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How Brand Hive Minds Thrive: Understanding Bitcoin’s Resilience

Published onJun 13, 2022
How Brand Hive Minds Thrive: Understanding Bitcoin’s Resilience
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Abstract:

How does a decentralized brand like Bitcoin become resilient? Drawing on ecological resilience framework, we examine how Bitcoin’s hive mind has evolved thanks to a combination of stabilizing and destabilizing forces. We draw on a longitudinal ethnographic and netnographic study of Bitcoin/Blockchain from 2014 to 2022. We make three assertions. First, Bitcoin is stronger because it is a decentralized brand. Second, the social memory of the brand’s hive mind is accumulated, consolidated, and crystallized by responses to internal and external crises. Third, the network of the hive mind uses crises as metamorphic moments that become enshrined in social memory and help the brand become resilient over time.

Disclosure: This research is funded by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Grant # 435-2020-0595.

1. Introduction:

Nate: You know, Bitcoin has certainly been through its boom and bust periods… and a lot of terrible stuff happened… They publicly said “Bitcoin is dead” ... and that was VERY convincing to me (laughs). But then when it started to recover, I was like… “Wait, oh… Bitcoin has a life of its own!!! And it’s just never gonna die!!!” There are definitely threats to Bitcoin, but every year that it exists, there’s more evidence of its robustness...so we’re always getting more evidence that it’s going to only resist these kinds of shocks… That’s not to say that there’s nothing bad that could ever happen to it… but … I certainly think that it has an element of anti-fragility at this point… (Interview)

Death has haunted Bitcoin from the very beginning. In the early days, even an innocent auto-complete of “Bitcoin is…” in a Google search would invariably offer “Bitcoin is dead.” However, despite multiple ‘deaths’ in the public imagination, Bitcoin has re-emerged and shown elements of deep resilience. How does a decentralized brand like Bitcoin with no one in charge keep coming back from the dead? Drawing on an ecological resilience framework and based on a multi-sited longitudinal study of Bitcoin/Blockchain from 2014 to 2022, we analyze how the social memory of a decentralized brand is built through various storms and crises. The social memory is the collective memory of the ecosystem that keeps it afloat during times of crises. We emphasize the role of social media in tempering and exacerbating these crises. We characterize these crises as metamorphic moments that help transform and feed the hive mind: a gestalt of all the minds working in the ecosystem. The data are from 78+ depth interviews, archival (news media), netnographic sources (social media forums), and participant observation at multiple Bitcoin and Blockchain meetups and conferences in North America, Europe, and Asia as well as in virtual meetings (COVID-19). We show how Bitcoin has gone through various adaptive capacity cycles and how its social memory solidifies the brand hive mind.

2. Theoretical Background:

Decentralized Brands’ Hive Minds

We live immersed in socio-technical systems and networks increasingly define the “new social morphologies [organizing structures] of our societies” [1]. Bitcoin has disrupted many of our assumptions about money [2][3]. It shifts trust from middlemen such as banks and clearing houses to the decentralized blockchain that exists thanks to a dispersed set of nodes (miners) around the world. Bitcoin operates without a General Manager, board of directors, or CEO, eviscerating geographic, nation states, and ethnic boundaries. Instead, it has its own ecosystem nested within a network of different groups and individuals who cluster at conferences, meetups, and online. Despite these moveable feasts, Bitcoin has no “center” per se. There are no C-suites, headquarters, offices, or chains of command that control decisions. It is not possible to buy or trademark the “Bitcoin” brand, since there is no centralized organization that creates/controls it. The brand logo remains open under a Creative Commons license. It has a creator (albeit pseudonymous), but it has no owner who can determine its fate. Its ownership is instead distributed among its many users around the world. And while organizations such as Bitcoin exchanges and wallets have arisen to facilitate the acquisition of Bitcoins, these exchanges also lack the ability to control the social memory/narrative or formulate brand strategies for Bitcoin as a whole.

Decentralized brands have distributed ownership and a strong commons ethos. They epitomize the rise of creative consumption in which distinctions between consumers and producers evaporate. They are products of an era of democratized innovation and technocapitalism [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]. In such systems, intangibles and creativity are key assets and informal networks play an “increasing role in the destabilization of our cultures, traditions, and other social systems” [9]. In Bitcoin we see the evolution of a decentralized brand hive mind. As [10] put it, the hive mind “is irredeemably social, unabashedly of many minds” but it “decides as a whole when to swarm and where to move. A hive possesses an intelligence that none of its parts does…” The internet and the WWW have laid the infrastructure for the possibility of inscribing “human and artificial minds into one planetary soul” where “distributed, headless, emergent wholeness becomes the social ideal” [10]. The hive can collectively hold onto a memory longer than any individual node.

Decentralized brands like Bitcoin have memetic qualities in that the initial idea is reworked multiple times, refurbished, and recast into the world where the original vision sometimes gets obscured. For example, some Bitcoin developers point to the fact that the code has been updated so much since Satoshi Nakamoto’s disappearance that if he/she/it/they returned, they may not recognize their own work. These brands operate as ecosystem hive minds based on multiple nodes that are crisis, censorship, and surveillance resistant. They may have anonymous/pseudonymous founders and maintain egalitarian/democratic/commons ownership through relying on consensus [11] [12]. These brands have a strong ideological and activist DNA and can subvert attempts at co-optation.

The brand hive mind to an extent is a distributed brain. It has material manifestations in the form of resources such as capital flows, human flows, and social flows connected by the internet. Bitcoin’s hive mind social memory resides not only in the individual minds of the people involved; it also exists in fragmented pieces on various social media platforms; in the voices and images inscribing narratives around Bitcoin, in the lines penned by journalists, in the material circuits of computer nodes, in the fiat currencies exchanged in BTM machines, and in all the physical and material places dedicated to Bitcoin and Satoshi, all connected through algorithmic webs. They collectively solidify the social memory of this brand ecosystem hive mind. Decentralized brands operate as ecosystems without a single point of authority or resources and as with any ecosystem – they are constantly embroiled in crises.

Ecological Resilience Framework:

Resilience has different interpretations in various fields, but commonalities include the ideas of survival against unexpected risks and managing in an environment awash with uncertainty [13] [14] [15] [16] [17] [18]. Resilience can be the capacity of an ecosystem to recover after a disturbance and “absorb a spectrum of shocks or perturbations and to sustain and develop its fundamental function, structure, identity, and feedbacks as a result of recovery or reorganization in a new context” [19]. It entails a capacity to learn and restructure new adaptations as a result of a crisis. A key feature of the resilience framework is viewing ecosystems as decentralized networks lacking a single source of authority or resources where there are interlinked dynamic cycles across temporal and spatial scales.

We draw on ecological resilience framework as a conceptual metaphor to guide our analysis. Metaphors are not always literal, “only part of them is used to structure our normal concepts” [20]. The way that trees talk to each other and share resources growing in interconnected webs [21], the Bitcoin brand hive mind thrives. There are a number of concepts from the ecological resilience framework that are useful in understanding the progression of Bitcoin over the years. First, change relies on a slow accumulation of natural capital over time, and progress is defined by sudden reorganizations of those legacies. The resilience framework also provides the concept of an adaptive capacity cycle comprised of four stages: Growth, Conservation, Release (creative destruction), and Renewal (reorganization) [22]. The adaptive cycle evolves through destabilizing and stabilizing forces in the environment. Destabilizing forces maintain “diversity, flexibility, and opportunity”; while stabilizing forces help in maintaining “productivity, fixed capital and social memory” [17]. Multiple adaptive cycles are linked through the forces of revolt and remember forming a panarchy. According to [22] the term “panarchy” was “coined as an antithesis to the word “hierarchy.” It was in reference to the Greek god of nature “Pan” which forms the roots for terms such as “panic,” “pandemonium,” or “pandemic.” Revolts are events in which fast and small occurrences overwhelm large events. An example of this is when a small fire is started in one place but goes on to destroy an entire forest. The concept of “Remember” means that an ecosystem after a fire may draw on “accumulated wisdom and experiences of maturity” [23].

In the context of Bitcoin, a precipitating event could be a minor hack of an exchange that leads to price volatility across various altcoin markets. Or Elon Musk one day endorsing Bitcoin to another day linking it to climate change [Field Notes, 2021]. In revolt, smaller units of the ecosystem may experiment while the larger, slower ecosystems stabilize and conserve the accumulated social memory. For instance, in the overarching crypto-ecosystem, Ethereum which grew out of Bitcoin’s ecosystem, could be viewed as an example of Revolt while Bitcoin remains a source of Remember. As one developer said, “They joke that Bitcoin is a dinosaur – but we just go slowly on scaling without breaking too many things”(Interview). Similarly, within the sub-nested ecosystem of Ethereum: NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings), DAOs (Distributed Autonomous Organizations), and DeFi (Decentralized Finance), can be viewed as forms of revolt. These smaller nested levels invent, experiment, and test out disruptive new ideas rapidly while the larger ecosystem (Ethereum/Vitalik Buterin) conserve and stabilize. The resilience framework argues for a transient state of affairs where there may be multiple equilibria or no equilibrium. We characterize destabilizing and stabilizing forces as porous metamorphic moments that help transform the social memory of the brand ecosystem hive mind.

Organisms have memories. Even the body when it recovers from an infection maintains antibodies that inoculate and hold a memory to protect against future attacks. The social memory of an ecosystem refers to the “memory of past experiences that is retained by groups, providing a legacy of knowing how to do things under different circumstances” [19]. From the resilience perspective, social memory is considered a stock of an ecosystem which records the “history of changing flows within the system” [24]. Or as [25] put it: “a repository of experiential knowledge.” Stocks can be of an ideological or material nature and act as buffers against system shocks/crises. The stock/social memory of an ecosystem will shift over time as its population changes. Inflows can swell from new births and immigration, while death and mortality result in outflows. Inflows and outflows can be independent of each other. Flows are “material or information” that keep shifting while feedback loops increase the stock of an ecosystem over time. Flows can be both filling (stabilizing) or draining (destabilizing). It is often information that maintains the lifeline of an ecosystem which makes feedback loops even more crucial as they ensure learning and continuity. The degree of cross-scale connectedness of the ecosystem’s information flows also adds to its resilience. Crises can be viewed as escalation points that reinforce, refine, and reform certain feedback loops.

