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Why you can’t rebuild Wikipedia with crypto

Molly White, creator of Web3 Is Going Just Great, explains

Whenever a fresh disaster happens on the blockchain, increasingly I learn about it from the same destination: a two-month old website whose name suggests the deadpan comedy with which it chronicles the latest crises in NFTs, DAOs, and everything else happening in crypto.

Launched on December 14th, Web3 Is Going Just Great is the sort of thing you almost never see any more on the internet: a cool and funny new website. Its creator and sole author is Molly White, a software engineer and longtime Wikipedia contributor who combs through news and crypto sites to find the day’s most prominent scams, schemes, and rug pulls.

Organized as a timeline and presented in reverse chronological order, to browse Web3 Is Going Just Great is to get a sense of just how unusual an industry this is. This week alone, the site (W3IGG to its fans) has highlighted, among other things:

Scrolling through the items tallies the actual costs of these issues to their victims: A “Grift Counter” in the bottom right corner adds up the value of all the losses to theft and scams that you’ve read about so far.

More than 225,000 people have visited the site to date. It has been featured on Daring Fireball, among other places, and its Twitter account has quickly amassed nearly 23,000 followers.

By White’s own admission, W3IGG has “a strong bias against web3,” and people who are more enthusiastic about crypto may find its one-sided viewpoint unfair. But White’s dryly funny, almost clinical write-ups of crypto crises make it accessible even to open-minded skeptics like myself.

I asked White if she would be up for a conversation, and happily she agreed. We talked about the site’s origins, her favorite crypto catastrophe, and why she thinks giving people financial stakes in projects will not create a host of new Wikipedia-style projects, unlike what advocates of decentralization often claim.

Casey Newton: When did you first suspect that web3 might not, in fact, be going all that great?

Molly White: Towards the end of 2021 I started to see so much web3 hype, everywhere: on social media, in conversations with friends, in technical spaces, in the news. When I went to look up what “web3” even was, I found no end of articles talking about how one company or another was doing something with web3, or how some venture capital firm was setting up a web3 fund, or how all the problems with the current web were going to be solved by web3… but very few that would actually succinctly describe what the term even meant.

This definitely set off the first alarm bells for me: it’s concerning to me when people are trying extremely hard to get people to buy into some new idea but aren’t particularly willing (or even able) to describe what it is they’re doing. As I began to pay more attention to the space, I was seeing all of this hype for web3 with all these new projects, but so many of them were just absolutely terrible ideas when you got past the marketingspeak and veneer. Medical records on the blockchain! Fix publishing with NFTs! Build social networks on top of immutable databases!

I started my Web3 is Going Great project after seeing a few particularly horrendous ideas, as well as after I began to notice just how frequently these hacks and scams were happening (with huge amounts of money involved).

In just the couple months since you launched, we’ve seen entries in all the great genres of crypto whoopsies: the catastrophic hack, the rug pull, the project based on massive copyright infringement. Is there one story in crypto history that you regard as the quintessential “web3 is going great” story?

(Maybe it’s recency bias, but I feel like you could write an entire history of the world based of your recent headline “UN reports that millions of dollars in stolen crypto have gone towards funding North Korean missile programs.”)

I think I’d have to pick the Bitfinex hack. It’s got a little bit of everything! Multiple hacks, including of course the infamous August 2016 hack of almost 120,000 bitcoin (worth $72 million at the time, worth several billion today). There’s been tons of shady business by executives, some involving Tether, and some of which have led to huge fines in the past year. And of course it’s got the “reality is truly stranger than fiction” aspect that makes for some of the best W3IGG entries: the recent discovery of some of those stolen bitcoins as they were allegedly being laundered by a New York couple, one of whom moonlighted as an extremely weird rapper.

Shout out to Razzlekhan.

You’re a longtime editor and administrator of Wikipedia, which is often presented by crypto people as a web3 dream project: a decentralized public good operated by its community. And yet something tells me you think about decentralization and community very differently than they do. How do your experiences at Wikipedia shape the way you view web3?

