In the space between people & tech. User researcher, anthropologist, economist creative, etc.
Balinese cockfights and cryptocurrencies, can you think of two more unrelated topics? You’d be surprised then to discover that at closer inspection, looking beyond blockchains and metal spurs, the social dynamics taking place around cockfight rings can help us understand those around cryptocurrencies.
As an anthropologist, I take the view that for outsiders to understand different world views, such as those of indigenous populations, or entirely new phenomena, such as crypto communities, taking a one-glance-view is simply never enough. To better understand these worlds, we must instead suspend our biases and (dis)beliefs to truly observe what’s happening within. With this in mind, this analogy doesn’t aim to trivialise crypto communities as narrow tribalistic phenomena. Rather, aims to expose the values and beliefs at the hearts of its communities.
It’s from there, from this outsider’s perspective, that Balinese cockfights are reduced to a senseless form of gambling based purely on violence. Similarly, Bitcoin might at first be associated with gambling, black markets, and malicious hackers. But dive into these two worlds, and things start looking quite differently.
The basics of Balinese cockfights are easy to grasp: two male cocks fight against each other, sometimes with a metal spur tied around one leg to increase physical intensity, while people cheer around them in an arena, betting money on which cock they think will win. This has been a popular sport for millennia, mostly in South and Southeast Asia. Today, this activity is regulated or banned in many countries as a response to foreigners and onlookers having judged it as a ‘primitive’ and a ‘ruthless’ form of gambling.
A similar view prevails amongst outsiders looking into the world of Bitcoin: that it is primarily a form of gambling. And understandably so: since the 2017 bubble, major players in the news industry share this view, painting Bitcoin as a kind of Pinocchio’s Land of Toys where greedy speculators make money through a ponzi scheme. Famous investors and influential public figures replay this simplistic notion. And then there are the malicious hackers actually employing cryptocurrencies to do harm, which never fail to capture the spotlight of online news. Most recently, an attack that took over several high-profile Twitter accounts was associated with Bitcoin. It is therefore only natural that an onlooker might associate Bitcoin with bubbles, gambling, and hackers, at first glance.
While these elements are undoubtedly part of the Bitcoin phenomenon, they are certainly not all there is to it. A much more informed and holistic understanding of it can be gained only by taking a peek inside. Let’s practice that approach by looking at Balinese Cockfights first, and at the inner worlds of a Bitcoin community later.
Anthropologists have been recording cockfights since the 1930s. And what they’ve seen is that for many Balinese, cockfights are an activity with deep significance. Through it, people establish in-group affiliations, play the everyday politics of prestige, and learn and reiterate cultural values and beliefs.
One thing that makes cockfights sociologically relevant is that they are often carried out between members of different kin-groups or villages, and gamblers must never place bets against those in their own kin-group, indicating that profit is not the only goal here. Additionally, fights of greater importance are always carried out by the leading members of kin-groups, to reaffirm their authority (Geerts). This means that cockfights are a means to many ends, among which money is only one.
These fights also help entire villages to reaffirm their cultural values, and the Balinese are deeply aware of this. In this video, Balinese cockfighters make clear that this activity is a means of expression. They use this space to display their anger as well as to find the emotional balance that’s essential for them to be considered a true cockfighter and a truer man, more broadly. Being a true cockfighter is part of an archetype of ‘man’ they aspire to, which is “being arrogant, resolute and honor-mad player with real fire” (Geerts).
But not all participants in these cockfights see this. While those in the inside ring of the arena understand the cultural value and social meanings of the cockfight, the ones in the outer ring “are in it mainly for the money” (Geertz).
In so being, these outer ring speculators take little notice of the layers of meaning and significance that come with the game. And interestingly, these people are usually unwelcome in this environment. ‘True cockfighters’ see them as “fools who do not understand what the sport is about, vulgarians who simply miss the point of it all” (Geertz). And to top it off these avid gamblers are usually the people who get burned financially and don’t last long.