With Bitcoin we can see numerous flows, both material and ideological. From the algorithmic code that sets the rules, the blockchain that lights up on nodes around the world, to the ecology of mining new Bitcoins from electricity and ASICs. While the machine plays algorithmic games, people from across various trajectories of life come into the ecosystem bringing their own interconnected networks into the fold. When stripped down, Bitcoin is energy, not just of wires, batteries, electricity, and light, but also humans who gravitate toward the light of Bitcoin, especially when energized by electron-like volatility in its price. The lines of power—electrical and human resistance—intersect.

3. Context: Bitcoin Roots

The idea of global digital cash over the internet has been around for a while [26] [27]. In 2008 when the world was reeling from the financial crisis and Occupy Wall Street movements, the Bitcoin white paper was posted on a cryptography listserv by a person or persons under the pseudonym ‘Satoshi Nakamoto.’ Bitcoin was launched in the seemingly dark corners of the internet at a time when “trust in the ability of governments and banks to manage the economy and the money supply was at its nadir” [28]. Much of the heavy lifting in Bitcoin’s early years was done by developers who started working on the Bitcoin code. For many developers, Bitcoin started out as a side-project that slowly colonized more parts of their lives. Hal Finney, a developer working for PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), became the first person to connect his computer with Satoshi’s to start the Bitcoin blockchain. The potential hive mind of Bitcoin began on January 3, 2009 when the blockchain went live.

From the beginning Bitcoin was conceived as a decentralized peer-to-peer electronic cash system [29]. It is oftentimes likened to the missing piece of the internet; it offers the transfer of value across the globe without a trusted third party. Bitcoin’s key improvement on previous iterations of digital cash was the invention of ‘blockchain technology.’ The blockchain creates and preserves a record of all transactions that occur in the Bitcoin ecosystem. It is a distributed ledger of information that is maintained by a network of miners/nodes (computers) around the world. It is immutable and a copy of transactions is maintained by all connected nodes in the Bitcoin network. This ensures that everyone agrees to the same version of events. Bitcoin’s protocol is built on incentive structures that encourage nodes to be honest; thereby removing the need for trust [30] [31].

Bitcoin’s apotheosis as a brand came about thanks to mainstream news outlets and through discussions on social media. Before Bitcoin’s mysterious founder disappeared in 2010, “he” had corresponded with Finnish developer, Martti Malmi about having a logo for Bitcoin. What emerged was “a B with two lines coming out at the bottom and top” [32]. The Bitcoin brand logo remains open under a Creative Commons license and the design is based on open consensus that was debated on Bitcointalk.org and on other platforms. Numerous contributors have posted their vision of the Bitcoin symbol, but this one remains the choice.

Bitcoin’s creation has led to a diverse blockchain and crypto-ecosystem with thousands of “altcoins” (alternative cryptocurrencies) and “stablecoins” (cryptocurrencies pegged to fiat currencies). These cryptocurrencies are mutations of the Bitcoin protocol with independent blockchains (e.g., Ethereum, Dogecoin, Monero, Zcash) alongside various competing derivations/forks of Bitcoin such as Bitcoin Cash, Bitcoin Private, Bitcoin Unlimited, and Bitcoin XT among others. This has led to cryptocurrency branding wars in which various cryptocurrencies compete for believers. For example, the Bitcoin Cash logo (an offshoot/fork of Bitcoin) is a B tilted to the left instead of the right making it difficult to distinguish between the two. As one participant lamented: “It’s almost like we have counterfeits of Bitcoin where they change only one letter. It's really just these other folks who are trying to capitalize on the Bitcoin brand. It’s hard enough to get people to use Bitcoin let alone have them figure out which is the real Bitcoin!” (Interview).

In its early years, Bitcoin was used to buy eccentricities such as alpaca socks or what is now considered to be the world’s most expensive pizza. One of the pivotal moments that established Bitcoin as a medium of exchange was the rise of Silk Road—a dark web marketplace operating on Tor which accepted Bitcoin as its main currency. Another destabilizing force emerged in the form of the crash of Mt. Gox, an online place to trade Bitcoins which established Bitcoin as an investment object. Much of the early news media coverage of Bitcoin tended to be negative and focused on predicting its impending collapse. Bitcoin was often relegated to the online blog editions of major publications rather than print editions: “Much Ado About Bitcoin” (New York Times), “Bitcoin might be dead. It doesn’t matter” (Guardian) “Everyone Wants Bitcoins After Learning They Can Buy Drugs With It” (Gawker), “Porn, gambling, and malware: Bitcoin as the Net’s Wild West” (ArsTechnica), “The Bursting of the Bitcoin Bubble” (Economist – blog), “The Bitcoin Crash” (Forbes - blog) “Report: Police Confuse Bitcoin Miner’s Power Use For Growing Weed” (Time). Various deaths of Bitcoin were reported – so much so that there is a website dedicated to compiling the numerous obituaries of Bitcoin (see https://99bitcoins.com/bitcoin-obituaries/).

“Bitcoin is dead” became a meme. Despite its widely reported deaths, Bitcoin re-emerged from each through elements of resilience. As proxies for Bitcoin’s resilience, we focus on its price (exchange value) and how the discourse around Bitcoin changed over time in mainstream media portrayals and in community fora (i.e., social media/Bitcoin Unicode symbol, Bitcoin Twitter symbol; being accepted as legal tender in El Salvador in 2021). Lacking a central authority and with multiple crises involving hacks, rapid rises and falls in value, and other tests of believer faith, how did the ecosystem’s social memory evolve? The following sections describe our methods followed by our findings.

4. Methods:

This research is based on a longitudinal ethnographic and netnographic study of Bitcoin/Blockchain from 2014-2022. We draw on four types of textual and visual data: 1) seventy-eight in-depth interview transcripts (lasting between one to three hours) and more than 300 informal interviews (10-20 mins); 2) field notes [FN] from participant observation; 3) mass-media archives; and 4) netnographic data from online Bitcoin forums (Table 1). The first author’s initial “in-person” (offline) interaction with the Bitcoin community1 was in Toronto at a Bitcoin meetup event in June 2014. After this, on-site fieldwork began and continued until 2020 in multiple cities: Amsterdam, Berlin, Boston/Cambridge, Cancun, Miami, New York, Prague, San Francisco, San Juan, Tokyo, Toronto, and Zurich/Zug. Fieldwork involved attending various Bitcoin/Blockchain events/conferences and visiting places that were starting to accept Bitcoins for payments or had BTM machines. Following March 2020, all fieldwork went virtual during the Covid19 pandemic (until June 2021 – Miami Bitcoin Conference). All participants have been given pseudonyms (Table 1).

Table 1: Data sources

Bitcoin enthusiasts encompass a potpourri of different views and values and people embedded in contesting assemblages. As the research questions crystalized, the participants were selected to reflect a diverse set of perspectives, from developers working on the Bitcoin protocol, miners, Bitcoin exchanges/wallets, economists, self-described evangelists, startup founders, meetup organizers, content creators (Bitcoin YouTube show creators/podcasters/social media), bankers, investment traders, venture capitalists, artists, regulators, to ex-Bitcoiners and Etherians. The interview participants were recruited via meetup events, conferences, reddit, Twitter, and Meetup groups’ websites. It was important to have multiple datapoints for this ethnography as different entry-points can provide a skewed view of the ecosystem. For example, as one participant described, Bitcoin has a different ‘vibe’ depending on even which city one encounters: “Berlin, Boston, and San Francisco being more developer-friendly while Miami, New York, London, Beijing are all about the money” (Interview). The portrait of Bitcoin through news media allows one lens – as the first author noted the difference between the drugs/illicit trade Bitcoin associations on news-media versus the more mundane reality at Bitcoin meetups in 2014. There are also spaces where there are large silent majorities. Several developers remain anonymous/pseudonymous – and their views are often not heard as loudly. Bitcoin is one context where it is crucial to “see for oneself” [33].

We followed a modified version of the grounded theory approach when analyzing the data with abstraction and generalization of the themes which were emerging [34]. There was constant comparison and triangulation throughout the study as all these narratives were also being compared to the news media articles and the online discussions/netnographic data [35]. Our analysis codes also evolved as changes in the Bitcoin/Blockchain/Crypto-ecosystem took place. For instance, concepts such as “altcoins,” “ICOs” (Initial Coin Offerings), “crypto-assets,” and “decentralized web” “DAOs” (Decentralized Autonomous Organizations) evolved over the course of the research. During the time of writing (2020/2021), “DeFi” (Decentralized Finance)/NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) also exploded. The interviews followed a narrative inquiry approach with questions about interactions with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. That is, the process where “one asks questions, collects field notes, derives interpretations… that addresses both personal and social issues (inward and outward) and addresses temporal issues (backward and forward)[36].

Initially when entering the field; the goal was to make sense of Bitcoin. Many participants compare Bitcoin to a resilient virus, spreading, mutating, evolving, and “infecting others.” The biological metaphors in discussions are abundant: “mining” “ether”, “mycelium”, “electrum.” We draw on both emic and etic terms in our analysis. All data eventually was analyzed through a hermeneutic process of constant refining and multiple iterations before finalizing the themes. Based on this data, we trace how the social memory of a decentralized brand and thereby its hive mind evolves.

5. Findings:

According to the resilience framework, stabilizing forces help in maintaining productivity, fixed capital, and social memory. The growth phase sees “rapid colonization and expansion” in which the ecosystem expands its population density [37]. The conservation phase of the adaptive cycle emphasizes “the slow accumulation and storage of energy and material” [38], followed by “release” wherein crises may collapse/test the ecosystem while the reorganization/renewal phase is one in which “resources are reorganized into a new system to take advantage of opportunities” [25]. Destabilizing forces or crises on the other hand open the pathway to new brand narratives, populations, myths, and histories. These forces help stimulate the continual process of the ecosystem’s adaptive cycles, contributing to growth, renewal, conservation, and release phases through numerous interconnected feedback loops (arrows) (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Brand Ecosystem Hive Mind and Sources/Nodes of Social Memory.