I think my experiences with the Wikimedia community have given me a pretty realistic view of how wonderful, but also how difficult community-run projects can be.

There are some issues that community-driven projects are prone to running up against: deciding on issues when the community is split, dealing with abuse and harassment within the community, handling outside players with a strong interest in influencing what the community does. I think this is partly why some of the best critics of web3 have backgrounds in communities like Wikimedia and open source—they are familiar with the challenges that community governance and decentralization can bring.

When I watch DAOs spring into existence and encounter a lot of the same difficulties we’ve seen over and over again, I often find myself wondering how many members have ever been involved in community-run projects in the past. I think a lot of people are dipping their toes in for the first time, and learning a lot of things the hard way, with very high stakes.

Web3 also adds an enormous amount of complexity on top of the already-complex types of issues that the Wikimedia community has faced, because there’s money involved. The non-profit Wikimedia Foundation handles most of the finances with respect to Wikipedia, and so although the community has input, it’s largely not a day-to-day concern. There also aren’t really intrinsic monetary incentives for people to contribute to Wikipedia, which I think is a very good thing. Where people are paid to edit Wikipedia by outside parties, it warps the incentive to contribute into one that’s very different from (and sometimes at odds with) the incentives for most community members, and is often a very negative thing. Our community has actually spent a lot of time discussing how to handle paid editors, and has even considered trying to prohibit the practice completely.

The majority of people contributing to Wikipedia are doing so out of a desire to improve an encyclopedic resource. With web3 you have a whole mix of motivations, including wanting to support a specific project, wanting to do good in various broader ways, and just wanting to make a lot of money. Those things can be in conflict a lot of the time.

Crypto enthusiasts often respond to that argument by saying something like “of course Wikipedia contributors should be paid! They’re creating a massive amount of value.” And (the argument goes) we might have a lot more Wikipedia-style projects in the world, if only we could properly incentivize them. What’s your view on that?

I’d invite them to take a look at any of the Wikipedia-like projects that have tried to do exactly this. Everipedia is probably the most well-known example, and it’s been around since 2014. They’ve had seven years to figure it out, but the project is largely still a graveyard of content they’ve just scraped off Wikipedia, articles that people have written about themselves, and, increasingly, crypto spam. I looked at their recent activity page just now, and two editors have made six edits in the past hour. As I write this, people are making 160 edits per minute just to the English language Wikipedia—700 per minute across all languages.

If you look at [Everipedia’s] recent blog posts, it’s all about how many tokens their editors have supposedly earned, and it even brags about the fact that “Over 70% of stakers have locked their IQ up for over 3.5 years to earn max APR”. This is the same token that people are supposed to be spending to edit and vote on the quality of edits, but they’re excited that people are locking them up on staking platforms? [Their] goal is not to create a reference work, it’s to make money off the token.

Speaking more broadly, monetizing things just shifts the dynamics in enormous ways. We’ve seen this same thing happen with play-to-earn gaming, where people start doing things really differently when monetary incentives are added.

A lot of writing about web3 is highly polarized — either hugely enthusiastic or violently opposed. Then your site came along and said, in an understated way, this is all just pretty funny. How did you arrive at the site’s tone?

The website definitely has a strong bias against web3, which I think surprised some people who know me as a Wikipedian. I’ve had to tell a few people that if my goal was to write about web3 from a purely encyclopedic perspective, I would go do it on Wikipedia. That said, because so much of my writing in the past decade or so has taken the form of Wikipedia articles, I often find myself falling back on that sort of detached encyclopedic style, and I think that’s evident in W3IGG. The site definitely reflects my opinions in the choice of entries, and in some of the snark or commentary that I do add to some of the entries, but the main goal of any entry is to give a fairly factual recounting of what happened.

I think there’s also a lot of value in giving short, digestible descriptions of the types of things that are happening in web3, without delving too deep into the technology or specifics. I’ve done some longer-form writing about web3 and crypto, and I’ve realized that you either have to assume that your readers already know what blockchains and NFTs and DAOs and proof-of-work and a whole host of other things are, or you have to spend a huge amount of time defining all these things before you can even make your point. Depending what you’re writing about you also might have to go into a lot of economic or political concepts and theory, too. People have to be willing to invest a lot of time and brainpower into understanding even pretty surface-level analyses of web3, and I think a lot of people just click away.

