Exclusive: Developer Afri Schoedon on His Contentious Split From Ethereum
02.21.2019

On Wednesday morning, BREAKERMAG published an open letter from dozens of Ethereum community members, who called for an end to “toxic behavior” around decentralized projects. That statement came in response to Afri Schoedon, a longtime, widely respected Ethereum contributor, declaring that he will no longer work on Ethereum, after being subjected to what some described as a harassment campaign.

Those events appear to have been precipitated by a handful of tweets made by Schoedon just under a week ago. Though since deleted, the key tweet reportedly read: “’Polkadot delivers what Serenity ought to be.’ Change my mind.” In part because it seemed critical of Ethereum, this triggered a whirlwind of hostility towards Schoedon across Twitter and Reddit, including extremely harsh speculation about his motives, and some fast-spreading false information.

We’ve done our best to summarize this tangled web of extreme emotions and confused presumptions—and we were grateful to get some clarifying comments from Schoedon himself via email. (Some of his comments have been lightly edited for clarity.)

First, let’s unpack that tweet. Schoedon is employed by Parity Technologies, where he was release manager for Parity’s widely-used Ethereum client. But Parity, co-founded by Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood, is also building another blockchain project called Polkadot. Polkadot is touted as a way to connect many independent blockchains, in part to allow better scaling. Serenity, meanwhile, is one name for the upgrade also known as “Ethereum 2.0,” the final stage of Ethereum’s upgrade roadmap, which includes a shift from proof-of-work security to proof-of-stake. The road to Serenity has been somewhat rocky, including the recent delay of the Constantinople upgrade.

Many of the most aggressive voices in all of this appear to be ETH investors, applying pressure to the development community in ways similar to corporate stockholders—though less organized and less accountable.

Schoedon’s tweet, then, suggested that Polkadot and Serenity were aimed at “delivering” the same thing—and that Polkadot was doing a better job of it. That may have been a key misstep in the entire affair, which Schoedon acknowledged to BREAKERMAG:

“Polkadot is not a direct competitor to Ethereum and chains like Ethereum were always an integral part of the Polkadot vision. The focus of my Tweet wasn’t Polkadot or competition, but Serenity, which is, in my eyes, rolled out too slowly, and I fear that it [won’t] matter anymore once we get there. People didn’t get that, and only I am to blame for not getting the message straight.”

Nonetheless, the Polkadot-versus-Serenity framing fueled a sense that Schoedon’s simultaneous links to both projects constituted a conflict of interest. Reddit user JamesE8 gained significant traction with claims that Schoedon “doesn’t deserve and cannot sit on the Ethereum core dev group” because he “is spending the majority of his time on a competing platform called Polkadot.” The user further claimed that Schoedon’s role in delaying certain Ethereum upgrades “has revealed to us his real hidden agenda of delaying everything so his Polkadot would have time to gain traction.”

There is no evidence to support those claims. Schoedon and others deny that he has worked on Polkadot in any substantive capacity, and the idea that someone who has devoted so much time to Ethereum would consciously try to undermine it defies basic logic. But the narrative spread.

Andreas Kristof, a blockchain entrepreneur, similarly insinuated that Schoedon had intentionally delayed Ethereum’s Serenity upgrade (perhaps confused here with Constantinople) as a way of benefiting Polkadot.

Then, on Saturday, Redditor DCInvestor authored a lengthy (and fairly restrained) discussion of the “economic incentives of Parity for Ethereum development,” including the claim that many Parity workers hold “a substantial amount” of Polkadot’s native token, known as DOTs, giving Parity “a huge financial incentive for Ethereum to fall behind on its Eth 2.0 and Eth 1.x roadmaps.”

In a reply to DCInvestor, the conspiracy-minded JamesE8 laid bare why so many people cared so intensely about any of this: “This delay has cost our community $6,000,000,000 Billion dollars. We lost momentum in January literally going from $157 to $101 because of Afri’s delays.” Many of the most aggressive voices in all of this appear to be ETH investors, applying pressure to the development community in ways similar to corporate stockholders—though less organized and less accountable. Their vitriol and accusations eventually led to physical threats—including one from JamesE8—against Schoedon.

There is one other thorny factor in all of this, itself a complex and high-stakes drama. Back in November of 2017, Parity was responsible for introducing a devastating bug into some of its wallets, which led, through a chain of mishaps, to the locking-up of about 514,000 ETH. More than half of that money belonged to Parity itself, having been raised in the token sale to fund Polkadot.

