from Linden to Libra

Join me, friends, in the Wayback Machine …

In 2007, Facebook sent a couple of strategists to Linden Lab to ask us about virtual currency. Of course they would ask us – at the time, we were the world’s leading experts in managing a virtual economy, heading towards a billion dollars of L$ transactions. Yes, that’s a billion real US dollars – unique among all virtual currencies at the time, we supported the exchange of L$ to real US$, so our virtual currency had real world value.

When we heard that they wanted to meet, my colleagues huddled in a room to decide how much we should tell them. We decided to emphasize the difficulties of managing a virtual currency: complexity of implementation, responsibility for users’ financial transactions, intrusive governmental inquiry and oversight, competitive dynamics with banks and payment partners. We went into the meeting and told them this story about how terrible it all was, and how they’d be better off simply issuing credits paid for with real money.

We never heard from them again, but in 2010 they launched Facebook Credits. I laughed at the thought that it seemed our little misdirection had worked – they went down a path that was entirely uninteresting and ultimately untenable, just as we’d hoped. Yeah, I know: that was kinda evil. But at the time, I was just a little evil, trying to stay ahead of bigger evils.

Why didn’t we want Facebook to work on virtual currency? Because I believed that the Linden Dollar was the greatest innovation created by the Lab. Sure, the 3D virtual world was mind-bending – all the avatars and the world building and the art and the boob physics – but for me, the virtual currency was the one element of Second Life that had the opportunity to break out of SL and into prominence in the whole wide world. Facebook had only 50 million users in 2007, and I didn’t want them to get their virtual currency right, so early in the game.

Well, it’s a dozen years later, and blockchain inspired a Facebook exec to figure it out. Facebook has launched Libra, a new cryptocurrency. It is a brilliant implementation: meticulously researched, expertly engineered, broadly partnered, poised for global domination. There’s only two problems: it’s too late, and they’re doing it wrong.

The right time for Facebook to launch a virtual currency would have been, oh, around 2007. That’s right: I’m saying you can thank me and Chris Collins for talking them out of it at the time. As I’ve written previously, a cryptocurrency can only succeed as a medium of exchange if it is a core currency of a powerful platform. Don’t even get me started on Bitcoin. What I didn’t call out in those posts is that the platform must implement currency strategy early in its growth. This is because when you are messing around with payments, you are in a field of giants – global banks and entire nations that have a vested interest in preventing your success. You have to implement your new currency while your platform is still small enough to ignore, or at least dismiss as “merely a game.” Then when you reach enormous scale, it’s too late to do anything about the economy that’s been baked in since the early days.

When a platform already has billions of people, it’s not going to fly under the radar. Facebook is already seeing immediate regulatory interest in Libra. Even with less than a million users, Second Life had to deal with aggressive regulatory interest from Congress and international bodies. I like to think that we talked our way out if it with my silver tongue, but the truth is that we were too small for sustained inquiry. Facebook is far, far, far past that point. Libra will be hounded by regulators until the cost outweighs the benefits.

The part that Libra has wrong is its reserve policy. This is getting into the weeds of managing virtual currency, but to vastly oversimplify: the reserve is a guarantee of currency redemption. If you buy Libra with real currency, you can sell it back to the Libra consortium for a relatively stable amount of real currency. Libra has launched this way in the hopes that a stable currency value will engender trust. The amusing mistake here is that only in the insular world of technocracy could someone believe that Facebook has consumer trust problems that can be cured by a stable rate of exchange on their cryptocurrency. The more serious mistake is that requiring a full reserve limits the utility of the currency.

All major world currencies are fiat currencies, which means that they can be issued at the will of the governing authority. They are not backed by gold or any other asset – though nearly all of them started out backed by a guarantee of redemption in gold. But there is a reason that all of them have moved off of the gold standard: fiat provides the maximum flexibility to manage the currency and its related economy. While it’s true that fiat currencies are more susceptible to hyperinflation, that is only a consequence of bad management. If the manager (i.e. the government, or in this case, Facebook) can be trusted to make good economic decisions, inflation is a limited risk.

Perhaps Facebook is aware of all this, and their plan is to launch with a full reserve, but later evolve into a fiat currency, after some history has demonstrated their trustworthy stewardship. After all, this is actually how all the major world currencies developed: first on the gold standard, then eventually declaring a switch to fiat currency. So if the launch with reserve is a bit of knowing subterfuge, kudos to them.

At this point, I could launch into an extended discussion about the relationship between virtual currencies and MMT. But I’ll leave that exercise for another day. In the meantime, for Linden historians who have stayed with me this long through the discussion, I’ll give you a little blast from the past: a record of posts from Linden Lab as we decided how to think about our currency, and whether to implement fiat sales of L$ into existing exchanges. Enjoy!