Presenting a list of short and tangible examples of web3 projects, and using those to highlight the flaws with the space, has been really effective because a layperson can stumble across the site and enjoy an entry or two without needing too much background. That’s not to speak negatively of the many wonderful and deep analyses of web3 that are out there — W3IGG would absolutely not exist without that incredible research and writing, and I’ve tried to do some of my own too — but I think W3IGG appeals to a somewhat different audience. I hope it also draws people in to learn more about the space and engage with some of the more thoughtful criticism.

In January you wrote an excellent blog post about the way that blockchains can enable abuse, harassment, surveillance, and other ills. When I asked my readers who is working to address these issues, I was shocked how few responses I got. Do you think the inattention is the usual history repeating itself, or are the technological challenges harder than people realize?

History is definitely repeating itself with web3. We’ve already seen repeats of history in a lot of ways: projects being exploited for failing to follow what are normally the most fundamental software security practices, or people falling for fraudulent schemes that have existed for ages but have been adapted to use web3 technology. I think a lot of people are so eager to innovate and make money that they aren’t slowing down to consider the structural problems that really need considering.

It’s also a deeply complicated subject, and I doubt there are any people who have a deep understanding of all of the topics that web3 projects often have to consider: the technology, sure, but also security, economics, sociology, politics, law… So everyone is operating with various levels of knowledge in some subset of those things, and it’s easy for considerations to be missed.

In a lot of ways, people are also tying themselves to the technology in ways that I haven’t really seen before. You don’t see a lot of people pick a type of data model—say a linked list—and say “okay, how can I solve [x problem] with a linked list?” But that’s exactly what’s happening in web3: “How can I solve selling real estate with a blockchain?” “How can I solve voting integrity with a blockchain?” And inevitably some of these people are more tied to the idea of blockchains than they are to solving their chosen problems in a good way.

I think there is a third factor at play, too, which is that a lot of people in web3 seem unusually hostile to skepticism, criticism, or even alternate points of view. Some web3 communities have become resistant to people even asking questions simply to understand the projects better, and people end up walking on eggshells so they aren’t seen to be “spreading FUD” or not believing in a project. This is such a dangerous attitude to have, because all technologies need skeptics! And when people aren’t listening to different points of view, they’re missing such important information.

I think one of the huge reasons that questions about abuse and harassment in web3 projects have gone largely unaddressed is because the people who have to face the worst of it—members of marginalized groups—are underrepresented in web3 communities and among web3 skeptics. But without those perspectives, and without people asking the hard questions early on, people developing any technology are doomed to find themselves trying to tack on fixes to existing systems after people have already been harmed.

I try to approach web3 stuff with open-minded skepticism. On one hand, you have every story ever featured on W3IGG. On the other hand, so much of the energy and talent and money in tech right now is racing toward crypto at 100 mph. How plausible is it to you that something actually great might come out of web3?

I don’t see a future for web3, and I am quite critical of it. But I do acknowledge that despite the very negative things I’ve highlighted about it, there are some positives. It’s drawing attention to a lot of things that I am delighted to see highlighted: community-driven projects, community organizing, and open source software, to name a few. It’s also drawing a lot of people in to get involved with tech, often from new backgrounds (artists, for example), and that’s great. I am hoping that even if web3 turns out to be a disaster, and I do think it will, some of those people stick around, and keep going with open source software and community-driven projects without all of the blockchain bullshit. That could be very powerful.

As far as specific projects, if anything good comes out of web3, I expect it will emerge despite the technologies rather than as a result of them. There are all kinds of people trying to solve very real problems, but they are putting all their eggs in the one basket: a type of datastore that’s often very expensive and inefficient, and which introduces complexities around decentralization, immutability, and privacy that many projects will find impossible to overcome.