to Malta, a country keen to woo blockchain giants, and inking deals to hire large numbers of staff in Uganda, Togo and Bermuda. It looks like that is just scratching the service for what Binance has planned.

“I could retire now and I’d be ok for a few lifetimes, but we are doing something I think is very meaningful,” Zhao, who ranks third on Forbes’ crypto rich list with an estimated worth of $1.1-$2 billion, told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this year.

The first Premier

in a
. That’s reciprocal respect in fashion, customs and business. Respect! pic.twitter.com/ClnvqsodBo

— CZ (@cz_binance)

Blockchain is the most disruptive new development in the technology space today, and we’re excited to host our first show that is solely dedicated to the blockchain. The event takes place in the Swiss city of Zug — widely known as “Crypto Valley” due to its sizable number of crypto companies and a progressive approach to regulation — and it will bring together top figures from the blockchain space, developer community and business and startup worlds.

Prominent speakers confirmed for the July 6 event include:

  • Vitalik Buterin, creator of Ethereum
  • Balaji Srinivasan, Coinbase CTO
  • Roham Gharegozlou, the founder of smash-hit blockchain game CryptoKitties
  • Brian Behlendorf, executive director of the Hyperledger Project
  • Leanne Kemp, founder and CEO of Everledger
  • Jun Hasegawa, CEO and founder of Omise and OmiseGo
  • Mona El Isa, CEO and co-founder of Melonport
  • Colin Hanna, associate at Balderton Capital
  • Galia Benartzi, co-founder and head of Business Development at Bancor
  • Gert Sylvest, co-founder of Tradeshift and GM of Tradeshift Frontiers

You can get your hands on tickets now — they’re priced at 495 Swiss Francs, or around $500 — from the event website here.


If you’re interested in sponsoring the event, please contact us via this link.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

 


0

Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan joins the speakers at TechCrunch’s first blockchain event

12:00 | 30 April

Boom, boom, boom! We’re announcing another big name for our upcoming blockchain event in Zug, Switzerland, on July 6 after Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan joined the line-up.

The event — TC: Sessions Blockchain — will be TechCrunch’s first show dedicated to blockchain, it takes place in the world’s “Crypto Valley” and we’ll be joined by a host of top names. Some of those include Ethereum creator Vitalik ButerinRoham Gharegozlou, the founder of smash-hit blockchain game CryptoKittiesBrian Behlendorf, executive director of the Hyperledger Project, and OmiseGo CEO Jun Hasegawa.

Don’t miss it! Tickets are priced at 495 Swiss Francs — or around $500 — and they’re available from the event website here.

Fresh from announcing Buterin’s participation, we’re excited to host Srinivasan, who is another massively-respected thinker and visionary in the blockchain space.

Srinivasan became the first-ever CEO at Coinbase, the U.S. crypto giant that is now reportedly valued as high as $8 billion, in April after it bought Earn.com, where he had been CEO, in a deal priced at over $100 million.

Beyond the day job, Srinivasan is a board member at influential VC firm Andreessen Horowitz — which is planning its first dedicated crypto fund — and he holds a BS, MS, and Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and an MS in Chemical Engineering from Stanford University. He previously founded genetic testing company Counsyl, and occasionally teaches at Stanford.

TechCrunch will sit down for a one-on-one interview with Srinivasan, a long-time blockchain advocate in Silicon Valley, to discuss a multitude of topics, some of which may include his plans for Coinbase, the blockchain talent war, blockchain adoption among Silicon Valley’s tech community, how he turned Earn.com around from a debt-plagued business into a Coinbase acquisition and more.

One thing we do know is he is charged with bringing more innovation to Coinbase, a company that only trades four cryptocurrencies — so he is keeping a keen eye on what is happening on the blockchain space.

“There’s a lot of amazing stuff happening,” he said in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “Atomic swaps, sharding, plasma, proof of stake, etc, and a big part of my job will be to take all of that stuff, and rank it based on whether we can use it to create new products for our users.”

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, pictured below at TechCrunch Disrupt London in 2014, called Srinavasan “one of the most respected technologists in the crypto field and… one of the technology industry’s few true originalists.”

