Depending on whom you ask, cryptocurrency is either digital snake oil or revolutionary technology. Crypto markets have plunged in recent weeks and everyone is looking for answers.
So it makes sense that a website dedicated to documenting mishaps, failures, and scams in the industry is suddenly taking off. And who’s behind it? Molly White, a 29-year-old Wikipedia enthusiast and former HubSpot employee who has emerged as one of the industry’s most pointed critics.
How the 2016 Northeastern University graduate, who lives in the Boston area, came to be one of the most listened-to people on crypto and blockchain tech is complicated. But it started in the past year, when the field became impossible to ignore.
The price of bitcoin surged to an all-time-high of nearly $70,000 in November. Ads for crypto companies were featured during the Super Bowl. Celebrities changed their Twitter profile pictures to non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. Some of White’s friends began quitting their traditional tech jobs to work for crypto firms.
So White, a longtime Wikipedia editor on the side, started to research the technology. But the more she learned, the more she realized crypto was being marketed as something everyone should be getting into, despite a history rife with fraud, scams, and predatory marketing.
“[I was] seeing people get screwed over again and again and again,” White said. “There wasn’t a permanent record of what was actually happening and how poorly a lot of these projects were ending.”
Her first instinct was to start writing Wikipedia articles about crypto and the related field of “web3.” But she quickly realized Wikipedia wouldn’t be the best place for her work — among other things, it would have required her to take a neutral approach.
“I have a pretty strong opinion,” she said.
So late last year, while working full-time at HubSpot, White created a website called “Web3 Is Going Just Great.” (The name is as sarcastic as it sounds, with the longer version ending with “...and is definitely not an enormous grift that’s pouring lighter fluid on our already smoldering planet.”) On the site, she chronicles — sometimes several times a day — bad things happening in crypto.
“There’s a narrative that’s become so loud and pervasive, that everyone should be getting involved in this,” she said. “It feels like I have this obligation to speak out about it.”
And others are listening.
She is regularly quoted by national news outlets, was a guest lecturer at Stanford University, and has advised US senators, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, on blockchain and cryptocurrency.
As White has learned over the past year, criticizing crypto isn’t easy. In a space known for unwavering optimism and “bro culture,” she’s the outspoken opponent pointing out its problems.
White has been the victim of online harassment, doxxing (when private information is revealed about someone), and threats of violence. As a result, she doesn’t share much identifying information about her family or where she lives.
White, who grew up in Maine, started editing on Wikipedia around the time she was 13. “My family knew I was doing it, and to some extent my friends knew,” she said. “It was kind of just like, ‘Oh, that’s one of Molly’s weird hobbies.’”
Though she got started writing about her favorite bands, White now focuses on controversial viewpoints and male-dominated spaces, including right-wing extremism and “involuntary celibates,” or incels. She has also served on the site’s arbitration committee, which settles its toughest disputes.
Andrew Lih, a Wikipedia veteran who has known White since she was a teen, said most editors concentrate on topics they take a personal interest in. White, he said, tackles things “she absolutely doesn’t like.”
“She wants to make sure the record has the best information,” he said.
Lih credits White’s rise to her ability to present information in a way that is digestible. On her crypto website, she writes in a terse, matter-of-fact style and uses hashtags such as #yikes, #badidea, and #hmm. She isn’t condescending or alarmist, either.
Unlike some critics, White doesn’t think all crypto is a scam. Rather, she believes there has been an explosion of “really scam-y projects” that downplay the risks. She worries crypto is being cast as a “ticket to financial freedom” to people who don’t have money to lose.
According to data published by the Federal Trade Commission, more than 46,000 people have reported losing over $1 billion in crypto to scams since the start of 2021.
Long term, White believes crypto will likely exist as a niche, speculative vehicle for high-risk takers.
Most people would agree that regulators need to address crypto scams for the industry to be viable. More controversial is White’s skeptical view of blockchain, crypto’s underlying technology, which has been hyped in recent years as a potential cure-all for problems related to Internet security, privacy, and financial systems.
Blockchains are public, electronic databases that are distributed across a network of computers. The technology is intended to be immutable (meaning records can’t be modified) and decentralized (meaning data are stored across the network and not held by any central party.)
Proponents believe blockchain tech could eventually transform everything from financial systems to social media, creating a digital world where individuals have increased control over their own data. Many people refer to this blockchain-based vision as “web3.”
There’s been a proliferation of venture capitalists, startups, and politicians touting its potential, including a growing cluster in Boston. Late last month, hundreds of people attended an all-day summit on web3 on the top floor of the MIT Media Lab, put on by venture capitalist John Werner. It drew industry heavyweights, including cryptographer Stuart Haber, who co-invented the blockchain.
But White doesn’t think blockchain is revolutionary technology. Last month, she and a group of about two dozen computer scientists, researchers, and academics, signed a letter to US lawmakers to express their concerns about the field. Signatories included well-known tech figures like Harvard lecturer and cryptographer Bruce Schneier, Boston-based entrepreneur Miguel de Icaza, and software engineer Grady Booch.
“By its very design, blockchain technology is poorly suited for just about every purpose currently touted as a present or potential source of public benefit,” they wrote, calling it a “solution in search of a problem.”
White’s critics say the technology is in its early stages and will improve. But she disagrees, noting that the two most popular cryptocurrencies have been around for more than a decade. She also thinks blockchain, by design, contains inherent flaws — such as the inability to edit or delete data — that will make it difficult to use and potentially even harmful.
Greg Raiz, managing director of Techstars Boston — which just launched a crypto accelerator program with Boston-based blockchain firm Algorand — disagrees with White’s assertion that crypto is past its early days. In fact, he said it feels like “we’re still in the first inning of this game.”
While he doesn’t think blockchain will be the “solution to everything,” he isn’t writing off its potential to address social, monetary, and business problems. He added that criticism of web3 is “super healthy.”
“Any type of unbalanced exuberance toward a technology isn’t great,” Raiz said.
White quit her job at HubSpot in May and is recovering from self-described burnout before deciding what’s next. Her website, she said, didn’t contribute to the decision to leave. (“This is something I do for fun,” she said.) She has been using the break to spend more time with her family, play with her pandemic puppy, and work on the second year of her vegetable and herb garden.
She’s not planning to devote more time to her crypto website, but is keen on maintaining it.
“The more informed people are,” she said, “the better off they are.”