For “true cockfighters”, money is not entirely unimportant, but it is a secondary matter in the play of the game. How much money one wins or loses evens out with time, and, in any case, money moves around the group of serious and respected players. And that’s the point: “What makes Balinese cockfighting deep is not money in itself, but what money causes to happen: the migration of the Balinese status hierarchy into the body of the cockfight” (Geertz). Money causes members to have skin in the game in the community, and in so doing making the meanings and values real.
While cockfight speculators solely interested in making money do exist, they represent the outer fringes of Balinese cockfights, and not the heart of it. For those at the centre of the game, cockfighting is a tale of values, status, and belonging. What does this mean for the Bitcoin community?
What is meant by “Bitcoin community” is itself hard to grasp, let alone visualise in place. That’s because although it occasionally meets up in physical locations worldwide, this community is digitally native: members mostly inhabit Twitter, Reddit, Telegram groups, and Bitcointalk.org chatrooms.
So to help us imagine the Bitcoin community, a visual metaphor of the cockfight arena comes in handy: at its centre are the competing cryptocurrencies being discussed, in the first outside ring are the holders of the cryptocurrencies, and further out are the speculators.
Let’s start from the centre of the online cyber arena, where different cryptocurrencies communities fight among each other over the relative merits of their own cryptocurrencies over the other. To illustrate this take the recent confrontation between the Bitcoin and the Ethereum communities over the current supply of Eth coins, which isn’t so easy to discern, thus termed #supplygate. Bitcoiners, valuing transparency over scarcity, attacked Ethereum for what they believe to be an unsound monetary structure.
Discussions can get very technical, but they stem from fundamentally different cultural values and beliefs. There is much more to say on this topic, but for now, suffice it to say that the Bitcoin and Ethereum communities are very, very different cultures: see Tweet below for a personification of what these cultures might look like.
But the fight is not just against other crypto communities. In fact, the Bitcoin community’s biggest competitor is the current monetary paradigm governed by the monopoly of Central Banks, who have monopoly power over deciding what money is, how it is issued and who issues it, and to whom it goes to. The problem of current fiat money paradigm is what Bitcoiners (and other cryptocurrency communities) are solving for.
At the heart of these cryptocurrency “fights” are the memes which, like the metal spurs attached to fighting cocks, intensify the game and render it more significant. Memes can be shallow or deep, sentimental or antagonistic, funny or sad. But they almost always capture the beliefs and values of the communities. Many themes emerge from the Bitcoin community’s memes, but the most recurring ones include references to Bitcoin’s price (it being a rollercoaster of volatility or it “going to the moon” when the price goes up rapidly), references to the FED printing money (money printer go ‘brrr’), and references to members’ expectations and hopes that Bitcoin will become the hard money of the future.
The Bitcoin community’s underlying belief is that the world needs Bitcoin. That Bitcoin was built by the people for the people to enable a world that values self-sovereignty, privacy, and a better form of money. This ideal world is seen in stark contrast to the current financial and monetary system, which is seen as broken and economically disempowering due to inflation and monetary irresponsibility of central banks.
This view becomes even clearer when we look at Bitcoin’s origin story. The white paper was published soon after the American government bailed out major banks following the 2008 financial crisis under the banner “too big to fail”. On the 3rd of January 2009, the first block of Bitcoin was released with an encoded message: “The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks.” Who created Bitcoin, we still don’t know. What we do know is that the person or group behind it, going by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, saw systemic fragility and economic unfairness in our financial monetary paradigm and decided to address that by creating an alternative: an open-source, decentralised, permissionless value-sharing protocol.
It’s clear, then, why for the Bitcoin community Bitcoin stands for much more than gambling, black markets, and hackers: it represents the pursuit of a new type of freedom.
This is not to say that the speculation of the price of Bitcoin and other crypto does not exist within the community or is not important. The price of Bitcoin is actually a function of the in-built scarcity of Bitcoin, which halves the issuance of new coins every 4 years, thereby leading to a consistent and abrupt rise in value that occurs in cycles. This creates an incentive for people to hold the currency and gives different waves of adopters a chance to join and build critical mass through time.
