The 325 initial coin offering (ICO) events in 2017, as tracked by CoinSchedule.com, raised a combined $3.7 billion that the Securities and Exchange Commission is still working out how to define and regulate. Surging cryptocurrency market capital is drawing huge numbers of new players into the market—some are pioneers, some are sheep, and some are going to jail for using ICOs to make a quick buck.
It is not just ICOs and greenhorn startups that dangle blockchain as a shiny object in front of investors. The combination of uncertainty, novelty, and potential for wealth has created an environment where a finance firm’s stock price can grow by 2,000% just by acquiring a blockchain company that has yet to post revenue. Seekingalpha.com put together a graphic showing how non-alcoholic beverage company, Long Island Ice Tea, boosted its stock value 183% in one day just by changing its name to Long Blockchain and by making vague promises about experimenting with the technology. Similarly, Kodak’s share prices doubled after it announced a blockchain-based photo licensing platform.
Something Is Rotten in the State of Blockchain
It is tempting to look at the explosion of blockchain projects in 2016 and 2017 as an encouraging sign that blockchain has earned its way into the mainstream as a powerful and innovative technology. Surely the diversity of companies announcing pilot currencies and proofs of concept can only be good for R&D, right?
The answer is that a yawning gap exists between announcing a project and treating the underlying technology seriously, just as there is a gap between announcing an ICO and having a real and sustainable product. Projects like this only help blockchain progress if the companies behind the announcements have a legitimate purpose beyond capitalizing on the world’s blockchain fever.
Where We Are Headed
It is possible—maybe even likely—that fraud, exploitation, and publicity stunts are a natural part of blockchain’s growing pains. And it is true that for the strong applications and business models to rise to the top, the weaker applications must drop out, one way or another.
We should not be afraid of projects and experiments failing. But is a cause for concern that blockchain has become a talisman, drawing in everyone from first-time investors to established companies, few of whom seem aware that most will fail. When the hype dies down, share values will drop with it—blockchain’s status as a magic word simply cannot last.
It is not just the opportunists that benefit from all the hype. Developers of serious blockchain solutions need to work doubly hard to separate themselves from the chaff, and they have an obligation not to let the investment flowing their way go to waste. The question is not whether the crash will come, but, as the creator of the joke turned billion dollar reality, Dogecoin, asks, “will there be enough magic left to build something real once it does?”