This snapshot of Bitcoin’s brand ecosystem hive mind reflects how it appeared in 2020/202. The hive mind has expanded and grown in complexity over time as it has infected others much like a computer virus may operate on a network, infecting the interconnected assemblages of its nodes.

Sources of Social Memory

There are multiple sources/nodes of Bitcoin’s social memory generation which come together to feed the decentralized brand hive mind helping it become more resilient. These sources/nodes can be broadly characterized as organic or targeted, even though the boundary between the two is somewhat porous. Organic Sources of social memory refer to the individuals/groups who have helped spread awareness about Bitcoin without initial support/coordination/financial incentive. These were the early evangelists/community members who contributed when Bitcoin was not a profitable endeavor and bobbed around US $0. They may be motivated by a powerful sense of ideological conviction. For example, word-of-mouth from developers gathering on mailing lists/BitcoinTalk.org, IRC, or those contributing creative resources to helping Bitcoin (creating/offering brand symbols/art/memes/clarifying misconceptions; Bitcoin Sign Guy photobombing Janet Yellen on C-Span), meetups, hackathon organizers, artists, posting about Bitcoin on social media, etc. Targeted Sources of social memory creation refer to those who may follow a more structured/formalized approach to spreading awareness and shaping social memory about Bitcoin/Blockchain. Their business model may be predicated on the decentralized brand’s growth and survival. For example, they include Bitcoin/Blockchain startups; crypto news media; influencers with stakes in specific cryptocurrencies; crypto-conferences; traditional brands/institutions planning to implement blockchains or use Bitcoin as financial reserves; investors/traders operating in crypto-assets; venture capitalists; and non-profit organizations (e.g., Bitcoin Foundation/CoinCenter/Blockchain Association). These sources of social memory are foregrounded against the destabilizing and stabilizing forces that collectively serve as metamorphic moments which define and crystalize the brand’s social memory thus building resilience to subsequent shocks.

Destabilizing Forces

Destabilizing forces can be of an endogenous and exogenous nature and they fundamentally reshape the brand ecosystem’s social memory. Endogenous crises refer to destabilizing forces that are internal events (e.g., Bitcoin Scaling Debates of 2015 about increasing the blockchain block size; forks of Bitcoin; multiple false Satoshi exposés) that can destabilize the ecosystem. Exogenous destabilizing forces refer to those crises that emerge due to external factors but nevertheless impact the ecosystem. For example, Bitcoin has been through a series of destabilizing crises throughout its history from governments “banning” Bitcoin, the financial blockade of WikiLeaks, the fall of Silk Road, the collapse of Mt. Gox, ransomware attacks like WannaCry, numerous scams/Ponzi schemes (e.g., Bitconnect/OneCoin), being conflated with the ICO bubble of 2017, to the hacking of exchanges. Events such as the Ottawa Protests or the 2022 Ukraine War also brought widespread media attention to Bitcoin [FN 2022]. Even the volatile price surges and falls can be construed as destabilizing forces that are defining moments for the Bitcoin brand. The shared trauma of some of these events both sharpened and at times weakened the ties that bind Bitcoin together. These crises serve as moments for reflection—not just for the individuals involved but also for the ecosystem at large.

Silk Road

According to the ecological resilience framework, destabilizing forces are important for creating diversity, flexibility, and opportunity. All these elements add to the resilience of the ecosystem through stress-testing. Consider the case of Silk Road which was an online drugs market on the dark web which used Bitcoin as its payments infrastructure. It was named after the original Silk Road, a trade route that stretched from China to Southern Europe, except the choice of currency in the digital Silk Road was Bitcoin. The first mention of Silk Road appeared on Bitcointalk.org on January 29, 2011 calling it “an anonymous Amazon” [39] [40]. While most of the early proponents of Bitcoin came across it through cryptography mailing lists, IRC, Slashdot, Bitcointalk.org, etc, non-technical audiences often found out about Bitcoin through the Silk Road as it was an event that brought mainstream media attention to Bitcoin (e.g., viral Gawker news article). Silk Road offered a use case—some participants dubbed it the first “killer app”—for Bitcoin, even if the use case had links to illegal markets.

Developers for the most part were indifferent towards Silk Road’s impact on Bitcoin “doesn’t matter—the technology’s what’s important” (FN-2014). There were posts on Bitcointalk.org about Silk Road but there would be debates about keeping discussions focused on technical developments. For Tenjin, with a background in cryptography, when he first came across Bitcoin, he was skeptical: “I thought the whole thing was illegal—that I was gonna go to jail.” However, he downloaded the Bitcoin software and started tinkering. During the interview he recounts seeing Ross Ulbricht (Silk Road’s creator) at Bitcoin meetup events in San Francisco trying to sell Bitcoins. As he described:

Tenjin: Silk Road was very interesting.… I remember that the price went up from like 10 dollars to a hundred or two hundred dollars briefly …and that was sort of the first broader media exposure… And it made me go, “Oh… this is on people’s radar now…” and then that summer it [Bitcoin] sort of died down… And it was there – but there wasn’t much about it. But yeah, Silk Road. …. I didn’t use Silk Road… I thought, “Okay so they got the guy”, … I wasn’t too worried that it would hurt Bitcoin adoption… And in fact, it ended up doing the exact opposite it seems… and I remember that that November, there were these Senate hearings about Bitcoin, on C-Span… I watched them, and I was like “Wait! They’re not saying it’s (Bitcoin) illegal!” and I can just tell everyone I’m working on this! Great! (laughs)….(Interview)

Following the Senate hearings, there were many others like Tenjin who became more public about their involvement with Bitcoin. The law enforcement’s involvement only helped create more publicity. As [41] note, even bad publicity can have positive impacts. While Silk Road brought publicity and awareness about Bitcoin, it also led to a lot of pandemonium or panarchy as some of the developers and other proponents of Bitcoin tried to distance it from the apparent shrouds of criminality—a difficult feat for a decentralized brand. Silk Road also created misinformation about Bitcoin as offering “anonymity.” As one developer described: “Early on, there was a lot of misinformation because no one knew what the hell this thing (Bitcoin) was ... And as a result, there were news articles saying Bitcoin is anonymous… and people thought Bitcoin was anonymous. And while Bitcoin is definitely this type of thing that would hope to be anonymous and try to be anonymous, and interested in being anonymous, it was in fact pseudonymous – not anonymous.” (Interview).

Nevertheless, the ecosystem/hive mind’s boundaries—and thereby avenues of social memory generation—were expanding beyond the cryptographers’ IRC/mailing list silos and attracting newer populations beyond the developer community. Libertarians, anarchists, and anti-drug war advocates were joining the ecosystem. As one participant smiled during the interview, “I mean, how much more can you stick it to The Man when the US Postal Service would deliver the drugs to you at home?” Commenting on the multiple crises and ‘Bitcoin is dead’ narrative, Lyle pointed out that it was the technology that was ultimately resilient. He mentioned his own transition from skepticism to believing in Bitcoin:

Lyle: I was pretty sure that this would fail… I mean Bitcoin is very complicated. Among other things in Bitcoin – there’s a lot of moving parts – and it has this weird mix of cryptographic security and economic assumptions, that are required to make the system work. So, I thought that this whole system (Bitcoin) would fail or go away or something. And I also thought that the people who were maintaining it were really smart and that they were kind of in a different role than I was. …But I started sloooooowly to believe that the system (Bitcoin) would actually survive. That it’s not going to just collapse under its own weight. It may still! But I think right now the biggest threat to Bitcoin's future is that when the block reward becomes small enough, then the fee market will need to sustain it. …. But I no longer think the software is going to fail….um…and or that the network will collapse or something like that. There’s just too much of a diversity of different systems verifying it. And there's been too many eyes on Bitcoin at this point. (Interview)

These destabilizing forces also create fodder for more social memory generation through material objects and myths. For example, during the interview, Lyle held up a “Free Ross” sticker that he had received at a meetup event which was designed by the artist Cryptograffiti. Free Ross is a reference to the movement to free Ross Ulbricht (creator of Silk Road) from prison [42]. Silk Road led to a great deal of news media attention, documentaries, and books which would inadvertently mention Bitcoin. Even if Bitcoin was the understudy and not the lead role in these news media articles, Bitcoin’s social memory was growing.

After the collapse of Silk Road, the BitcoinTalk forum was hacked and those who ventured to the site “were greeted by cartoon images of missiles that appeared over Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. A pop-up caption read: ‘Hello friend, Bitcoin has been seized by the FBI for being illegal. Thanks, bye.’” leading many to believe that Bitcoin had “died” [43]. This again led to panic among the early community members, some of whom were primarily connected to each other through the BitcoinTalk Forum. The panic led to more diversification of platforms on which to discuss Bitcoin. For example, reddit became more popular as well as forums on the dark web, minimizing the risk of a single point of failure. The destabilizing force of Silk Road thereby decentralized the early community’s gathering spaces and improved resilience to future shocks. In recent years, other platforms have become popular such as Twitter, Telegram, Discord, Signal, Clubhouse, and Slack channels which are public/private forums. In some ways, they represent the new information lifelines/feedback loops where the fragmentation and diversity of these network forums adds to the brand ecosystem’s resilience.

The destabilizing force of Silk Road can be interpreted as a form of “revolt.” That is, a small level experimentation (Silk Road) that jolts the larger ecosystem (Bitcoin). Silk Road’s existence came at a time when Bitcoin was in its growth/conservation phase of its adaptive capacity cycle. Bitcoin was a new innovation that could be used for any purpose. The laws were not yet written for the world Bitcoin had created. Through every crisis, we see a reorganization of resources. For example, after the fall of Silk Road, other dark markets rose and even led to the creation of new cryptocurrencies to serve those markets. From the ashes, more ideas were born adding more diversity to the overall ecosystem adding to its resilience. As [16] argues, “the more homogenous the environment in space and time, the more likely is the system to have low fluctuations and low resilience….”