If you look closely, the in-coded design of Bitcoin incentivises long-term investment decisions rather than narrow short-term speculation.
Similarly to the Balinese cockfights, these values and beliefs I just touched upon are not evenly spread across the Bitcoin community. In the first concentric circle around the arena, at the core of the cryptocurrency community, we have the hodlers, the long-term ‘holders’ of Bitcoins. Further out, we have what we here call the lambo guys, the speculators.
Hodlers are a highly heterogeneous group with differing beliefs and values. The practice of hodling is common among all insiders in such a way that we might call it a cultural motif or philosophy. But if we were to explain Bitcoiners more simply to an outsider looking in, and put all the sub-groups and tribes aside for a minute, we might come to see hodlers as the heart of the Bitcoin community.
Hodlers continuously buy Bitcoins, or “stack sats” (sats being the cent-like units of Bitcoin) while they ‘Hold On for Dear Life’ as the Bitcoin price soars and crashes due to its high volatility. They hold on because they believe the world needs a new monetary system and because they expect Bitcoin’s price to inevitably rise in the long term. This leads many Hodlers taking “irresponsibly long” Bitcoin positions — meaning putting 30%, 50%, or even all of their portfolio into Bitcoin. This, more than anything else, should demonstrate that at the heart of the Bitcoin community lie deep convictions and beliefs, it’s not quite a ponzi scheme.
Outside these hodler circles are the lambo guys, for whom Bitcoin is only a means to getting rich. They often resort to the “When Lambo?” meme, asking when Bitcoin price will soar in order to buy themselves a Lamborghini. Hodlers, on the other hand, will never or rarely sell their Bitcoins as they are committed to Bitcoin for the long-run.
Similarly to the ‘true cockfighters’ of Bali, who understand the underlying significance of a cockfight and look down upon gamblers, ‘true hodlers’ despise speculators who see Bitcoin simply as a way of getting rich without understanding what Bitcoin is and means. They don’t get it, they don’t see the significance of Bitcoin as a revolutionary tool (read Dan Held’s article for more). And as a result of their short-termism, many speculators end up being burned financially because they lack this foundational understanding.
The fact that ‘money’ is involved in the world of Bitcoin, and big money indeed, does not render it shallow. Rather, the opposite is true. Just like in the Balinese Cockfight, money makes the fight more real, makes people’s involvement more concrete because their skin is in the game. Group affiliations grow and aspirations of a fairer (less unequal), de-centralised (less monopolised), democratic (less authoritarian) and more equal world order.
Perhaps by now you’ll agree with me: Between cockfights and bitcoins there might be a technological abyss. But the social dynamics revolving around the topic of speculation may not be all that different. You still have shallow speculation on the margins, and deep play closer to the arena.
Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies surely have the capacity to wake up the speculative nature in any of us. But what keeps the Bitcoin community going is not shallow short-term speculation. It’s the strong values of the hodlers, the state of play articulated by the frustration and hope in the humorous memes, the political philosophy focused on human freedoms. The irresponsibly long positions taken by the Bitcoin hodlers make all of it more real.
When it comes to Bitcoin and Balinese cockfights alike, conversations that focus exclusively on speculation, gambling, and greed risk totally missing their points. Discussions surrounding Bitcoin in particular need to consider the political and philosophical questions this community raises about money, privacy, self-sovereignty, and of course, memes.
To this end, journalists, the media, academics, politicians, and individuals need to start paying closer attention to this world before jumping to conclusions. The next time people invoke straw-man arguments of Bitcoin being all about speculation, teach them about Balinese Cockfights and perhaps this article might be a good place to start. Even better, introduce them to some hodlers. After all, at some point or another, we might all have to join the Bitcoin arena.
Thanks to Maggie for her the invaluable conversations that gave way to insights that inspired this article, Paula for her generous editing and Giulio and Lawson for their valuable suggestions. Cockfights are illegal in many countries due to animal violence.
As the author I do not condone animal violence, but simply wish to provide a glimpse into the perspectives of traditional Balinese insiders who practice the sport in order to build a more complex picture of the phenomenon.
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