Centralised versus decentralised structures

Fact is always stranger than fiction. In this meta escapade of seeking funding from the crowd for research into a decentralised digital cash, I am learning that the centralised structures of research institutions and banks are at odds with agility, responsiveness and action. 

I feel the need to record my most recent learnings about doing crowdfunding and conducting this through a university, only I’m gobsmacked by the inertia and red tape. 

The cryptocurrency use research has gone through research ethics (an eye opening adventure in itself). The idea is to do in person work alongside engaging and monitoring trends in the online environment. With a digital community, doing both these activities is a no brainer. However methodologically, this brings two apparently uncomfortable bedfellows into one bed. It involves face-to-face and online observation and interaction. Doing both appears to throw ethics committees into conniptions. The learning here is don’t take quotes from public forums without consent. It will mean that every researcher who comes after you will suffer at multiple ethics amendments as the committee remembers the massive shitstorm this created and makes every researcher who comes after you jump through a thousand hoops.  

So. That hurdle passed and there’s no more funding to do the data collection. 

Multiple months later and I’ve cleared the decks to start the project. Now, I’m attempting my first crowdfunding campaign. 

www.experiment.com/cryptocurrency

Donate now and help me make a cool and cutting edge project happen. It makes me excited, and that’s saying something. My research antenna is twanging like ships ropes singing in a storm. 

It appears that not only do I need to learn how to video edit, but I also need to work out how to reach the right people and work out the research product to sell the project. All very grown up stuff. 

So thanks to a lovely fairy, I now have something to say on that front. 50Usd gets you a research report and a handwritten cover note. I apologise in advance that my handwriting is barely legible. There’s also likely to be a cheeky little sketch because that’s just how I roll.  From there we get more sophisticated. 250usd is a tailored report and follow up. 500usd is a consult and report where we get to talk. The lucky donar gets to place the spotlight on a particular area and I get to share what we’ve learnt about the topic. For 1000usd it’s even more fun. 1/2 day workshop responding to the donar’s case study, drawing on the research findings. 

If the crowdfunding campaign doesn’t get off the ground for a variety of real and contributing factors (such as time of year, finding sponsors or the failure of the university to support the campaign), then these ideas alone will see the project happen. 

In all of this, I stand observing. I see chaos, opportunity and the brittle nature of centralised structures. I take note of  the entrepreneurial spirit of digital frontiers where the future recombines itself in the inner fringes. 

In this spirit I repeat my mantra: Always walk towards the doors that open. Don’t waste your time with what you don’t want and pursue what you do want however you can. 

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Serendipity, crowdfunding and cryptocurrencies

It’s always uncanny when disparate activities align, both through the loose tendrils of online presence and the digital traces of research activity. I’m currently running a crowdfunding campaign for an ethnography of bitcoin use. Which you can find here:

https://experiment.com/cryptocurrency

How this campaign and opportunity came about is the interesting bit. As with all good ideas, one thing lead to another…

Prior to this study, I collaborated on a study of the impacts of cyryptomarkets upon drug use trajectories (through NDRI, Curtin University) (2013-2015). During that study, I presented preliminary findings and conducted a member check (a methodological approach to verifying social findings) with the Bitcoin community.  You can still find the YouTube recording of this, which we made so that the cryptomarket community also had access to these early activities online.

Cryptomarket drug sales were facilitated by Bitcoin and this was my first exposure to the cryptocurrency and the community ethos surrounding this innovation. The Bitcoin community was a homologous (legal) community that I could check my early understandings and observations with. However, they themselves proved to be fascinating in how they were using technological innovations to disrupt the financial sector and I have stayed connected in the hope that I would be able to work with them in the future.

More recently, I had been looking into crowdfunding as a research funding activity over 2016. As an early career researcher, I needed to build a funding track record but was in the precarious position of short-term contract affiliations with universities and couldn’t apply for funding. So like the focus of the study, there is an issue of financial inclusion here for me.  After a hiatus working for Deakin Library to establish some financial stability and continuity, I made the call to return to part-time research and my personal passion for studying the formation of digital community in frontier spaces. Simultaneously, I was approached by a crowdfunding platform, https://experiment.com, to join a network security challenge based upon my research publication from the Silk Road research. At the time, we had taken the Bitcoin study from a research proposal through to ethics approval, but it was languishing as an unfunded project.

The invitation to develop a crowdfunding campaign came at the same time that I had decided to relaunch the project based upon my personal passion for this topic. The combination of these two events with the opportunities they presented to get the Bitcoin study off the ground was a moment of serendipitous alignment. Because the Bitcoin use study is about a decentralised peer-to-peer payment system, I felt that this worked with the logic of a crowdfunding campaign and could engage the community to support the project as an additional angle.