Much of the media coverage following Silk Road tended to be negative and would position Bitcoin as “dead” while for developers and people working in the space, it would not be the case. It highlighted the need for an independent news media ecosystem for Bitcoin which started to come to life in the aftermath of crises (e.g., Bitcoin Magazine; CoinDesk; CoinTelegraph). There were new emerging structures of information and connectedness for the Bitcoin brand ecosystem. Concurrently, the price of Bitcoin was beginning to rise attracting newer audiences into the ecosystem who were beginning to view Bitcoin as a financial instrument. The Bitcoin trading and exchange ecosystem was also growing and expanding the boundaries of the Bitcoin hive mind.

Mt. Gox

Bitcoin… which had been threatening to break into the mainstream, was facing the worst crisis of its two-year existence last night after hackers brought down its biggest exchange (Mt. Gox). The attack, an apparent attempt to steal the contents of users' online accounts and convert them into real money, is the latest in a string of disasters to hit Bitcoin in the past few weeks, raising questions over whether the currency has a future. [44](emphasis added)

While Silk Road was instrumental in branding Bitcoin as a medium of exchange or “digital drug money,” Mt. Gox cemented Bitcoin’s value as a tradeable asset. The website was originally a place to trade cards for Magic: The Gathering and the name Mt. Gox was short for "Magic: The Gathering Online Exchange.” As Wired journalists McMillan and Metz [45] characterized it, “Mt. Gox was a rarity in the Wild West of bitcoin startups: a trusted brand” which is ironic given the numerous occasions that it was hacked. Mt. Gox was the first successful Bitcoin exchange where its value hit its first all-time-high at US $1,000. This was followed by collective bewilderment when the exchange finally shut down after a series of hacking attacks and millions (which may have been worth billions given current prices—May 2021) of Bitcoins were lost. Renewed discourses of Bitcoin’s impending doom emerged when Mt. Gox went offline in February 2014.

Nate found out about Bitcoin through Slashdot and reddit. He smiles recalling the “magic internet money - Wizard” meme on the Bitcoin subreddit. When the Mt. Gox exchange crashed, Nate initially lost interest: “I just sincerely thought that it [Bitcoin] was collapsing and that it was dying. So, I stopped paying attention to it for about an year probably….” It was when Bitcoin began to heal from the collapse of Mt. Gox and its price recovered that Nate became convinced of Bitcoin’s resilience. He recounts the previous boom and bust periods that Bitcoin had undergone indicating a level of social memory that inoculates early adopters and community members from constant bad news and primes them for future crises which some call “FUD” (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt).

There were many discussions on reddit and BitcoinTalk around the time of Mt. Gox warning others to withdraw their funds from the exchange. Post Mt. Gox collapse, meetups, podcasts, reddit/BitcoinTalk forums became support group spaces. People were connecting and sharing their horror stories and commiserating about their losses. For example, “Gox horror story thread – How much did you lose?” with over 2000 comments on reddit. The suicide hotline was the longest running pinned thread on the Bitcoin subreddit. Other threads deconstructed how it all happened: “The incompetence of Mt. Gox” “Still hurting over mt.gox. lost everything. Suicidal.” Some cried “hodl” (hold on to Bitcoins) while others offered consolation “Some words for my friends…”. Following these crises, the number of subscribers on the subreddit increased to 100k around Mt. Gox’s collapse in Feb 2014.

Melanie described herself as “one of the Goxxed.” She found out about Bitcoin through her husband a programmer and political activist in Milan. During the interview, she raised her hand in shame, “Yeah, we are on the list! (laughs). After Mt. Gox, I don't trust ANYTHING like that... So, I try only to buy Bitcoin directly from people, because I think this is something…it's better. When you get scammed, right?! Especially after Mt. Gox….so we changed through all these events!!” For Bitcoin Traveler, who took on the role of evangelizing by traveling around the world using only Bitcoins, the death narrative following Mt. Gox was irrelevant: “Aw, I cried five minutes and then I said, ‘Okay! Whatever!’ I mean – I was in Bitcoin before – so I wasn’t very shocked.” The interview was conducted in the gentrifying neighborhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin and BT pointed out that his local burger joint and ice cream parlour were still accepting Bitcoins, “…network is up, transactions are pumping, and people are using it apparently” even as the media pronounced Bitcoin ‘dead.’ He also found comfort in the blockchain recording transactions and the fact that people were still attending the monthly meetups in Berlin. For him, the hive mind was alive and well through interactions with like-minded others implying a strong sense of connectedness.

Sharik, a tech entrepreneur and meetup organizer in Toronto, felt that Mt. Gox’s collapse helped diversify the ecosystem indicating the start of the reorganization phase in Bitcoin’s adaptive cycle. For him, the main issue with Mt. Gox was how it was reported; he laments the clickbait journalism that made it sound like Bitcoin had died when “in fact an exchange died” – “it’s like saying a US bank got robbed and therefore the US dollar is dead!”. Mt. Gox’s failure was a good reminder to fix the trajectory of the community and not rely on third party/middlemen for storing Bitcoins. Mt. Gox may be viewed as a purifying force as its failure is akin to a fire that clears a forest for new growth. Sharik also observed that Mt. Gox had become a form of a monopoly “at one point, Bitcoin’s price feed was only determined by what you saw on Mt. Gox”– and its collapse led to corrective action. In the resilience framework – this is referred to as the “release phase” where tightly bound accumulation of resources can lead to a collapse as the connections become too brittle. [46] describe the release phase as “characterized by the rapid release of accumulated resources.” The release phase can be viewed as a period in which the ecosystem begins to become rigid due to high levels of connectedness leading to a possible collapse of old structures thereby creating the space for new opportunities. According to Ben, an entrepreneur, Mt. Gox led to the birth of hundreds of more exchanges:

Ben: There was a lot of failure potential and centralization and we hadn’t learned the lessons. And then by Mt. Gox happening - all the other exchanges had to up their game and up their security. And now we have all sorts of companies that are assisting with security. We have groups doing accreditation, more for exchanges and for key management policies so that we don't see that kind of event happen again. There are a lot of them that, you know, like if a bad egg shows up, it can come and go – and it won't hurt the industry. Like any one of the big exchanges, they’re like big banks that can go out of business tomorrow and it's OK!! Mt. Gox was a crushing blow for the whole industry because…. it was a HUGE company. ….But now the risk has been dispersed amongst many more companies and many more solutions. And there's competition and they're pushing each other there… (Interview)

Mt. Gox’s collapse and other exchanges’ downfall renewed the death narrative surrounding Bitcoin, led to more memes, and even resulted in commemorative coins with mottos such as “Don’t get Goxxed Again” adding to the social memory of the brand ecosystem hive mind through digital and material objects. While Mt. Gox brought devastation for many, it also attracted Wall Street and venture capitalist interest. In 2015, the “Blockchain not Bitcoin” narrative began to gain steam with Blythe Masters appearing on Bloomberg’s cover with the word “Blockchain.” The hive mind was swerving in an unexpected direction as some participants who were former Occupy Wall Street protestors expressed unease with the population influx of “Wall Street/fintech” types into Bitcoin. They felt it as a “betrayal” bent on “defanging Bitcoin” even as they put “fuck banks” on their presentation slides. The “oxford shoes, ties, and Deloitte t-shirts were beginning to rise” at meetup events (FN-2015). [23] argue that “some developments emerge within adaptive cycles during the back loop of the cycle, when re-combinations and external influences can generate unexpected new seeds of opportunity that can nucleate and modify the subsequent phase of growth.” In parallel, Ethereum’s community was also beginning to grow where Vitalik Buterin would give talks at Bitcoin meetups in Toronto [FN 2014]. According to ecological resilience, the reorganization/renewal stage entails a phase in which “resources are reorganized into a new system to take advantage of opportunities” [25]. Ethereum’s blockchain went live in 2015, the birth of a new interconnected ecosystem. Much in the way that carbon is shared among trees, there were shared resources across the crypto-ecosystem.

For some, Mt. Gox was a transformative moment: the trading community within the Bitcoin ecosystem was cementing itself and networks of exchanges, price analysis feeds, trading platforms, and wallets/secure/cold storage were growing. More startups were emerging to facilitate the acquisition of Bitcoins. Mining was also morphing from an individual pursuit (mining on a laptop) to mining rigs and pools. This could be interpreted as Bitcoin entering its reorganization/growth phase of the adaptive cycle following the release phase. The ecosystem expands in various directions.

Many gave up on Bitcoin as a result of Mt. Gox. As one reddit user referred to the price decline: “Crypto winters exist to weed out the opportunists; white blood cells for the evolution of the decentralized world.” There were other storms brewing within the Bitcoin ecosystem through the Scaling Debates which were dubbed as a “nasty fight” tearing apart the Bitcoin brotherhood” raising questions about its survival [47] [48]. Bitcoin’s resilience is not just the resilience of the ecosystem as a whole – but is also dependent on the individual-level resilience of people who have suffered at the altar of Bitcoin and remained steadfast. As another participant, a tech entrepreneur lamented “…we still have PTSD from the crypto winter of 2015 … No one wanted to talk about Bitcoin anymore…” (Interview). Bitcoin shed 80% of its value and news media interest was in decline. Another participant called it a “bloodbath of red candles melting” red candles being a reference to the price charts with red blocks. The sense of mourning was palpable as the Bitcoin meetups in X city were dwindling while Ethereum meetups were growing [FN 2015-2017]. Many exited the Bitcoin ecosystem or started new cryptocurrency projects (Ethereum/altcoins) or forks of Bitcoin in the form of Bitcoin XT, Bitcoin Unlimited, and Bitcoin Cash.

Crisis Effects

Massive migrations were underway. Populations were shifting across these interconnected ecosystems; inflows and outflows contributing to the social memory. Referring to the aftermath of various crises in Bitcoin, Kevin compares Bitcoin to a “palace” under construction that needs “plumbing.” He equates Bitcoin’s aesthetic to that of the internet until after 1997 when AIM came around. For Kevin, the next crop of people coming into Bitcoin would make it a more glamourous palace “…we're going to start seeing the designers come in. We're gonna see the ad agencies, the NGOs, the artists!!! We're gonna see the next wave of people to come in and finish out this palace and make it a palace where everybody can have a stake.” The ICOs which were primarily an Ethereum driven hype cycle led to a lot more awareness about Bitcoin as well – as mentioned previously, there is cross-pollination across these cryptocurrency hive minds. Similarly, NFTs, DeFi, DAOs, the bubbles and busts have all contributed to the hive mind by attracting different audiences into the ecosystem who in turn bring their connected assemblages of networks adding to the social memory.

