The Long Tail of the Obscure

Crypto is obscure, but that means projects have more broad discovery

The early internet was obscure, and so it was full of nothing but obscure sites. If you were early to the internet, you would find websites a chaotic patchwork of how they present themselves today: instead of Reddit, there were myriad forums on specific topics: GameFAQs/Gamespot/IGN for video games broadly; Garry’s Mod for that game specifically; Wiremod for that mod of Garry’s Mod specifically; forever and ever into whatever minutiae you wanted.

Communities tended to be relatively active because passionate people like to talk to passionate people, and there was no known aggregator for many of these sites. Search engines existed, and that’s what made discoverability broadly possible, but there was no equivalent of Reddit, so forums were patchwork. Likewise with the lack of social media for connections and identity tracking between sites, so identities were patchwork. Even matters of great importance, like online banking, were in their infancy and so they generally sucked. I didn’t have direct deposit at my first job—my employer didn’t support it. For most white-collar professionals, that’s unthinkable today.

A question from the modern perspective: how did a forum like Wiremod (a forum for a specific mod of another specific mod) possibly get any users? Well, people wanted a place to congregate and talk about their creations that used Wiremod, and so someone started a site for that purpose. These days, Reddit captures most of the ad-hoc community-forming of this sort, so the search-engine discoverability for other sites is so comparatively poor that nobody finds them—or cares about them when they do.

I think this is really sad. Reddit has some specific innovations that allow it to dominate other forums that try to spring up:

  1. Unified accounts/reputation/identity. If you contribute good content to /r/mildlyinteresting, the prestige of your account (in the forms of age, total net upvotes, etc.) can be effortlessly transferred to any other community on the site;

  2. Immediate community-sizing. if you find a subreddit on a topic, no need to dig further than its front page to know exactly how many subscribers it has—and no more than a cursory glance at the list of posts is necessary to learn how active it is; and

  3. Comment algorithm. Reddit’s comment system is not strictly chronological like forums are. In comment sections, upvotes are the strongest determinant for how high your comment appears in the list. This means jokes, quips, popular opinions etc. are often elevated, regardless of whether they are true or valuable. I’ve seen many top comments that were plainly wrong about something, but they were written in a convincing way. Comments are a popularity contest. But from a user-experience point of view, top comments are at least worthy of a read most of the time, and this keeps users jumping from thread to thread looking for good derivative comment threads.

All of these cause centralization:

  1. A single identity between forums does a few things: it makes it easy to start a new community (subreddit) rather than going to another site, because you already have an account here and you may as well not go off-site and struggle to be discovered right away. Instead, why not just stay on Reddit? (Related: beware trivial inconveniences.)

  2. The above relates to centralization between Reddit and other forums, real or imagined. Community-sizing causes a centralization effect within Reddit itself. For instance, sometimes there’s a real feeling of “why bother subbing to this subreddit of 45 people?” and then you go stay on /r/atheism or whatever instead because at least it’s active. Sure, you could contribute to the small community, and some people are drawn to do so, but most people are lurkers. Joining a small community can read as a waste of time to many users, so they don’t grow as quickly as the larger ones.

  3. Reading top comments is as addicting as a Twitter feed for me. I need to be careful not to waste an hour reading Reddit comments, sometimes across many posts but sometimes focused on just one. The algorithm makes sure you constantly see interesting things to think about, which encourages you to stay on the site.

The thesis statement is this: as major online services become more powerful, the value of satellite services declines, in relative terms, thus, over time, the reach (discovery potential) of satellite services approaches 0.

And so, very slowly, the old internet dies. I’m not the first person to tell the story of the centralization of the internet. One need only look at the incredible percentage of global bandwidth used from sites like Instagram and Netflix to see how centralized most people’s online experiences have become. Today I’m here to talk about the inverse.

Niches haven’t had time to centralize

One thing I love about crypto-world is how much it feels like the Wild West. It has a vibe of being much like the old internet used to be: full of passionate people, strong personalities, excited about exploring new concepts and dedicating themselves to novel work. In the course of my day job at a crypto company, I find myself excited about building things that haven’t existed before.

One interesting aspect of it: if you know about Bitcoin, there’s no guarantee you know about Ethereum, and if you know about Ethereum, you may not know about any projects or protocols built on top of it. But if you know about one such protocol, you probably know at least half a dozen others, large and small, in a varied assortment.

Using Uniswap is pretty simple. But what if you really want the best deal? Then you might look around at other DEXes, or DEX aggregators. Want to know how validation of price data works on the blockchain? Might need to look into oracles like Chainlink. Want to save your money without withdrawing it to fiat currency? You’ll find yourself learning about interest-bearing protocols like Compound or Aave.

There are a few obscure protocols that people come across. Want to move money in a truly private way? Use Tornado.cash. Want a stable asset that’s not pegged to a fiat currency and isn’t used for much of any speculative trading? Consider RAI. If you dedicate time to browsing the space, all these projects are much more realistically discoverable than, say, the odds of you striking up a conversation with a user of Something Awful on the streets of Manhattan.

This is a component of the Wild West: because people in the community haven’t had time to settle into patterns yet (i.e. something like “because of how quickly everything in crypto is evolving”), word of mouth is very important and very powerful. Consider how little there is to learn browsing /r/cryptocurrency versus hanging around in the Discord for your favorite crypto project. It’s clear which conversation is more lively, more genuine and more informative—and it’s not with the crowd of normies who ape into anything a front-page post mentions and don’t think about it any further. Make no mistake: there are many such people.

People highly invested in & knowledgeable about crypto are still a rare breed. They exist somewhere in the tail of a normal distribution, and because they’re already in the tail, they know more than average about the tail. Because the industry is young, the tail is pretty easy to find and its constituent population is small. In five years, it may not be. So now is the best time to learn.