Blockchain is the most disruptive new technology in technology today, and we’re excited to host our first show that is solely dedicated to the blockchain. The event takes place in the Swiss city of Zug — widely known as “Crypto Valley” due to its sizable number of crypto companies and a progressive approach to regulation — and it will bring together top figures from the blockchain space, developer community and business and startup worlds.

Other prominent speakers confirmed for the July 6 event include:

  • Roham Gharegozlou, the founder of smash-hit blockchain game CryptoKitties
  • Brian Behlendorf, executive director of the Hyperledger Project
  • Leanne Kemp, founder and CEO of Everledger
  • Jun Hasegawa, CEO and founder of Omise and OmiseGo
  • Mona El Isa, CEO and co-founder of Melonport
  • Colin Hanna, associate at Balderton Capital
  • Galia Benartzi, co-founder and head of Business Development at Bancor
  • Gert Sylvest, co-founder of Tradeshift and GM of Tradeshift Frontiers

You can get your hands on tickets now — they’re priced at 495 Swiss Francs, or around $500 — from the event website here.


If you’re interested in sponsoring the event, please contact us via this link.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

 


0

Coinbase gears up to jump through regulatory hoops with new CFO and other big hires

02:55 | 18 April

The Coinbase hiring spree continues. In the last week and a half, the company has picked up a new CTO, a new VP of communications, a global head of inclusion and now a new CFO. In a blog post today, the company announced the addition of Alesia Haas, who joins the team from New York-based alternative asset management firm Oz Management. Previously she held roles with Merrill Lynch and General Electric.

“I’m incredibly excited to have Alesia join Coinbase as our new CFO. She brings deep financial services experience to our growing company,” Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong said of the hire.

“As a fintech company, finance is core to everything that we do. We plan to continue bringing the best and brightest from both finance and technology companies to help create an open financial system for the world.”

Coinbase’s other very recent hires:

But that’s not all for Coinbase’s recent staff-up. The company also recently brought on board: Emilie Choi, Vice President of Corporate and Business Development, Tina Bhatnagar, Vice President of Operations and Technology and Eric Scro, Vice President of Finance. In a blog post, the company noted that it was “working quickly to expand our executive team” during the current period of extreme growth. While it’s certain that the company is undergoing some major growth, it’s also girding for potential regulation.

Earlier in April, Coinbase reportedly approached the SEC about the possibility of registering as a licensed brokerage firm and electronic trading venue. Such a move would allow Coinbase to invite coins currently under scrutiny for looking like securities into its elite ranks. If that comes to pass, the company could see a major expansion beyond the four coins (Bitcoin, Bitcoin Cash, Ethereum, Litecoin) that trade on the platform now, particularly a move toward bringing ERC20 tokens into the fold as the company signaled it would in late March.

Disclosure: The author holds a small position in some cryptocurrencies. Regrettably, it is not enough for a Lambo.

 


0

Coinbase buys Earn.com and makes CEO Balaji Srinivasan its first CTO

19:00 | 16 April

Coinbase, the prominent cryptocurrency exchange, has announced its most significant piece of M&A to date after it agreed to buy Earn.com, the U.S. startup that uses the blockchain for its paid-email service, in a deal worth over $120 million. In additional, Coinbase has appointed Earn.com co-founder and CEO Balaji Srinivasan as its first CTO, while the rest of the team will transition over, too.

The deal doesn’t come as a complete surprise since Coindesk reported last month that Coinbase and Earn.com were in talks over a deal.

This is Coinbase’s fifth acquisition to date — its most recent was a deal to buy Cipher Browser last week — and its largest outlay so far. Neither party is saying exactly how much Coinbase is paying, but Srinivasan told TechCrunch in an interview that the deal represents a positive return on investment for those who backed Earn.com, which was formerly known as 21. The company had raised more than $120 million from investors, according to Crunchbase data, which gives some idea of the total deal package.

All of Coinbase’s previous acquisitions have centered around talent, for example, last week’s Cipher deal sees highly-rated developed Peter Kim join the Coinbase ranks. That seems to be a major motivator for landing Earn.com, despite a high price and a product that both Srinivasan and Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong intend to “double down” on post-acquisition.