There were newer destabilizing forces/revolts that were jolting the Ethereum ecosystem as well. For instance, The DAO hack crisis which was a DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization) running on the Ethereum blockchain which led to the eventual fork of Ethereum Classic [49]. In 2017, ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) became all the rage in the Ethereum ecosystem but impacted Bitcoin as well. Due to the influx of investors from institutions into the ecosystem, in 2017, Bitcoin’s price just stopped shy of reaching an all-time-high of US $20,000. One participant referred to the ICO bubble of 2017 as: “A lot of the ICOs is the old Bitcoin crowd chasing the new 100k. It’s an addiction” [FN 2017]. Another participant noted the rise of scams in the form of ICOs “You’re not dealing with white papers here, it’s white pepes.”2 As one developer lamented:

X: It's gone far further than I would have thought And I mean, ICO's!!! ICOs…was sort of like a joke. It's like, “Wait, that was sort of a derogatory term” from BitcoinTalk anyway. People would say, “No pre-mine, NO ICO!” It was something to DENY! And then people just went with it! It's like… “Wait… But this is a bad thing….!?? Why are you advertising it?!?” Then it gets huge… so I don’t know… Yeah , hopefully it seems to be dying down. I do think it's a risk because it will sort of tarnish the whole system, like people will not say, “Oh, well, Bitcoin's OK because it didn't do this.” But all these ICOs are bad. I think people will sort of lump them (Bitcoin & ICOs) all together (Interview)

The hive mind in this case swerves, swarms, and steers the social memory in unexpected directions based on new additions to the ecosystem. Some express similar unease in the wake of NFTs hype [FN 2021]. Bitcoin is constantly evolving through multiple other crises every day. Even the price volatility can be viewed as a destabilizing force that shakes up the ecosystem and redefines Bitcoin as a decentralized brand. When the price of Bitcoin fell throughout most of 2018, one participant tweeted: “This is the ecosystem purging the ‘easy money’ crowd that arrived in the past couple of months. Wish I could say I was sad to see you go.” Similar discourses emerged in the wake of the 2020-2021 price rally which eclipsed Bitcoin’s previous all-time-highs with crossing the US $60,000 mark.

Even though some of these destabilizing forces are tangentially linked to Bitcoin (i.e., not endogenous to the Bitcoin protocol/development), they helped promulgate the mainstreaming of the Bitcoin brand. They also catalyzed the Bitcoin/crypto-specific news media ecosystem to grow. Publications such as Coindesk, CoinTelegraph, BTCnews, Bitcoin Magazine, Decrypt, podcasting networks gained more popularity. Now, there are exchanges and data analysis companies that run the price feeds of multiple cryptocurrencies. Some phases in the adaptive cycle may last longer than others. For example, growth and conservation phases can be seen in the periods in which individuals and groups keep building on projects while the bull rallies of Bitcoin’s price are comparatively shorter. Destabilizing forces in their aftermath also contribute toward social memory through shared trauma and the seismic shifts they create. Intertwined with these destabilizing forces are the stabilizing forces as we will see in the next section.

Stabilizing Forces

Stabilizing forces help maintain productivity, fixed capital, and cement the social memory of the brand ecosystem therefore enhancing resilience. The connective tissue of social media, the ties of meetups/conferences, the legitimacy halos of business leaders and celebrities (both endorsing and deriding Bitcoin), companies trying to co-brand with Bitcoin, the memetic artworlds, and Bitcoin branded artifacts circulating in the ecosystem: all contribute as stabilizing forces. Memes and gifs were few and far between in the early years – however as the population of the hive mind grew, ‘meme mastery’ has become an art form and now there are job opportunities for “memers/shitposters.” Bitcoin has an active art community stretching from the Philippines to San Francisco. As [50] suggests, artworlds are important for brands. Bitcoin’s turbo-charged artworld has been instrumental in mocking naysayers. For example, when Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan called Bitcoin “a fraud”, Bitcoiners jumped on social media to troll him. For example, Cryptograffiti created a portrait of Jamie Dimon much like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” through torn up credit cards. When Paul Krugman called Bitcoin “evil” he got trolled with images of fax machines, a reference to his comment about the internet’s impact being no greater than that of a fax machine. In May 2021, he called Bitcoin a “cult,” expecting backlash. Not surprisingly, the fax machines returned [FN 2021]. Artworks, memes, the endless price charts, also serve as part of the visual and cultural memory of the Bitcoin brand. They embody some of the ideologies circulating in Bitcoin (e.g., hodl) and operate as visual branding messages giving cultural lineage to a technology that is merely ones and zeroes when stripped down to basics.

These stabilizing forces exist throughout the various phases of the adaptive cycle, be it growth, conservation, release, or reorganization, but may become more active during crises as well. For example, meetups organized in the wake of Mt. Gox’s collapse or Clubhouse rooms/Twitter Spaces/reddit to discuss Elon Musk turning on Bitcoin or discussing the price downfalls in May 2021 (e.g., “Keep Calm and Hodl On”). One developer noted feeling relieved once the prices settled down following the 2017 bull market of Bitcoin/Ethereum: “You can focus on work again, you’re not distracted by journalists and conferences, and just ‘buidl’.” As one participant described: “When the bear market hits and the tide moves out, it’s a tough place. The tourists leave but the true believers stay” (Twitter). These stabilizing forces keep the ecosystem steady regardless of external events and contribute to the “slow accumulation and storage of energy and material” [38].

Social media operates as a stabilizing force which has been pivotal to Bitcoin’s resilience. The web is where a lot of the Bitcoin culture is documented and archived and it is where the action takes place first: be it warnings about hacking attacks, updates to the protocol, or pleas for the wider community in times of panic. These “network forums” serve as gathering places to exchange ideas and proofs of legitimacy [51]. Every hashtag/meme is a bridge connecting one island of conversation to another. The gathering interfaces of social media and meetups may be viewed as clusters or nodes with electrifying sparks of activities that light up through texts, gifs, videos, memes during crises – all reflecting the connectedness and convergence of the ecosystem hive mind. These sparks ignite further conversations buoyed by algorithmic systems that push those conversations even farther from their origins.

Memes are an important method of controlling narrative and enact a form of social memory for the decentralized brand. To an extent, they form a sort of fixed capital in terms of social memory as they get shared, retweeted, and proliferate. As [52] argue, memes can be viewed as stories that represent “a particular version of reality… by one organism about the state of the world” to “influence perception of the other organisms.” Victor from Budapest found Bitcoin through a meme before falling down the ‘rabbit hole’ and becoming a content creator in the hive mind. To an extent, these memes/gifs are also techniques of coping when the ecosystem faces destabilization (e.g., government announcements about “banning Bitcoin”). One of the most popular memes during the price dives is the HODL meme—telling others to “Hold On for Dear Life” (although the initial “hodl” was a drunken typo on BitcoinTalk.org). Within this ecosystem the HODL meme is an effort to stop panic selling and a signal of brand loyalty.

Mythology and archetypal stories are an important ingredient for stabilizing the social memory of the ecosystem hive mind. Much as nations celebrate holidays, Bitcoin has its own memorials and material history (e.g., Bitcoin Pizza Day). In terms of legends, the mythos around Satoshi’s identity is a fountain that keeps giving. Journalists (mainstream news media/crypto-news media)/content creators (YouTube/podcasts/filmmakers/designers) have been particularly impactful in creating this social memory as their stories shape narratives about how Bitcoin is viewed by wider audiences. Social media platforms (e.g., BitcoinTalk, Twitter, reddit) collectively serve as places where new narratives emerge and are driven to other platforms through hashtag bridges.

Complimenting the online breadcrumbs of information about Bitcoin, “IRL” (In Real Life) meetups/hackathons/conferences also serve as effective onboarding spaces for new ecosystem recruits where the “Bitcoin virus” spreads. The new entrants in turn infect others in their own networks and enhance the productive capacity of the overall ecosystem. As many participants noted telling their friends and family about Bitcoin propagating further word-of-mouth. These meetups/conferences also provide spaces for collective grieving in the wake of crises and provide a sense of communitas. Anyone around the world using the affordances of social platforms (Eventbrite, Meetup, Facebook, Twitter) could announce a date and location and connect with like-minded others. This process has become a lot less frictionless with the advent of social audio-spaces such as Twitter/Clubhouse. They are key events giving a sense of brand identity, philosophy, and purpose and at the same time humanize the decentralized brand and its followers. These meetings whether in-person or virtual give the decentralized brand pockets of centralization and cohesion. As some of these meetups have morphed into conferences, they are also becoming media events (unless closed/invitation-only) that can exacerbate network effects through feedback loops.

Student-run Bitcoin clubs were popping up at MIT, Stanford, and Michigan among others. These were particularly important in onboarding developer talent into the hive mind. The MIT Bitcoin Club has been one of the forefront runners and regularly host the MIT Bitcoin Expo/hackathons. Clubs like these were operating as stabilizing forces in the midst of constant turmoil. These stabilizing forces help reorganize resources to an extent offering support and guidance to future hive mind members (e.g., developers, entrepreneurs).

