If you’re a “nocoiner,” you might think crypto is one big happy family. You might think that everyone loves memecoins, those JPEGs on the blockchain called NFTs, or decentralized finance (DeFi) that lets people borrow, lend, earn interest, or get scammed for millions of dollars.
Well, you’d be wrong.
Case in point: Imprisoned Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, who is widely credited with having a pivotal role in Bitcoin’s history, made the decision last week to mint his artwork as an NFT. This upset a lot of Bitcoiners, who descended on his tweets with vitriol, leading to a renewed debate around Bitcoin maximalists: hardcore Bitcoiners who think everything but Bitcoin is either a worthless pursuit or a giant scam, often simply referred to as “maxis.”
A trend has even emerged that attempts to distinguish everything that isn’t the big orange coin as being simply “crypto,” and can’t be trusted. Or in the famous words of one prolific Bitcoin-buyer, MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor, “There’s no second best crypto-asset; there’s a crypto-asset called Bitcoin, right, right?”
“Bitcoin maximalism is ill-defined,” vocal Bitcoin advocate and Castle Island Ventures partner Nic Carter told Motherboard in an interview. “It was originally coined as an epithet by Vitalik [Buterin] who was seeking to characterize Bitcoiners as overly dogmatic and parochial in response to his creation of Ethereum.”
Indeed, the maxis’ disdain even encompasses Ethereum, the second-largest blockchain after Bitcoin founded by Vitalik Buterin, which powers the vast majority of NFTs and popular memecoins like Shiba Inu.
Buterin described Bitcoin maximalism in a 2014 blogpost “as the idea that an environment of multiple competing cryptocurrencies is undesirable, that it is wrong to launch 'yet another coin,' and that it is both righteous and inevitable that the Bitcoin currency comes to take a monopoly position in the cryptocurrency scene.”
Since then, some Bitcoiners have come to adopt the term, which they associate with theories around “sound money” and libertarian economics, while others reject it. Carter, for his part, said, “I certainly don’t consider myself whatever a maximalist is–I invest freely across the ecosystem and my startups build on many different blockchains."
There is a spectrum of Bitcoin maximalism, which on one end is focused on Bitcoin but tends to have a live-and-let-live philosophy. Erik Voorhees, a former maximalist and CEO of self-custody crypto platform ShapeShift, told Motherboard that it is “someone who believes that there is zero value outside of Bitcoin; that any other crypto project is worthless at best and probably just a scam [at worst].”
“I think being laser-focused on Bitcoin makes a ton of sense and shouldn’t have any moral status ascribed to it whatsoever,” Carter said. “Now, there is also a brand of Bitcoin advocacy which stresses the exclusion and rejection of all other crypto-assets, which is wrongheaded in my opinion.”
“When someone says ‘toxic maximalist,’ they're trying to deflect attention from the fact that they're scamming”
But maximalism also takes on more extreme forms. The ideological underpinnings of Bitcoin maximalism can even extend into one’s daily life, for example with the meat-heavy or fully carnivorous diet espoused by some Bitcoiners, and a general disdain for “seed oils” and other modern innovations deemed “fiat.”
On the far-end spectrum of maximalism is the “toxic” variant, leading to the common epithet “toxic bitcoin maxi.” It’s a relentlessly uncompromising and angry position. Think of it like religious fundamentalism, but for Bitcoin. Max Keiser, former anchor for pro-Kremlin RT, is a proud example: he even sports a toxicity emoji on his Twitter name. In a recent clip from a talk that went moderately viral, Keiser screamed at the top of his lungs and called U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen a “terrorist.”
“Toxic is just a shorthand word for ‘someone who is an asshole.’ There is nothing unique about this in Bitcoin… assholes are common in the world,” Voorhees told Motherboard. “Obviously the less toxic the better, and someone who can be civil and intelligent in discussion, even if a maxi, may indeed be benefitting the discourse.”
If you’re a crypto skeptic, you’ll find a lot in common with toxic Bitcoin maxis when it comes to latest crypto trends like NFTs or memecoins. They detest these projects just as much, if not more. And some of the maxis even epouse the right-clicker mentality that defines NFT haters online.
Jimmy Song, a Bitcoin maximalist who argues pretty much every other cryptocurrency is a scam, told Motherboard that “toxic is just a label they place on people that are calling them out.”
