Last year, with cryptocurrency prices near all-time highs, VICE spoke with some people who had recently started working in the forward-thinking field known as web3. There was an Uber product designer who quit to work at an NFT startup, the co-founder of a bustling crypto community, and several others. They talked about artist empowerment, collective ownership, and unique creative structures. However, today, it seems that most cryptocurrency holders are about hacking and fraud. What are those jobs like now, assuming they still exist?
As it turns out, most of the people we spoke to are still working in or close to crypto. Some lost money or traded projects, but few, particularly those drawn to cryptocurrency for the philosophical or technical potential they see in it, seem to regret it.
“Last year, there were a lot more frat boys who were in banking or private equity compared to really clear system builders.” —Chris
A year ago, Raihan Anwar was working on Friends With Benefits, a DAO that he New York Times once called “the VIP room for the creative crypto class”. Since then, he has added a new role as Community Director at Blockchain Creative Labs (BCL), a part of FOX Entertainment that explores blockchain-based licensing, fan experiences, and other ways the traditional studio system can interact and experiment with web3. “It’s super interesting because you have this big creative incumbent in the space, with their existing infrastructure sets for art, animation, film, creative, etc., and they’re willing to experiment and see how the technology works,” he said.
According to Raihan, tech social bubbles fueled much of the hype last year, where people had little outside perspective. With prices collapsing and noble ideas about social coordination facilitated by blockchain yet to come to fruition, cryptocurrency’s most ardent proponents have had to return to Earth. “People who used to utter the word ‘without confidence’ every other sentence may now [saying it] every two paragraphs,” he said. “Trust is people. You can’t use a ‘smart contract’ to escape liars, cheats, and scammers.”
Still, Raihan is excited about creative projects that take advantage of the bear market. Cheaper prices mean that interacting with the blockchain is cheaper too, whether you’re a user tinkering with new apps or a developer pushing the limits of technology. “A lot of the tech talent that’s come into the space in the last year or year and a half has come and stayed because it’s such an interesting experiment and experience to watch,” he said.
Danny Cole, a visual artist known for his imaginative and colorful style, launched creature world in August 2021. The potential for “new creative structures” drew him to web3, and his NFT collection was an almost instant success. “When I got into web3, the idea of ’what is an NFT’ was very vague,” he said. “The response was ‘whatever I’m about to do,’ and that was very exciting for me.”
While he has seen the price of some of his works decline over the past year, his sentiments on cryptocurrency changed long before the recent recession. “That question of ‘what is an NFT’ was further answered with ‘an NFT is a vehicle for financial speculation, and on which new tools for financial incentivization can be built,'” he continued. “That was not my interest.” As such, things like the recent collapse of the FTX exchange and the arrest of its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, have not changed his belief in the potential cultural value of NFTs. “No part of some random guy in finance who maybe did fraud or something tells me there isn’t a future where people appreciate digital products.”
“No part of some random guy in finance who maybe did fraud or something tells me there isn’t a future where people appreciate digital products.” —Danny Cole
Lily Nguyen, product designer at Zora, a busy NFT marketplace, told VICE last year that he felt like a “rat on coke working in this space because there’s so much going on.” The bear market has given him time to focus. “There are fewer fires to put out and fewer distractions,” she said. “There are still users who are using our product and asking us for things, but there is much less ‘something is broken, I’m going to [fix it] on Saturday nights or rando meetings at 23:00”.
Lily encouraged her family to buy Ethereum last year, saying her parents sold it before prices crashed and financed a vacation with the proceeds. “My parents are smarter than me,” she said, noting that she had lost a lot of money in the declining value of her NFT. However, she has few regrets. “I feel like, at the end of the day, a lot of that money was spent pretty well. [because] it was for artists that I really respect.”
We also speak with Chris*, a software engineer who asked not to be identified by his real name. He worked in crypto for two years before resigning in early 2021, after becoming skeptical of general claims about financial inclusion in the industry and feeling that the bubble could burst soon. “I think I feel vindicated,” he said. In his opinion, price fluctuations derive from the extreme concentration of wealth intrinsic to the current ecosystem. “A lot of the volatility and liquidity comes from some 2015 whales swinging their dicks.”
Like Raihan, Chris noted that cryptocurrency down cycles tend to attract people drawn to interesting technical issues. “Last year, there were a lot more frat boys who were in banking or private equity, compared to really clear system builders,” he said. “People who were in it for the money versus just, ‘Oh, this is really cool.'” Although he no longer works in cryptography, he is excited about new developments in zero-knowledge cryptography, a way to verify a claim. without revealing all the data necessary to do so, and other applications related to privacy and security. “The biggest lesson for me is the importance of understanding why you’re doing the things you’re doing for yourself, rather than trying to update your worldview based on what other people believe.”
Most of the people we spoke to shared this sentiment that bear markets test people’s conviction in their professed values. This fall, the broader economic downturn affected much of the tech industry beyond cryptocurrency, with recent big layoffs at Meta and Amazon, among others—and considering her other options, Lily seemed satisfied. “It’s a smarter career change to gravitate toward something that personally gives me purpose rather than pursuing something that may be in high demand right now but could have a cycle of failure down the road,” she said. “I don’t think something worth building is a safe bet.”
In the end, Lily said, she is still motivated by the idea of ”building a better Internet,” particularly one that is “more equitable for creators.” It’s the same principle that inspired her to pursue cryptocurrencies, and even allowing for doubts about the potential for cryptocurrencies to have a positive social impact or widespread adoption, she may be too early to give up hope. “I think there is a possibility that cryptocurrencies have something to do with [that goal]. Is it the magic bullet? Probably not, but am I going to at least try to make a mark? Yes.”