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the meetups/conferences went virtual with some events happening in virtual reality which would then be streamed live on YouTube to include those without VR headsets. Even here, the resilience of the Bitcoin ecosystem hive mind was ever-present as many of the individuals involved were already working remotely from across the globe. As many participants noted, some of the virtual events given their low attendance brought back memories of early meetups in Bitcoin (“We’re all living in the Metaverse now”) (FN-2020-2021). While the meetups are ephemeral gatherings of people for a specific temporal and geographic region, they leave traces on social media through images, videos, tweets which form a part of the ecosystem’s visual memory. There are also more stable gathering places for Bitcoin as well (e.g., Bitcoin Center NYC, Bitcoin Embassies) although some have closed while others have bloomed to fill the void. Some meetup organizers hinted at “turf wars” in recent years. Contemplating semantics, one podcast host explained the need to change the name of his podcast and meetups:

Benedict: “We dropped the term Bitcoin. Content wise, we were never restricted to Bitcoin, even early on. We were the first ones to do a podcast on Ethereum… Shortly after when the Ethereum paper was published. So, we were doing this stuff from the very beginning. It’s just that at the time, Bitcoin was this sort of umbrella term… so if people looked for something, they looked for “Bitcoin”, and then there were these other projects that they would follow so you know, ‘Bitcoin related’ projects...but that’s changed completely …. And today (2016) that umbrella term has become “blockchain” and the term Bitcoin has become much more narrow…” (Interview).

Increasingly, the umbrella term which was once “Bitcoin” is mutating into “crypto” for the broader ecosystem. There has been growing tribalism and more fragmentation. As one participant laughed: “there has been a lot of ‘sharding’” (FN-2017). Once there was only one Bitcoin subreddit but now there are numerous divergent subreddits dedicated to multiple cryptocurrencies. These subreddits in turn have their own dedicated traders communities reddits. Likewise, while early meetups for Bitcoin and Ethereum were the same events – the level of complexity has increased which is not necessarily bad. [24] cautions that “insistence on a single culture shuts down learning and cuts back resilience.” These crypto-communities are diverging to the point of becoming independent ecosystems of their own revealing renewal and reorganizations in the Bitcoin ecosystem.

Meetups and content creation in Bitcoin have evolved into a nested ecosystem of their own. There are more opportunities to monetize content on YouTube/Spotify/Patreon/Substack sites. Show hosts vie for more followers, subscribers, and listeners. Increasing corporatization of some elements (podcasts, meetups) have led them to becoming targeted sources of social memory. Some early evangelists (e.g., Andreas Antonopoulos) and journalists have become crypto-influencers while others have quit their jobs to join the cryptocurrency news media ecosystem. Similarly, reflecting the porous nature of social memory in Bitcoin: while for many artists Bitcoin art began as an object of passion, some have been able to earn their livelihood through commissioned artworks. The art community in crypto has become a nested ecosystem as well. Now with NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) which grew out from the previous cycle of Ethereum’s CryptoKitties rage of 2017, there is more interest in the overall crypto-ecosystem where culture, creators, and crypto are converging. These small events of “revolt” end up consolidating the larger ecosystem’s hive mind.

Targeted sources of social memory imply cooperation and symbiosis in the ecosystem. As [53] argues, mature ecosystems often show more signs of “complex interdependency… and the cycling of resources.” For example, with growing complexity and network effects, Bitcoin mining has become less of an individual/organic pursuit. Some of the craft elements of early Bitcoin mining have been replaced by more systematic mining rigs and mining pools. Still, there remains a degree of informality among miners. For example, miners in China often operate on a trust-based credit system and lend their resources to each other, hedging against the future output of the cryptocurrencies they mine (FN-2018).

Recently, some Bitcoin startups have started providing grants to developers and the influx of venture capitalists has increased resources/fixed capital. In the early years of Bitcoin, financial resources for developers were scarce. Most still work on a volunteer basis, rely on GitHub sponsorships and some avoid grants to maintain their independence. Another stabilizing force comes in the form of Bitcoin/Blockchain startups which have cropped up. Many of these startups collaborated in promoting Bitcoin adding to its social memory. For example, companies launching initiatives like the Bitcoin Bowl in Tampa Florida which was meant to be a Bitcoin branded stadium. These companies are also engaging in more traditional forms of advertising for Bitcoin/cryptocurrencies (e.g., Superbowl ads for FTX/Coinbase/Crypto.com in 2022). Multiple ‘Blockchain Associations’ exist around the globe from Tel Aviv to Tokyo. For example, in Zug, Switzerland, which is considered “Crypto Valley,” the Bitcoin Association of Switzerland gathers together companies working on Bitcoin/Blockchain and supports them by offering co-working spaces and hosting meetup events (FN – Zug/Zurich 2019). Some of these associations can be fluid—they sometimes disband just as quickly as they appear. Today cities like Paris, Boston, London, Miami, and Seoul host Blockchain Weeks dedicated to conferences around various cryptocurrencies. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey has also been instrumental in bringing more mainstream audiences into the crypto-ecosystem through initiatives like Spiral.

As the Bitcoin ecosystem hive mind has grown there have also been voices of dissent. Some of the early diversity of the Bitcoin hive mind has been lost over time and the social memory sources are becoming more homogenized. As Emma, an early meetup attendee smiled recounting:

Emma: I think in the early days there were definitely some pretty distinct boxes of people that would show up at these Bitcoin meetup events… you know, it’s the libertarians… you’ve got like the super tech-nerds, you’ve got speculators… and then you’ve got the people who’re like … okay, this is business and commercial applications and let’s do something with it, you know? So yeah, the boxes are shifting, and I think the priorities of the people who are trying to commercialize this and grow it, are probably not in line with the libertarians...you know I think there’s sort of some mutual goals, but some of the goals, we’d all be working against each other...to a certain extent….” (Interview)

Every new population influx into the ecosystem may gravitate towards a different choice. Lev, working at a Bitcoin startup mentioned how “credentialism” is creeping in while once anyone could easily join and exit the ecosystem hive mind: “I think we all took ourselves a lot less seriously back then.” A YouTube content creator noted the need to constantly update his camera and audio equipment to keep up with the growing competition. [17] warns that more formalized relationships lead to brittleness that can threaten the overall ecosystem resilience. As with the communes of the 1960s which were experiments in decentralization, vulnerabilities and conflicts arose when charismatic leaders became central points of failure - eventually leading them to collapse [51]. With the growing number of status games within the ecosystem (e.g., Forbes Crypto-Influencers; verified checkmarks on Twitter), there can be a similar risk. Many developers eschew these “status symbols” and others do not maintain social media profiles (“When NOT having a verified checkmark is the new status symbol. Because, privacy” – FN 2018). As one participant expressed his frustration: “What’s the first thing that people do when they come across something as decentralized as Bitcoin? They start looking for leaders!!!?! They’re like, “Who do I follow?” And then they follow all the folks with verified checkmarks and you’ve got whichever Pied Piper leading them astray, I mean DYOR!!! (Do Your Own Research). YOU DON’T NEED TO TRUST!” (FN 2016). As David lamented:

David: So there seems to be a convergence towards a certain type of lifestyle. And some people - well it's not just people. Some (Bitcoin/Crypto) companies exploit this to the max. They say you're not a Bitcoiner unless you wear this t-shirt/hat…. And some of the podcast hosts in the space…it’s kind of scary because this one guy has more followers than the actual developers who understand how Bitcoin works… But more people are going to pay attention to him. And he’s not the modest type to say “oh, I’m not very knowledgeable, so you should listen to these other people instead” and not try to capitalize on the attention that he’s getting and making the most of it. And then you nurture a kind of culture that’s not very different from the “When Lambo?” bros that you were seeing in 2017…” (Interview)

To counter the rise of influencers in Bitcoin (as one participant noted, “weird to see Bitcoin stuff appearing on Instagram” FN-2017), there has been the rise of “Bitcoin plebs” or “plebians”, the everyday man/woman commoner who does not use their influence/clout to shape events or profit off the ecosystem. They believe in the idea of quietly “stacking sats (satoshis), eating tacos”, “staying humble” and the belief that “nobody is more important than Bitcoin” (FN-2019).

While social media has been a stabilizing force, platform support is another contentious issue. In 2019, Facebook announced plans for its own cryptocurrency with the Libra Association. The plan stalled soon after as partner organizations such as Uber, Mastercard, and Visa abandoned the project [54]. The project was rebranded as Diem [55]. Some of the developers interviewed for this research turned down Facebook’s offers (“I mean… I spend all this time trying to create systems that ensure at least some amount of privacy and then I’m supposed to go work for the surveillance state? No, thank you!” Interview). As of now (2021), Jack Dorsey of Twitter is pro-Bitcoin (e.g., Bitcoin symbol for #Bitcoin) and wants Bitcoin to stay close to the ideals with which it was created. However, as some of these public figures come to represent Bitcoin for broader audiences (n00bs/newbies), there is an increasing risk of central points of failure making the ecosystem less resilient. As one participant described: “In the early days, you had to do all the legwork yourself – you had to read the white paper, you had to attend meetups, learn from BitcoinTalk.org and go down the rabbit hole. It wasn’t an easy rabbit hole to navigate either, but it taught you a lot – it’s like trial by fire. But now you have these shiny objects, these exchanges where people just entrust with their coins because of nicer UX design… I realize it makes it easier but just listening to a podcast or following reddit is lazy.” (FN-2015).

The hive mind responds to signals through “outsider” brand evangelists such as Elon Musk and Edward Snowden drumbeating Bitcoin on Twitter (FN-2020). In 2021, Elon Musk was briefly lauded as a hero when he announced that Tesla would start accepting Bitcoins. However, he became the modern-day “Pan” when he announced the end of that initiative voicing concern for cryptocurrencies causing climate change and leading to pandemonium in the cryptocurrency markets. There is euphoria (positive feedback loops) followed by disappointment (negative feedback loops) as they become “fallen heroes” once they turn on Bitcoin. Similarly, Michael Saylor, who has gained popularity in 2020 for turning part of his company’s cash reserves into Bitcoin was being derided for hosting a closed-door meeting with miners with Elon Musk (FN 2021). The hive mind was quick to respond with tweets/memes with warnings of the 2015 Scaling Debates. As one participant tweeted:

“It’s the cycle of life…The cycle:

1. New celebrity proclaims love of #bitcoin & not alt coins.

2. Bitcoin twitter bestows sainthood, worships C for days/weeks/months.

3. C does things not in line with the orthodoxy.

4. BT (Bitcoin Twitter) shocked, devastated; declares C totally evil.

5. Wait for step 1 to begin again.” (Twitter)

Despite decentralization, the hive mind occasionally gravitates towards centralization. The rise of “crypto-influencers” as endorsed by magazines like Forbes and CoinDesk point to a formalization of relations that might make the ecosystem more brittle and less adaptable. There is less diversity, flexibility, and creative opportunity. The ecosystem’s openness also struggles against monied populations that have entered. As one participant noted, “Bitcoin was a poor man’s nerd toy, and now I just met the niece of the Israeli prime minister” [FN 2018]. There have also been concerns about status inequalities as the “Have Fun Staying Poor” memes proliferated during the bull rally of 2020-2021. As one participant noted, “Even if it’s mocking the big guys (banks/critics), it comes across as tone deaf to others who may be new to the space.” (FN-2020).