A Stanford graduate who holds a BS, MS, and PhD in Electrical Engineering and an MS in Chemical Engineering, Srinivasan is highly-prized in Silicon Valley. He sits on the board at power investor firm Andreessen Horowitz and is known for being an early evangelist of cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology. (He once told me that he tipped Uber drivers in bitcoin in its early days, going so far as to set up Coinbase wallets for them while in their back of their car as they took him to his destination.)

It’s not a secret that Coinbase has struggled to fill its vacancies with talent, and that has extended to the CTO role. Bringing in a name as big as Srinivasan is a major coup for the company and, with the startup said to be paying some of its talent more than $1 million per year in salary, it doesn’t make you wonder how big a factor landing Srinivasan is in making this deal happen.

More importantly for Andreessen Horowitz, Qualcomm Ventures, Khosla Ventures and other backers of Earn.com, this deal with Coinbase — which includes cash, stock and crypto — represents a turnaround in fortunes for the startup.

Founded as secretive bitcoin mining operation ’21E6′ in 2013, the company quickly raised over $100 million but struggled as the price of bitcoin fell and expensive operational costs weighed it down.

Srinivasan was an initial co-founder but he stepped back from daily operations to take a full-time role with Andreessen Horowitz as the startup got going. He returned to the fold as CEO role in 2015 when, he explained, the company had less than a year in runway having wracked up large capital commitments that it couldn’t pay back, even with millions of dollars of mining profit each month.

Alongside CFO Lily Liu, Srinivasan refocused the company to offer a service that rewards users financially for answering emails and completing tasks. Today, he said, the company — which was renamed to Earn.com last year — is profitable with revenue at an eight-digital annual rate run with “hundreds of thousands” of users.

“With Coinbase’s user base and distribution muscle, I think it could hit $100 million in ARR in a few months,” Srinivasan told TechCrunch. “I’m proud of the fact that we turned what could have been a disaster into a successful product and I’m excited about the road ahead.”

Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong on stage at TechCrunch DIsrupt San Francesco in 2014

It is fairly easy to dismiss Earn.com as Silicon Valley hyperbole — the fact that Mark Andreesen will answer your email in return for a $100 donation to Black Girls Code may be neat but it is not game-changer — but the company’s product gets interesting when you consider it at scale.

Srinivasan explained how the ability to reach hundreds of domain experts with questions — for example AI engineers about their next career move, or expectations for how the industry matures — starts to become a powerful tool, particularly when the surveyor pays based on results. That’s a very different proposal to existing intelligence services, and it has found success among some tech industry verticals.

Lately, Earn.com has branched out into token-based incentives for tasks, and it launched a platform that allows companies preparing to hold an ICO to airdrop tokens to Earn.com users in exchange for answers, opinions and other feedback.

Writing in a blog post for Coinbase — which interestingly focuses heavily on Srinivasan’s arrival at the company — CEO Armstrong called Earn.com “arguably one of the earliest practical blockchain applications to achieve meaningful scale.”

It’ll be interesting to see what Coinbase does with it, particularly around product integrations.

Perhaps of more significance is what Srinivasan does in his new role.

Acknowledging what many perceive as Coinbase’s conservative approach to cryptocurrencies — it offers users the chance to buy only four — Srinivasan said a large part of his role is to look at emerging technologies.

“There’s a lot of amazing stuff happening,” he told TechCrunch. “Atomic swaps, sharding, plasma, proof of stake, etc, and a big part of my job will be to take all of that stuff, and rank it based on whether we can use it to create new products for our users.”

Another part, he mentioned, will be evangelizing the concept of blockchain itself beyond just the cryptocurrencies as investments. So you can expect him to pop up at events and generally have a wider presence in the media as Coinbase looks to cement its position as a blockchain and crypto leader.

Srinivasan will also continue to be involved with Andreessen Horowitz, and at Coinbase he’ll be part of the company’s recently announced investment arm, Coinbase Ventures.

“Every once in a while, a company comes along that is the start button for a technology,” Srinivasan said, citing companies like Microsoft (Windows) and Facebook and their roles in igniting the next phases of technology development.

“If you control and build that onboarding process, then you can build everything else downstream. If you do it right, then Coinbase goes from the place people build cryptocurrency to the place where blockchain technology is built.”