In the wake of that catastrophe, Wood and Parity CEO and co-founder Jutta Steiner said publicly that they expected the funds to be unlocked eventually. Schoedon eventually took a major step to make that happen. In April 2018, he put forward an Ethereum proposal known as EIP-999, which would have unlocked the funds with a patch requiring a hard fork. The proposal rekindled many of the same debates about “immutability” that first flared up after the DAO hack, and some opponents believed it could lead to another contentious split of the Ethereum chain.

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Schoedon, then, appears to have used his role as an Ethereum contributor to propose and push for a contentious change that would seem to benefit him in his role as a Parity employee. That seems to have invited continued skepticism about his motives, seemingly contributing to the current controversy. Reddit user dwindlingfiat opined over the weekend that Schoedon “has been out to destroy ETH for a while,” and referenced EIP-999 as evidence. Though we asked Schoedon about EIP-999’s impact on the community’s perception of him via email, he did not reply to that question.

The accusations and threats against him clearly took a swift toll, and by Monday, scattered secondhand reports claimed Schoedon was stepping away from work on Ethereum. Schoedon confirmed definitively to BREAKERMAG that he will “no longer work on Ethereum or Ethereum-related projects,” but will remain with Parity. Though it’s too early to know what his new role will look like, this means he could actually wind up working on Polkadot. Schoedon’s detractors have repeatedly argued that his “conflict” meant he shouldn’t contribute to Ethereum, which would make this a win for them. But driving away someone widely acknowledged as a gifted developer could also be seen as a pretty big self-own by investors hopeful about Ethereum’s future.

Related: Open Letter: The Ethereum Community Calls for End to Threats and “Toxic” Behavior

This welter of allegations, suspicions, and alleged conflicts hinges on one of the key, persistent puzzles of cryptocurrency development. Some of the largest projects are in many senses “open-source,” their development guided not by any single company or organization, but by a collaborative process involving both volunteers, and devs being paid by various companies. Those coders may work on several projects at once, even when those projects are (rightly or wrongly) seen as competitors. Even with first-generation open-source projects like Linux, the process of proposals and debate led to some ferocious battles. But adding money to the mix heightens those conflicts immensely. (Similar factors were in play leading up to the Bitcoin Cash fork.)

Driving away someone widely acknowledged as a gifted developer could be seen as a pretty big self-own by investors hopeful about Ethereum’s future

On top of that, projects like Ethereum have thousands of token holders who regard themselves as investors, and watch development progress with that mindset, closely monitoring milestones that they expect will juice the value of their holdings. All of that separates Ethereum dramatically from, for instance, the open source word-processing software LibreOffice (which is, by the way, fantastic). And it can, as in this case, put immense and sometimes contradictory pressures on the people actually doing the building.

We asked Schoedon whether the lack of accountability on social media helped fuel the crusade that alienated him. He had a lot to say:

“I’m all in favor of fast-lived, pseudonymous, or anonymous platforms. Low barriers of entry are something we should encourage, not fear. We should embrace maximum privacy and not call out for accountability.

The problems are much more how these platforms work. On Twitter, you can easily engage with people in the most controversial debates, but portals like Reddit create these voting fallacies. Users easily confuse upvotes with concepts of truth. On the other hand, downvotes work like a punishment, and down-voted comments are hidden by Reddit, which allows communities to censor certain members or opinions which they are not comfortable with.

To circumvent that, some communities removed the downvote button entirely. Others hide the vote score of posts and comments to obfuscate the general sentiment for a certain amount of time. There are easy technical solutions that would help improving the situation significantly.

But in addition to that, there is also the human part. Communities should collaborate and work out a Netiquette/Reddiquette/CodeOfConduct together. Members of communities should actively care for each other, because communities are not fighting pits but heterogeneous groups of people with some shared values and goals. The same applies to the Ethereum community, but I also fear that Preethi [Kasireddy] was right last year when she said that we might need to talk about the values (again) to find out what the community really stands for.”

Those are idealistic sentiments, similar to those expressed by Schoedon’s supporters in the Wednesday letter, and generally summing up Ethereum’s dominant ethos of optimism and acceptance. But as the last few days have shown, that ethos can be tough to maintain when real money is on the line.