Ethereum grew out of Bitcoin’s ecosystem although it remains deeply intertwined with Bitcoin’s. People and resources still oscillate between them. Many altcoins have been created by early adopters of Bitcoin who have forked from the original tribe. There are accusations of “minimalism” (solely supporting altcoins) versus maximalism (supporting only Bitcoin). Nevertheless, the social memory generated by these various stabilizing and destabilizing forces has allowed Bitcoin to remain “intoxicating.” Leon, a digital forensic analyst who quit his job to work on Bitcoin full-time describes the “high” he feels about Bitcoin:

Leon: It’s the entertainment value, you know? The DRAMA about Bitcoin splitting! The stories of how the Ethereum chain forks because some guy stole a bunch of money! The fights: code is law versus the spirit of the law! The fallout when this exchange gets hacked! The amazing runs [price rallies] that happen after a bust… you know CNBC starts to have a cryptocurrency segment on TV! Just the entertainment of … watching this tiny little project that Satoshi started… grow into this global phenomena … is worth SO MUCH MORE! (laughs). Like, you could spend you know, hundreds of dollars on concert tickets and… restaurants, and like dinner, and make a whole night of entertainment - and it would not be anywhere NEAR as entertaining as if you bought five cents worth of Bitcoin… just so that you had some, just to watch the price go up, watch the price go down….(Interview)

As [56] argues: “Placing a system in a straitjacket of constancy can cause fragility to evolve.” One participant smiled: “Being in Bitcoin is never ordinary. The adrenaline never dies out.” What Bitcoin is able to do is command attention despite the noise.

6. Discussion:

Within the ecological resilience framework, the adaptive cycle is continuous and on-going [17]. Our findings suggest that these adaptive phases can occur concurrently and flow in either direction as seen in the circle of life depicted in Figure 1. There are feed-backs as much as feed-forths and some crises may knock the ecosystem back into a prior cycle. All of these sources/nodes of social memory feed, fuel, and flow into the ecosystem’s hive mind (Figure 1). Metamorphic moments provide crucial junctures to jumpstart conversations and build new narratives. The ecosystem hive mind expands and contracts within the vortex of destabilizing and stabilizing forces. The arrows represent the feedback loops transferring and accumulating knowledge and information augmenting the social memory and thereby resilience of the ecosystem hive mind. Everything is interlinked and interconnected, accelerating the rate of transformation. This framework suggests that if more than one node of social memory exits the ecosystem, decentralization ensures that others can pick up the mantle.

Crisis points are an important element of the creation of social memory as these are moments when the hive mind’s collective tendencies are tested. The hive mind keeps performing regardless of the crises that impact the ecosystem, even as some occasional beekeepers (scammers) take away the honey. The hive mind gathers together on various platforms to regroup and reorganize. The growing complexity of the ecosystem as a result of entropy (disorder/randomness) or major crises have helped shape the brand narrative in unexpected ways. Similarly, other destabilizing forces such as the WannaCry ransomware attacks (demanding Bitcoin ransom payments), the hacking of various Bitcoin exchanges, the volatile price dives, and people losing their Bitcoins, all serve as junctures that attracted more interest in Bitcoin as journalists covered these events. Even Satoshi Nakamoto’s disappearance can be considered a destabilizing force which led to various moments of news media frenzy/social media chatter, and thereby generation of social memory around Bitcoin; from the Newsweek chase of Dorian Nakamoto to the multiple Satoshi exposés resulting in t-shirts and memes. There are posts on BitcoinTalk/Wikipedia recounting all the major crises and deaths that have occurred in Bitcoin’s lifetime thus documenting the history of a decentralized brand. Social memory is also generated when meetup organizers, crypto-news media, or podcast/YouTube show hosts recall some of these crises – not unlike stories told around the campfire—a part of the socialization process for new population members.

In the early years of Bitcoin, there were only developers/miners who constituted the core of Bitcoin’s social memory. At that time, its hive mind was relatively small, and the lines of communication were comparatively straightforward: IRC, mailing lists, and BitcoinTalk forum. As Charles described, “back then – 2011,” he felt a sense of familiarity with almost everyone involved through BitcoinTalk forum (Interview). However, as the ecosystem hive mind expanded, by 2015 he felt that he knew only about ten percent of those involved. Connectedness within community members may decline (e.g., feeling alienated) as new entrants establish themselves. Connectedness has been an important element of Bitcoin’s resilience thus far. For instance, many in the wake of crises would turn to meetup events or social media platforms to gather with like-minded others.

To an extent, the feeling of “community” erodes as the hive mind expands attracting populations that have varied goals. Each new population into the ecosystem brings along a diverse culture which may erode the original tribe’s values. For example, conflicts between those who see Bitcoin as an opportunity to make money versus those who are interested in its ideological/technological/societal impacts. One participant noted feeling that those who joined during the bull run of 2017 were primarily interested in Bitcoin as a get-rich-quick scheme (“When lambos?” (When Lamborghini)). The term ‘community’ is also a contentious issue: while some feel that they are a part of the “Bitcoin community”/ “Bitcoiners” – what they mean by community is different based on their interactions with Bitcoin. Some would use terms such as “community” “brotherhood” “tribe” “fam” and referred to themselves and others as Bitcoiners. They have their own rituals, camaraderie, language (e.g., hodl – holding on to Bitcoin irrespective of price), culture, and shared ideological beliefs dealing with freedom and a sense of othering against financial or governmental institutions and ‘altcoins’ (often dubbed as ‘shitcoins’). Like any brand community, some of the people involved have found a sense of communitas which keeps them together [57]. However, the Scaling Debates of 2015 challenged that notion of ‘community’ as the “Make Bitcoin Great Again” hats proliferated on social media. As one participant noted “…we still have PTSD from the Scaling Debates. Just the amount of vitriol was insane.” Bitcoin also has a ‘community’ of individualists, as one developer described:

“Bitcoin is an anti-community… it’s like calling Europe THE European community in the 1940s… They don’t really like each other, they’re fighting too much. Someone who uses Bitcoin, they say, “Hey, I don’t want anyone to know that I’m using Bitcoin – I’m not part of ANY community… That’s the idea of Bitcoin, that you don’t need permission, you don’t need to sign up!” (Interview)

Bitcoin attracts those with diverging political views as well; whether it is vegans/carnivores or Ron Paul “It’s happening!” memers to diehard Bernie Sanders fans. Concurrently, the ecosystem includes ‘tourists’ – where the level of commitment is ambivalent and often fleeting. These include traders who are cryptocurrency agnostic (Bitcoin Minimalists), crypto-news media, content creators who see an opportunity in crypto, whether it is to make money through various investments, sell crypto-merchandise, or become ‘thought leaders,’ ‘experts’, or ‘crypto-influencers’ who straddle multiple crypto-ecosystems. There are also speculators who join Bitcoin following price rallies but exit the ecosystem following a price drop; as one participant called them “fair-weather friends” [FN- 2017]. Startups like cryptocurrency mining operations and exchanges have diversified their investments and offer a portfolio of altcoins besides Bitcoin. During interviews, they would often use emotionally-detached terms such as “space”, “industry” or “ecosystem.” In turn, these publics (e.g., traders; podcasters) also have their own nested communities. The brand ecosystem hive mind needs both in order to survive. To an extent, the hive mind as it grows diminishes the need for community as independent worker bees do their part without needing coordination or cohesion as long as loyalty to the decentralized brand remains intact.

[17] posits that not all ecosystems or societies “go through all the phases of the adaptive cycle” or go through them at the same rate. Our findings show that Bitcoin has had few moments of stasis. It evolves, mutates, and feeds off of inter-connected ecosystems composed not just of individuals, but also institutions, groups, and competing cryptocurrencies that feed off of Bitcoin activity. Major crises have jolted the overall ecosystem, increased its social memory, and contributed to its growth. As Bitcoin has grown, other cryptocurrencies have also emerged. These ecosystems arise when drones fly off with newly hatched queen bees to start another hive.

There is cross-pollination across these interconnected ecosystems. For example, the connected hive mind for Ethereum feeds off of – and benefits from – the infrastructure that arose to create Bitcoin. Vitalik Buterin (an Ethereum founder) was one of the co-founders of Bitcoin Magazine which helped spread the word about Bitcoin and also served as a space for building the interconnected Ethereum ecosystem. Bitcoin meetups were also once gathering spaces for Ethereum enthusiasts and vice-versa. We can consider the Bitcoin ecosystem as enmeshed in other inter-connected ecosystems—not unlike a Mandelbrot fractal that expands and contracts in never-ending patterns as one zooms in or out. These other cryptocurrencies can also be envisioned as ecosystems with their own workforces and resources—some just happen to be better endowed or more popular than others. Their shared consciousness helps solidify the social memory of this ecosystem.

However, new dissonances constantly abound and there are occasional connectivity gaps. Unlike a beehive where bees do have a singular purpose – the brand ecosystem hive mind may be full of paradoxes as it reflects the heterogenous actors through whom it is constituted. Some developers noted feelings of betrayal or wanting to quit working on Bitcoin in response to those who got rich off of the ICO bubble of 2017. One developer grew visibly upset during the interview: “…and here we had all these SNAKES from the business world, they would come in and raise these ungodly amounts of money…I HATED everything they said, I hated their vaporware, and their claim to solving impossible problems with the blockchain… it made me want to leave, I couldn’t stomach that I had a hand in enabling some of that…” (Interview). As many participants note “Bitcoin has a life of its own.