In my opinion the biggest challenges to launching the crowdfunding campaign include the amount that it is viable to set for a crowdfunding campaign, the level of interest and engagement that you research topic may have for the public and the skill and attention that the active researcher needs to bring to promoting the campaign so that it reaches the audiences who would like to engage with it.
From research into successful crowdfunding campaigns, a viable amount of money to seek is around 4-5K. This is the rule of thumb amount that a campaign is likely to gain from first and second networks (people the researcher knows and the people they know). This cap of likely success means that the research needs to have a small component that is fundable as a seed to get the project up and running.  In our case, this is the data collection. This topic, the study of Bitcoin use, is also timely as we all are affected by and aware of economic instability and political backlash occurring in the UK, USA and India for example.  These global events affect the flows and value of money, particularly where governments are no longer trusted to keep value in the currency and people turn to alternative monetary forms not only for trade, but as a store of value and investment return.

In addition to this, engaging the different stakeholders and audiences through social media and news media outreach requires time, attention, presence and social media knowledge. These can be challenges for many researchers who are not adept in the environment and may require skill development. Whilst the success percentages are higher for crowdfunding campaigns (despite their all or nothing criteria), the effort required to run them can be the same or more as it takes to apply for central block funding that may support larger sums of money. With a project such as the Bitcoin study, which is in its early days, however, the logic and opportunity provided by crowdfunding to reach and engage the relevant communities is worth the effort as it will spill over into increasing our opportunities to connect with and do ethnography amongst the cryptocurrency community.

The skills that I have needed to develop for this project have included producing and editing a short video that will translate well and widely in the social media environment. This video is available on the crowdfunding page and appears to be a crucial element in the success of a campaign. The other learning curve has been the inclusion of the cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, as a donation option. This has been an interesting experience, one that I considered necessary considering that I would like to engage the cryptocurrency community in supporting and participating in this research. One of the key points for the campaign is that it is an all or nothing funding strategy, so all pledged donations need to be returnable if the campaign does not reach its funding goal. The crew at the experiment has worked with me to make this possible for bitcoin, which is a payment system where the payment is designed not to be reversed (!!!). Ironic that.

If you’re interested in participating in or learning more about the scope and approach of the research, you can download the plain language statement (and consent forms) here:  pls-and-consent_bitcoin-study. Essentially, we’re interested in: people’s uses for bitcoin alongside other digital and “non-digital” currencies (aka fiat currencies), business uses and applications for cryptocurrencies, the possibilities of cryptocurrencies within trade finance and international remittances and the role(s) that cryptocurrencies may play during large scale political and economic instability (such as in India where demonetisation is happening, during Brexit and in response to the presidential election in the US).

 

 

Bitcoin and the unbanked; an ethnographic study of financial inclusion through cryptocurrencies

This study has been a long time in the works and I am excited to invite you to be curious and watch this space. Through RMIT, and in collaboration with Professor Supriya Singh, Professor Heather Horst and Dr Greg Adamson, I am launching an ethnographic study of bitcoin use.

Bitcoin is a digital cash, exchanged through a peer-to-peer payment system, that is designed to bypass state controls and operate outside of the banking system. We are interested in whether this online currency may support financial inclusion and how its use impacts the conditions of trust, security and privacy of money.

For this study, we are conducting an ethnography to provide detailed insights into the social experience, motivations and perspectives that people hold in using Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. You can read more about our research directions for this study in our recently published article, “An ethnography of Bitcoin; towards a future research agenda” .

The preliminary study will run for three months, starting from January 2017.

The ethnography will be conducted across the environments where bitcoin use and discussion about its use are “native”. This means that we will be engaging in online environments as well as attending events and meetings where cryptocurrency use, such as Bitcoin, is the primary focus.

We anticipate interviewing up to 50 people, including key community members, on their experiences of using Bitcoin. Here is the link where you can download a pdf of the plain language statement for the study here (pls-and-consent_bitcoin-study). It describes what the interviews will cover and provides the consent form.

Why are we doing this study now? This research is being conducted because there is currently limited understanding of the use of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies more generally, across diverse socio-cultural contexts. It is timely because alternative payment systems gain more appeal during periods of economic instability and resulting waves of political backlash from disaffected groups.

As we are based in Melbourne, Australia, we will start here, but will also attend events wherever we end up over the course of 2017.  This will include other major cities in Australia, but is also likely to include major cities in the US, such as New York, London (UK), major cities in India and potentially a couple of locations Africa.

This study is currently unfunded, however if you would like to support the project, I have launched a crowdfunding campaign over at the Experiment where you can donate. This campaign will run for the month of January (2017) and I hope to gain financial support to do the data collection.  From this seed funding and early findings, we will then be able to make a case for furthering this study to the global scale and scope that it deserves.