Crypto-Couchsurfing: Ryan Taylor on Finding Community through Decentralized Networks
Ryan Taylor has been involved in cryptocurrency since 2011. He’s written for Bitcoin Magazine, developed the website for Ethereum, co-created the Open Index Protocol for storing metadata on the blockchain, and attended countless conferences focused on decentralization.
That’s how I met him: both of us attended DWeb Camp, a particularly immersive conference hosted by the Internet Archive, due to our work in decentralized networks. I overheard him at campfire talking about his experiences traveling around using Bitcoin, and asked to follow up and hear more stories on the unique communities and interactions enabled by deep early cryptocurrency adoption.
BRESEMAN: How did you get involved with cryptocurrency?
TAYLOR: I received my first Bitcoin in Halloween of 2011 from a friend. He wanted to get me involved. I asked him, can it be copied? And his answer convinced me that it couldn’t. And that was pretty much it.
Shortly after that, I got an email from Mihai Alisie, who’s one of the founders of Bitcoin Magazine and later one of the founders of Ethereum.
It was funny because it was kind of out of the blue. It was just this email from a guy in Romania, who told me that he was starting this magazine and he wanted me to write for them based on some blogs that I wrote.
I think my actual response, my literal response to him in the email was, “haha really funny”.
I thought it was one of my friends from college playing a joke on me, like he read this blog that I wrote and was laughing about how I thought I was big shit now or something.
And Mihai responded. He’s like, No, No, I’m serious. I want you to help us with this. And so I started doing some writing and quickly became the web developer for Bitcoin Magazine.
That led to building the first websites for Ethereum when they came up with the idea, when Vitalik came up with the idea for Ethereum. So I was involved as a web developer, and then also sort of as a writer for the magazine, mostly doing scene report stuff, going to different Bitcoin events, meetups and things.
That was where my heart has always been with Bitcoin. I think there’s a lot of people in cryptocurrencies who are really into it for the finance side, or to get rich quick. I was always really interested in the other people. I think decentralized networks are most interesting because of the other peers in the network.
BRESEMAN: What were you blogging about that got Mihai’s attention?
TAYLOR: My friend, the one who gave me my first Bitcoin, ran a website called DailyAnarchist.com and he wanted to have some insight into hacker communities. So I wrote some of those and also some guides.
The first article that caught Mihai’s attention was a guide on how to do full disk encryption with Ubuntu and Fedora, then there was a scene report from DEF CON in Las Vegas. And then I went to Noisebridge, which is a big hacker space in San Francisco. They had a group of events called Hack Meet, which was the first event that I went to where I thought, all these nerds are awesome. And I’m home.
BRESEMAN: Is there a set of traits that you see as characteristic of the people involved in decentralized networks?
TAYLOR: There’s a certain sort of fringe mentality. In these early stages of cryptocurrency, there’s something that attracts outsiders to it: be your own bank, fighting against the system.
It was really strong in the early years, and then 2014–2017 I think that there was a lot of media and the appeal for cryptocurrencies kind of changed. It went from, we want to do something strange, to my friend, or my nephew, or whoever, told me that I can make money investing in these things.
But I think that besides the people who come to cryptocurrencies to make money, it’s full of people who are looking for an alternative to mainstream institutions. And I don’t think that financial institutions are the only things that they’re looking for alternatives to.
It’s this opportunity to kind of let your freak flag fly. And you’re not worried about being judged by everyone there, because everyone is kind of a freak, you know?
BRESEMAN: Can you break down the communities a little bit?
TAYLOR: There’s a bunch of different communities we’re talking about. There’s the broader cryptocurrency community, and Bitcoin-specific communities. You’ve got Ethereum developer communities, investors, regulators. The financial institution is really becoming a big player. And then there’s other communities, like at DWeb Camp, you have the mesh networking communities.
I think that we all belong to different subcommunities that have this opportunity to come together around what we have in common. Maybe you go for the Bitcoin, but you leave with friends.
I’ve actually made some really good friends through the local trader feature that used to be Mycelium.
I travel a lot, and there was a point where the only money that I had was Bitcoin. I’d be traveling around Europe and use this local trader app to find someone at the train station that I was heading to, or I’d wake up in the hostel and I would need some euros so I’d find someone who would be willing to buy my Bitcoin for euros at a coffee shop or in a park.
