January 21, 2019

Blockchain Has an Acronym Problem

“Eschew obfuscation” is a humorous, ironic phrase often used by teachers and professors when advising students on their writing style. Although it literally means “avoid being unclear”, the words are rare enough that many native English speakers would not know what it means.

“Eschew obfuscation” is a humorous, ironic phrase often used by teachers and professors when advising students on their writing style. Although it literally means “avoid being unclear”, the words are rare enough that many native English speakers would not know what it means. Basically, the lesson here is that “it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it”.

Blockchain technology is currently in a similar position to open-source software two decades ago. At its core, there is a passionate community of enthusiasts and experts for whom the technology has come to define their entire worldview. To many insiders at the turn of the millennium, it seemed obvious, inevitable even, that there would be widespread adoption of open-source software. Operating systems like Ubuntu Linux were almost as user friendly as competitors from Microsoft and Apple and were preferred by many IT specialists. It also had another major advantage: while a professional licence for a Windows computer cost about $299, Linux was completely free. Why would big institutions and government organisations continue to pay large licence fees to tech giants when there was a readily available, free alternative?

Fast forward 20 years, however, and although global usage of Linux has doubled, it still hovers stubbornly below 2% of overall market share. For comparison, in the same time period, Apple’s closed-source OSX operating system more than quadrupled, growing from 3% market share in 2000 to 12.5% in 2018. Meanwhile, Microsoft Windows still commands 83% of the market.

So why have genuinely open-source desktop operating systems failed to gain more traction and what can we learn from it? There are entire articles dedicated to explaining the barriers to adoption, which include the fact that Linux rarely came preinstalled on new computers, couldn’t always open documents produced in Windows, and that many peripherals (such as printers) lacked native Linux support.

Although these factors are undoubtedly important, however, cultural and human factors also played a significant role here. New users generally had to turn to a vibrant online community of Linux enthusiasts when they needed help. Like Wikipedia, these voluntary communities showed the amazing potential of the Internet to facilitate human collaboration. Although passionate and well intentioned, however, these insiders often spoke in a language which was completely impenetrable to the uninitiated. Often, a new user would ask a seemingly simple question and the respondent would immediately launch into a technical explanation of package dependencies or file system permissions using terms like “apt-get”, “chown”, and “POSIX”. As a result, even though Linux may have been a good option for many users had they taken the time to grow accustomed to it, the learning curve seemed too steep, too soon.

This tendency to immediately reach for highly esoteric terminology will be familiar to anyone who has been observing the crypto and blockchain scene of late. Acronym inflation is so rampant, it would make Zimbabwe blush: first we had ICO, now we ITO, STO, DAO and DAICO. Whole articles are devoted to listing and explaining this rapidly expanding lexicon of jargon. The guiding principle of crypto marketeers seems to be “if it moves, turn it into a new acronym”.

Most of these terms do have a specific technical meaning of course, and it is understandable that a technology that arose from a discipline as specialised as cryptography has produced its fair share of technical terms. There is also probably a psychological dimension. The crypto scene is predominantly online and insider jargon can be seductive, giving you a profound sense of belonging — like you are privy to a secret language which will change the world.

The irony here is that if blockchain is truly to change the world, its proponents will need to explain the benefits in a much more accessible way. Blockchain has undoubted potential to significantly alter the tech sector, by offering similar benefits to big data networks without relying on a centralised server, and by opening up new horizons to verify physical transactions digitally. Despite this, however, a recent Deloitte study of global executives showed that 39% believed that blockchain is overhyped.

Furthermore, the recent breach of Etherum Classic demonstrated that if adoption of a blockchain is limited to a small hardcore group, it becomes much more vulnerable to 51% attacks. Thus, one of the core benefits of blockchain, namely data immutability and trustworthiness, relies on a relatively large user base. And you cannot attract a broad user base without communicating in an accessible way.

The reality is that many investors have been burned in recent years, meaning that if they cannot understand a project, they will probably not invest in it. Particularly when communicating with people new to blockchain, technical jargon tends to alienate rather than educate. Thus, the time has come for the blockchain community to finally eschew obfuscation. At THE RELEVANCE HOUSE, we help emerging businesses in the blockchain space to communicate their ideas clearly, concisely and compellingly to investors and the wider public. Find out more here.

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