Coinbase is certainly trying to move in that direction with the fund — which follows the wider trend of crypto companies getting into investment — while the recent hiring of former LinkedIn M&A head Emilie Choi has advanced the M&A piece with three deals announced in 2018 alone.

Note: The author a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

 


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21.co announces a token system to get people to join its paid messaging network

02:46 | 21 September

Today at Disrupt, 21.co CEO and co-founder Balaji Srinivasan outlined his company’s unusual evolution and announced the launch of a new system for kickstarting the site’s user base by incentivizing people with tokens for doing things like signing up, getting verified and performing certain tasks.

The company opted to move away from the increasingly popular ICO model because it’s looking to build engagement, not raise funds. After all, the company has generated a lot of money through its early bitcoin mining operation, and has a healthy amount of VC backing — not to mention Srinivasan’s own connections — as an Andreessen Horowitz board partner. The company likely could have raised quite a bit in funding through a token sale, but instead opted to use it to kickstart the site. 

“What we want is not millions of dollars, it’s millions of users,” he said onstage. “We’ve got it set up to take in labor in exchange for tokens. We have users come to the site, they sign up, they get verified. What that means is that you get tokens for doing the sort of usual things you do on social networks.”

In its current form, the tokens can be used in-network. It’s sort of like getting Toys ‘R’ Us bucks — a form of currency designed to be used on the site itself. That means engaged users can essentially get funding to help pay for things like say, the $100 it costs to get a meaningful response from Marc Andreessen on the network. The ICO/token system has proven a popular one for platforms like Kik looking to take on social media giants.

The tokens also will eventually be able to be listed on exchanges, which means they could have some semblance of real-world value outside of 21.co‘s walled garden. Though Srinivasan is quick to distinguish the idea from equity in that having this sort of financial stake in the company doesn’t entitle users to any sort of input in the site.

Tokens aside, 21.co‘s model is a strange one from the outside. For most of us, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which $20, $50 or $100 is a reasonable sum to pay for the promise of getting a single email back from a user. Srinivasan, however, insists that it could be a useful tool for businesses that would have less of an issue swallowing that per-message pricing. The system also allows for bulk messages, so companies can hit up a slew of influencers all in one go.

As far as what all of this actually has to do with 21.co‘s roots in bitcoin, Srinivasan sees the service as a method for achieving his longstanding goal of helping bring the concept of cryptocurrency to a more mainstream audience. The site does that, in part, by paying users in bitcoin. It’s a fairly tenuous connection with the service’s initial objective, but rather than cutting its losses when the company could no longer compete with Chinese bitcoin mining operations, the executive opted to try something else altogether.

“Most rational people would have just shut it down,” he said onstage. “There are many moments when the rational act would have been to just give up and quit. You’re only a founder if you do things in a sometimes irrational way because you hate to lose.”

 


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The Great Fragmentation: We Are All Weirdos Now

17:00 | 12 July

“Technology isn’t a section in the newspaper any more. It’s the culture,” quoth Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, prompting some eyebrow-raising by Guardian and New York Times columnists. And here’s some more from TechCrunch… but my stance is a bit different. “The culture”? That’s an oxymoron. There is no such thing as majority mainstream culture any more. We are all weirdos now — thanks to tech.

Balaji Srinivasan of Andreessen Horowitz wrote a terrific, farsighted piece in Wired last year, in which he observed:

An infinity of subcultures outside the mainstream now blossoms on the Internet — vegans, body modifiers, CrossFitters, Wiccans, DIYers, Pinners, and support groups of all forms. Millions of people are finding their true peers in the cloud, a remedy for the isolation imposed by the anonymous apartment complex or the remote rural location … The latest wave of technology is not just connecting us intellectually and emotionally with remote peers: it is also making us ever more mobile, ever more able to meet our peers in person.

He suggests that a “reverse diaspora” could cause groups of likeminded people to come together and form new communities — indeed, new nations; “cloud cities or countries.” Which immediately brings to mind the phyles of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, geographically distributed nations whose footprints are dispersed unevenly all over the world rather than contained within a single contiguous piece of real estate.