[58] notes of swarm intelligence, consensus is often reached not by majority but by “sufficient quorum of excitation” as can be represented via memes in this ecosystem. To an extent, the swarm-like behaviour ensures that the ecosystem hive mind stays vigilant. There is a constant “othering” of potential threats – whether in the form of the ‘establishment’ (governments), other institutional brands (banks), or keeping the decentralized brand safe from being mired in ideological turf wars. Much in the way there are fan armies for K-pop (BTS Army), Britney Spears (Britney Army), or Beyonce (BeyHive), there are Bitcoin stans. Stans are stalker fans. As [59] describes them: stans see “themselves as crusaders, pledging loyalty and rushing to their idol’s defense against dissenters.” In Bitcoin, some call themselves “cyberhornets.” Even though the soldier bees are not formally coordinated or hierarchal, they have been through other crises, learned that Bitcoin will prevail, and become committed to speaking up and providing stability and healing for the hive. There is no longer a queen (Satoshi) to protect in this case, only the integrity of a portion of the hive. Other cryptocurrencies also have their own “armies” or “marines.”

Sometimes, responses by cyberhornets can go astray as well. This was evident during the week in which Elon Musk was tweeting about Bitcoin and climate change and some were condemning him while others tried to seed whispers of caution (FN 2021). For instance, as [25] warn, “too many connections may constrain response in “hypercoherent” situation in which excessive connections tend to make the system more “brittle” or less resilient in the face of perturbations.” Similarly, during the Scaling Debates of 2015, there was a tremendous amount of trolling and some feared that outsiders were trying to “jam the development process through faceless trolls on reddit” (FN-2015). There are vulnerabilities and occasionally, the over-connectivity can be damaging. There is other less adversarial swarm like behavior by the hive mind. For example, laser eyes on social media avatars until Bitcoin hits US $100,000 or green blocks on Twitter representing support for taproot activation 2021. Similarly, Zcash enthusiasts adopting the shield on their social media avatars, or Ethereum fans putting up their Cryptopunk/Bored Ape images as profile photos during the NFTs hype. All these moves add to the social memory of the ecosystem through inter-connected rituals.

The price rally that started in December 2020-May 2021 which had Bitcoin, Ethereum, and even the meme coin, Dogecoin, reaching all-time-highs were being met with cautionary tweets and reddit threads warning of the impending “correction” or elation that “#tothemoon” is yet to come. The accumulated knowledge and social memory from previous bull rallies were evident in signals by the hive mind with tweets/reddit posts of “History does not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes”, “NFTs are the ghosts of ICO bubbles past” and warnings about getting “rekt” although “degens” hardly listen. There was also palpable FOMO in 2021 as the “when lambo?” (Lamborghini) memes returned. These periods may be interpreted as the release phases of the Bitcoin adaptive cycle where there is a spectacular fission of various actors after years of “buidling” in the growth and conservation cycles. Similarly, when China announced its crackdown on Bitcoin mining/trading in May 2021, the hive mind went into action reminding others that this was not the first crackdown drawing on the social memory of the ecosystem. While the prices of various cryptocurrencies tanked, some hoped that it would be an opportunity to redistribute the mining infrastructure away from China. Each crisis can have the potential for reorganizing previous legacies and the “correction” may be followed by a reorganization and conservation phase where the hive mind regroups and recuperates.

In science fiction, the ‘hive mind’ has generally had negative connotations; be it the Borg in Star Trek or the notion that hive minds necessitate a loss of free will or agency entailing groupthink. However, our view of the Bitcoin hive mind is more positive; and in fact, represents heterogeneity given its decentralization. There are pockets of like-mindedness (e.g., Bitcoin plebs; hodl) but with Queen Bee (Satoshi) missing, the Bitcoin hive mind remains a diverse entity. It reflects the intensity and passion that the worker bees – all participating and contributing to the decentralized brand with their own unique talents – bring to the ecosystem. Regardless of ideological differences, the allegiance to the decentralized brand remains the connective tissue. As [60] once put it, “imagination, especially collective imagination, produces reality.”

Decentralized Brand Hive Minds & Crypto-Economies

We have entered an age in which we will encounter more instances of decentralized brands in crypto-economies. We suggest that decentralized brands are best suited to entities that involve intangibles—ideas, money, consulting, design, music, art, communications, and so forth. Hashtags with obscure origins may also be viewed as decentralized brands where the symbolism is open to interpretation and co-optation. While memes are essential branding landmarks that help decentralized brands evolve, memes in and of themselves may also be viewed as decentralized brands. They tend to have obscure origins, are reworked by multiple audiences, and may eventually reach monetization through network effects. Now with NFTs even meme’s original creators have the ability to be compensated for their creations.

With growing skepticism of tech giants and their ability to control our data, there are moves towards building a “Decentralized Web” or Web 3.0 which will have a more commons-driven rather than user-extractive implementations, where social protocols may become new decentralized brands owned by the users. The crypto-ecosystem has laid the infrastructure for other decentralized brands to emerge as they are enabled via crypto-economies (e.g., Decentralized Autonomous Organizations—DAOs [61] [62]; emerging scripting languages like Solidity, Miniscript, Sapio for smart contracts). Much in the way that software is like living organism, DAOs will also create new opportunities for decentralized brands running on smart contracts that once deployed, operate without human intervention on the blockchain but will most likely need the hive mind for its social memory creation. For instance, Dogecoin has been in existence for almost as long as Bitcoin, however it was the hive mind resurrecting it from its relative obscurity driven by reddit enthusiasts, Elon Musk, armies of YouTube/TikTok investors bored during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One defining feature of brands like Bitcoin is egalitarian ownership which stems from its open-source roots. As one of the participants wished, “I hope Satoshi never comes back because I can wake up every morning and be like ‘Bitcoin is mine!’.” Anonymity is the new notoriety in our celebrity-saturated world and Satoshi by refusing to reveal their identity ensured that Bitcoin remains decentralized [12]. This divestment away from credit and authorship fits within the ethos of the open-source community where the code/idea matters more than the cult of personality; collaboration and symbiosis are sought after. With Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrencies, users have an ownership stake in the brand they are building, not just on a figurative level. It is a form of IPO/equity without the legality and paperwork through tokens.

One of the key challenges for new cryptocurrencies will be how much they can sever their umbilical cords with their creators. Ethereum’s founder, Vitalik Buterin, has struggled with this issue as he has been the face of Ethereum—the community often holds him accountable and tends to seek his counsel when protocol changes are being debated. He also becomes a target for hate and backlash when crises occur. For other decentralized brands to exist, founders instead of taking a traditional “exit” may need to divest away from the projects early on. Founders’ absence helps ensure decentralization of the project. Decentralization is the DNA of cryptocurrency brands—and mere lip service to it does not suffice. Can anonymity/pseudonymity for decentralized brands be sustained and is it even desirable? There have been attempts be it in MimbleWimble (Tom Elvis Jedusor), Grin (Ignotus Peverell), or SushiSwap (Chef Nomi). The answer no doubt depends on execution and whether or not pseudonymity is a means to orchestrate an exit scam.

One of the changes that we are seeing through Bitcoin is an attempt at decentralization of information: not allowing banks, corporations, or governments to determine or even access where money flows. This could occur because with the ongoing digitization of our economies, how we spend our money is a better predictor of behavior than any models we can construct for human behavior. Back in the 90s, the writers of the Cypherpunk manifesto had warned of the dawn of a “dossier society” that the internet could create, a reality which is true today through surveillance capitalism [63]. There are discussions about resurrecting some old parts of the early internet/www days where pseudonymous identities were once the norm on mailing lists/IRC. There could be blockchain oracles of information where decentralized entities collect and gather information where blockchains communicate with one another removing centralized hubs where identities are kept pseudonymous and verified through the blockchain.

7. Conclusion:

As with any view of Bitcoin, this account is a minutia of what goes on. [23] argue: “Major transformations are rare and extreme because a unique combination of separate developments has to conspire together simultaneously.” A lot has transpired for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to emerge. As [64] once said of technological development: “…each contribution has to follow onto previous work. Everything is tied to everything else.” We have explored how the social memory of a decentralized brand hive mind like Bitcoin evolves making it more resilient. Brand hive minds follow self-organizing principles and are able to subsume individuals into collective structures. Our contributions are threefold: First, we draw on ecological resilience framework to theorize how the social memory of Bitcoin’s hive mind evolved through various crises. Crises are often the moments that catapult decentralized brands into collective consciousness. All of these sources of social memory can be viewed as nodes/neurons in the neural network of Bitcoin’s social memory (Figure 1).

This social memory thrives on feedback loops. Not unlike some AI deep learning algorithms, the neurons are trained on previous incidents of disruption and develop a social memory of past events to predict future actions. This is the source of Bitcoin’s resilience. Second, we contribute to how the social memory of a brand like Bitcoin thrives on interlinkages and inter-dependencies that circulate within the various stages of an ecosystem’s adaptive cycle. Destabilizing and stabilizing forces foreground the creation of social memory as involving metamorphic moments that reconfigure the interconnected web of relations. They help crystalize the identity of the brand and create moments of conversation, thereby giving birth to new rituals and brand stories that ensure public mindshare and add to the resilience of the brand ecosystem hive mind. Third, our research has implications for understanding how social media shapes the landscapes for decentralized brands and how the hive mind operates by focusing attention on the algorithmic systems that help shape these entities.

Decentralized brands like Bitcoin are akin to seeds in the wind – they are shaped and formed by those they come into contact with. There are other questions that remain: what do decentralized brands offer? Are they only disruptive in terms of the economy and ways of doing business, or do they represent a threat to capitalism, corporate control, or other taken-for-granted institutions? The answer no doubt remains in how institutions like governments engage with them. As one participant noted: “Countries [like China] can ban themselves from Bitcoin, they cannot ban Bitcoin.” The brand hive mind keeps the social memory of the ecosystem intact and ready to take on future crises.

Limitations

We acknowledge that the research participants and the data drawn on here with a few exceptions are drawn from sources where English was the common language. Due to the language barrier, we did not do a netnography of China’s WeChat or the Mandarin language forums of BitcoinTalk although we were able to access their English language posts which are included in our data.

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