In some cases, those have turned into great friendships.
BRESEMAN: Do you have a good example?
TAYLOR: Around the time cryptocurrency was really taking off, it was the summer of 2015, and I moved to Europe.
The only money that I had at that point was Bitcoin. My bank account was totally empty, and I preferred to be paid in Bitcoin. I don’t remember what Bitcoin was worth, but I was always having to sell the Bitcoin that I was making; it was never an investment vehicle for me.
I couldn’t really afford to come to Europe. I actually was going to livestream for a mesh networking event in Slovenia. The event organizers offered to fly me out there, and I didn’t really want to go back to California. So they made it a one way ticket.
After Slovenia, I ended up following some friends to Berlin. And that was where I met this one trader.
When youʼre trading Bitcoin for cash, you have to find a person whoʼs willing to trade, and you end up hanging out with them a bit.
So when I got to Berlin, I needed some euros, and within the first week or two, one of the guys I traded with in Berlin offered to let me stay in an RV that was by the river that no one was living in. He said, yeah, you can pay me a little bit of Bitcoin every month and stay until it gets too cold to stay in my van. So I found housing because of this connection.
BRESEMAN: What does it look like to do these transactions?
TAYLOR: The Mycelium wallet doesn’t have this feature anymore, but up until 2017 or 2018, you could enter a zip code or a town and it would tell you all the people who are willing who are buying and selling Bitcoin there. You would pick one, send them a message over the app. You would say: this is how much Bitcoin I have, and I’m okay with this price. And they would say, okay, let’s meet here.
A lot of people who I tell these stories to equate the whole situation to kind of a drug deal. You meet in a park, someone has, say, 800 euros. You do something with your phones and then they kind of slide the money over to you, because no one wants to hand 800 euros over to you all obviously in the middle of a park.
You hang out and talk to the person for a little while to kind of get a feel for them.
I can imagine it going wrong; if you transfer the the Bitcoin to someone and then they don’t give you the cash, or even worse, you’re the person with the cash and then something goes wrong. I have had some transactions, especially when the transaction fees were really high, or it would take a real long time for the transaction to go through–say your phone signal isnʼt good.
BRESEMAN Was there a time when it didn’t work out?
TAYLOR: There was one time in a town near Frankfurt, Germany, when the guy who I met thought that I was trying to buy Bitcoin from him, but I was actually trying to sell Bitcoin to him.
I had spent my last money on the train ticket to get there. And so he shows up, says, oh, no, I misunderstood, sorry. And he just takes off. And I didn’t have any money to get a place to sleep.
BRESEMAN: So what did you do?
TAYLOR: I think I just scrounged around until the next day, when I was heading to Munich. On the train to Munich, I ended up using this app again and finding someone who met me at the Starbucks at the Munich train station when I arrived. So I got to know him too.
BRESEMAN: I really like that framing; it’s clear that it’s the social aspect that pulls you in.
In that vein, are there any projects in the space that you’re really excited about right now?
TAYLOR: I think that the Dat Project, which is a peer-to-peer data sharing protocol, is super interesting. The people who are building it have a very compassionate worldview.
Peer-to-peer is fascinating to me because it’s about connecting the people. It’s about: how can we enable people to communicate? Rather than, how do we capitalize off of people’s data, or through their communications?
Secure Scuttlebutt is another peer-to-peer communications protocol. I am continually impressed with the people playing some role in Secure Scuttlebutt. It’s a lot of the same curiosity I saw at the beginning of Bitcoin, where people were coming in and saying, I know nothing about finance. I don’t know about banks. A lot of people didn’t even know how to write code– but there was something you could bring to the project.
BRESEMAN: You mentioned that you prefer to be paid in Bitcoin. Why?
TAYLOR: I think a lot of it has to do with like the rebel side of it. My father’s an accountant; it’s not like I’m trying to get around the taxes or anything. But it’s easy. It’s nice when a client understands Bitcoin and you send them an invoice and immediately it shows up in your wallet.
Traveling around, it makes things much smoother than having to go to the exchange booths and deal with the scams that they have in train stations and airports.
It can make life a lot easier. But then it goes back to the kind of the social elements of it. I think that it’s a rare situation where money will actually make you friends.