Plausible, but distant, I think. For now let’s just take a look at the recent and short-term cultural effects of technology, what I call the Great Fragmentation.

Once upon a time, only a couple of decades ago, there really was such a thing as mainstream culture. Its gatekeepers — a handful of TV channels, an incestuous music business, a clutch of radio mavens, a few movie studios, and the jealously guarded print industry — controlled 95% of the media. There was an independent counterculture, sure, but you had to go out of your way for it, and you really had to go out of your way to communicate with others who shared your interests, unless they happened to live nearby.

Nowadays, though, wherever you are, whatever your interests, however baroque and obscure, you can find and join groups and mini-communities of people who share them. Indeed, you can and likely do find yourself part of several or even many distributed communities, one or more for each subject or context that really interests you. (Not that it’s ever that clear-cut in real life; cultural borders are always fuzzy and ill-defined, and every comment thread on your Facebook news feed is arguably its own mayfly-ephemeral mini-community.)

Doomsayers frequently warn us about how the Internet fragments society and causes us to become more polarized. “The Internet is a driver and enabler for the process of radicalization,” intones an NYPD white paper (PDF) on terrorism. Princeton’s Cass Sunstein observes: “When like-minded people get together, they tend to end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.”

Everyone always talks about that kind of polarization in terms of left-wing vs. right-wing politics, loss of civility, doom of society, etc etc etc. But a far more interesting corollary, if you ask me, is this: all those quirky little Internet subcommunities and subreddits to which people increasingly belong? The polarization effect means that they will just keep getting quirkier and more idiosyncratic.

…In other words, as a direct result of technology, our entire society will, slowly but steadily, become weirder and more fragmented.

Dismayed? Don’t be. This is excellent news. Well, maybe not for marketers and advertisers, who no longer have a single barrel full of all the fish to fire their weapons into, but now have to catch us as we all swim through the new online oceans. Stephenson again, from his prescient short story Hack the Spew, written twenty years ago:

It was an unexploited market niche of cavernous proportions: upwards of one-hundredth of one percent of the population.

…but for the rest of us, it’s a very heartening development. Given a choice between

  1. the de facto cultural tyranny of a genuine mainstream majority
  2. a society in which people accept that, for any given context, its “mainstream” will be a plurality rather than a majority, and adjust their behavior and expectation accordingly

…I’ll take option 2 any day of the week and twice on Sundays, thanks. A society in which people accept that their personal views generally are and will remain minority perspectives, rather than seeking to impose “normal” beliefs and tastes on any who don’t fit in, is enormously healthier, both culturally and politically. Given time, maybe this social transformation could even fragment American politics beyond its infantile two-party divide, into a genuine three-or-more-party democracy like the rest of the West enjoys.

In the meantime and the medium term, though, the weird will slowly but steadily efface the normal. My friend Meredith Patterson recently wrote a frankly brilliant piece entitled “When Nerds Collide: My intersectionality will have weirdoes or it will be bullshit.” (Intersectionality: the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination.) It is, to oversimplify, about the culture gap between old-school weird hackers and new-school progressive techies. She writes:

Many programmers aren’t hackers, and there isn’t a single thing wrong with that. Literacy of any kind is a beautiful thing. In today’s market, demand for code-literate employees far exceeds the supply, so engineering teams contain both hackers and non-hackers. Increasingly, the latter outnumber the former. This is still a beautiful thing — until the latter realise there are enough of them to push the weirdos out, and do it.

Call me an optimist, Meredith, but I think that in the medium term, this problem is self-solving. Because the Internet isn’t just a home for weirdos; it actually manufactures them … and when most of us realize that most of us are weird, we will see that this is actually a very good thing indeed.

Image credit: yours truly, Flickr.


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Marc Andreessen: “My prediction is that the libertarians will turn on Bitcoin.”

23:20 | 25 March
Marc Andreessen and Balaji Srinivasan, two of Bitcoin’s biggest bulls in the venture capital industry, stepped up their rhetoric against skeptics of the crypto-currency today at the Coin Summit conference in San Francisco. Addressing Warren Buffett, who recently called Bitcoin a “mirage” and warned investors to stay away from it, Andreessen joked that the “track record of… Read More


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