“Really, when someone says ‘toxic maximalist,’ they're trying to deflect attention from the fact that they're scamming. Whenever I hear about toxic maximalism, what I hear is ‘why won't you let me keep scamming?’ There is no reason for your project to have a token. The only reason is to scam. And indeed every idea is an excuse to print a token.”
Currently, there are 15,385 cryptocurrencies tracked by CoinMarketCap, a data platform. And there are certainly hundreds, if not thousands, of altcoins, including minor memecoin-wannabes referred to derisively as “shitcoins” that aren’t even tracked by serious platforms. They’re pumped out on a daily basis on low-cost blockchains like Binance Smart Chain. And shitcoin traders track and chart them on appropriately-named platform Poocoin.app.
So, there’s every reason to be skeptical of many of the cryptocurrencies out there… but all of them?
Song, like other ardent Bitcoin maximalists, despises all those altcoins so much that he compares them to another evil that Bitcoiners see in the world: central banks. “I see central banking as stealth theft and I see altcoins as the same thing. The difference is that central bank currency is forced on a population. Altcoins are at least voluntary,” he said.
“But altcoins are in some ways worse because they defraud and don't admit to their centralization. They do this so they can get around securities laws.” They’re DINOs (decentralized in name only), he said, and “that's the real difference between alts and Bitcoin.”
Maximalists call Bitcoin “honest money,” explained Song, because “it doesn't have a premine or a central committee that decides what the policy is going to be. It had a fair launch. Everything else did not,” referring to “initial coin offerings” of cryptocurrencies that came after Bitcoin, including Ethereum. Although that’s perhaps a minority position today, that was once a widely-shared view among cryptocurrency enthusiasts in the early days of Bitcoin.
Ethereum core developer Tim Beiko told Motherboard that in “a charitable view of Bitcoin maximalism, you can say it started at a time when most non-Bitcoin projects in blockchain were dubious at best.”
“Do you remember Darkcoin? Lightcoin? Feathercoin?” he said. “Early on, a lot of these were just pump and dumps, and adopting a mindset of ‘Bitcoin is the only legitimate project’ was much more defensible.”
But things took a strange turn at some point in the mid-2010s when real innovation emerged outside of Bitcoin itself. Ethereum is a big example of that, Beiko said, but there were others like ZCash, which uses a cryptography technique called “zero-knowledge” to process transactions privately unlike Bitcoin and Ethereum. “I think the failure there was to keep an open mind and actually think through whether some new ideas were actually worthwhile,” he added.
“It’s tricky to be an Ethereum maximalist”
And history may be repeating itself as more and more people embrace “Ethereum maximalism”, for example by calling out anyone abandoning the network for others like low-cost Avalanche.
“Ethereum culture is consistently 18 months downstream of Bitcoin culture. So it’s no surprise that certain Ethereum enthusiasts have adopted Bitcoin tropes now,” Carter told Motherboard.
“It’s tricky to be an Ethereum maximalist, because you have to believe that it’s legitimate to create a disruptive blockchain and force out the incumbent (Bitcoin), while simultaneously rejecting new innovation and new challengers,” he said.
Beiko explained that Ethereum maximalism stems from a similar place as Bitcoin maximalism: “several of Ethereum’s competitors will severely compromise on security guarantees that Ethereum offers and claim to ‘solve’ some of Ethereum’s problems.” But the Ethereum community has been better at embracing technical breakthroughs of non-Ethereum developer teams, he added.
“Of course, there is a risk that things become more extreme and Ethereum maximalism becomes akin to Bitcoin maximalism. I don’t think we are there and will keep pushing for Ethereum to be somewhere where the best ideas win, regardless of their provenance,” Beiko told Motherboard.
But it’s tough to be an Ethereum maximalist, Carter explained. “If you are ‘pro-innovation’ and cynical about the enduring nature of any blockchain, then by definition you should be hopping to the latest and greatest. But if you are a Chestertonian Blockchain Conservative, then you should stick with one blockchain and leave it at that.”
In any case, Voorhees reminded, most Bitcoiners aren’t maximalists. “As always, a loud minority causes most of the acrimony. The real enemy is not other cryptocurrencies and their communities… the real enemy is the state.”