Last year, with crypto prices near all-time highs, VICE talked with a few people who’d recently started jobs in the forward-thinking field known as web3. There was an Uber product designer who’d quit to work at a hot NFT startup, the co-founder of a buzzy crypto community, and several others. They gushed about artist empowerment, collective ownership, and unique creative structures. Today, though, it seems like most crypto headlines are about hacks and fraud. What are those jobs like now, assuming they even still exist?
Most people we talked with, it turns out, still work in or near crypto. Some lost money or swapped projects, but few—particularly those drawn to crypto for the philosophical or technical potential they see in it—seem to have regrets.
“Last year, it was a lot more frat guys who were in banking or private equity versus really clear systems builders.” —Chris
A year ago, Raihan Anwar was working on Friends With Benefits, a DAO that the New York Times once called “the V.I.P. lounge for crypto’s creative class.” He’s since added a new role as Director of Community 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 large creative incumbent in the space, with their existing infrastructural plays 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 last year’s hype, where people had little outside perspective. Since prices have collapsed and lofty ideas about social coordination facilitated by blockchains have yet to pan out, crypto’s most fervent proponents have had to come back to Earth. “People who used to utter the word ‘trustless’ every other sentence are maybe now [saying it] every other paragraph,” he said. “Trust is people. You can’t ‘smart contract’ your way out of liars, cheaters, and grifters.”
Still, Raihan is excited about creative projects taking advantage of the bear market. Cheaper prices mean that interacting with the blockchain is cheaper, too, whether you’re a user playing with new apps or a developer pushing the boundaries of the technology. “A lot of the tech talent that entered the space in the last year or year and a half both came and stayed because it’s such an interesting experiment and experience to see through,” he said.
Danny Cole, a visual artist known for his imaginative, colorful style, launched Creature World in August 2021. The potential for “new creative structures” drew him to web3, and his NFT collection saw near-instant success. “When I entered web3, the idea of ‘what is an NFT’ was very undefined,” he said. “The answer was ‘whatever I’m about to make,’ and that was very exciting for me.”
While he’s seen the price of some of his works decline over the past year, his feelings about crypto changed well before the recent downturn. “That question of ‘what is an NFT’ became answered more so by, ‘an NFT is a vehicle for financial speculation, and one that you can build new tools for financial incentivization on,’” he continued. “That wasn’t where my interest was.” As such, things like the recent collapse of the exchange FTX and the arrest of its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried, haven’t changed his belief in the potential cultural value of NFTs. “No part of some random guy in finance that maybe committed fraud or something tells me there isn’t a future in which people will cherish digital products.”
“No part of some random guy in finance that maybe committed fraud or something tells me there isn’t a future in which people will cherish digital products.” —Danny Cole
Lily Nguyen, a product designer at Zora, a buzzy NFT marketplace, told VICE last year that she felt like a “rat on cocaine working in this space because there’s so much happening.” The bear market has allowed her 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’s a lot less ‘something is broken, I’m going to [fix it] on Saturday night’ or rando meetings at 11 PM.”
Lily had encouraged her family to buy Ethereum last year, and she said her parents sold it before prices collapsed and funded a vacation with the profits. “My parents are smarter than me,” she said, noting that she’d lost a lot of money in the declining value of her NFTs. She has few regrets, though. “I feel like, at the end of the day, a lot of that money was quite well spent [because] it went to artists that I really respect.”
We also talked with Chris*, a software engineer who asked not to be identified by his real name. He worked in crypto for two years before quitting in early 2021, after becoming skeptical of broad claims about financial inclusion in the industry and sensing that the bubble might soon pop. “I guess I feel vindicated,” he said. In his view, price swings stem from the extreme concentration of wealth intrinsic to the current ecosystem. “A lot of the volatility and liquidity come from some whales from 2015 swinging their dicks around.”
Like Raihan, Chris noted that crypto’s bear cycles tend to attract people drawn to interesting technical problems. “Last year, it was a lot more frat guys who were in banking or private equity, versus really clear systems builders,” he said. “People who were in it for money versus for just like, ‘Oh, this stuff is really cool.’” Even though he no longer works in crypto, he’s excited about new developments in zero-knowledge cryptography—a way to verify a claim without revealing all of the data needed to make it—and other applications around 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 views on the world based on what other people believe.”
Most people we talked with shared this feeling that bear markets test people’s conviction in their professed values. This fall, the broader economic downturn hit much of the tech industry beyond crypto, with recent large layoffs at Meta and Amazon, among others—and considering her other options, Lily seemed satisfied. “It’s a smarter career move to gravitate toward something that personally gives me purpose versus chasing something that may be high in demand right now but might have a bust cycle in the future,” she said. “I don’t think anything worth building is ever a sure bet.”
In the end, Lily said, she’s still motivated by the idea of “building a better internet,” particularly one that’s “more equitable for creators.” It’s the same principle that inspired her to get into crypto, and, even considering doubts about crypto’s potential for positive social impact or widespread adoption, perhaps it’s too soon to abandon hope. “I think there’s a chance that crypto might have something to do with [that goal]. Is it the magic bullet? Probably not, but am I at least going to try to make a mark? Yes.”