I’ve generally been more bullish on web3 than on Bitcoin. Bitcoin’s core narrative of replacing fiat money is obviously false, and it has big energy issues as well; web3, in contrast, is just blockchain technology as a whole, so it seems reasonably possible that people will find something useful to do with it. But I do see some blind alleys that I think web3 could potentially go down. One of these is ubiquitous micropayments. Marc Andreessen recently suggested this as a big appeal of web3, but I think the hassle cost of this will be large.
A second possible blind alley is multi-level marketing. A recent a16z report noted that “Web3 aligns network participants to work together toward a common goal—the growth of the network”. That kind of incentive could be great for growth, but also lends itself to the monetization of network growth — which is exactly what MLM is all about.
When I pointed this out on Twitter, Lars Doucet (@larsiusprime) told me that he saw some similarities between web3 culture and the culture of Amway — probably the most famous American MLM company — back in the 1990s. So I asked him to write a post explaining those similarities. Lars is no stranger to guest posts; he wrote a long and very excellent series of posts on Georgism for Scott Alexander’s blog. You can read more of Lars's works at his Substack, at gameofrent.com, and at fortressofdoors.com.
Hi, my name's Lars Doucet (not Noah Smith), and I'll be your guest blogger on Noahpinion today. I usually write about video games and Georgism and crypto, and sometimes–to my utter bafflement–all three at once.
Noah asked me to write a guest post on the subject of web3 culture today for two reasons:
I'm a professional game developer and analyst who correctly called the top of Axie Infinity, the massively overhyped blockchain game that was the poster child for NFT-based "play-to-earn" games
I'm a former Amway kid (as in my parents were Amway distributors in the ‘90s)
Amway, for those of you who don't know, is/was a massive multi-level marketing operation. It wasn't the first, and it certainly wasn't the last, but in many ways it was the prototype, a sort of platonic ideal, of the whole thing. And it absolutely dominated my childhood. My whole family got out eventually, though we lost a lot of money.
Flash forward to today and I'm caught up in the culture of "Web3," a term coined by Ethereum co-founder Gavin Wood, which refers to a "decentralized online ecosystem based on blockchain." For the last few years that has centered itself around buzzwords like "NFT's", "DeFi", "Virtual Real Estate", "GameFi", and "Play-to-Earn," all of which have recently come crashing down nearly as quickly as they first shot up.
But what's fascinated me is the parallels between Web3's culture and that of 1990's Amway. Amway is (allegedly) a notoriously litigious company, so I will be doing my best to link to independent sources for anything I say about them indicating things they (allegedly) did in the past or are (allegedly) still doing today. This is because their behavior towards people who have spoken out in the past has (allegedly) made me rather paranoid.
Amway and crypto on the surface might not immediately seem similar. Amway was (allegedly) a convoluted system where you bought a bunch of products from them that you then sold to family and friends and eventually other customers, and then you recruited those same people to become part of your distribution network, forming your "downline." Then you would (allegedly) encourage them to recruit more people of their own, forming their own downlines, which would nest inside of yours. From their perspective, you and everyone in the recruitment chain above you would form their "upline."
I'll start by establishing the very basics of what Amway (allegedly) was and is, and then move on to talking about its culture, which is what it really shares the most in common with about Web3.
Okay, what is Amway? If you were a new recruit, the first thing I would (allegedly) do is "show you the plan."
Showing the Plan
"Showing the plan" was a catch phrase in Amway lingo among the people I knew at the time. As was "building the business." Multiple times per week, after my father came home from work, he and my mother would often leave my brother and I with a babysitter and head out to meet with potential recruits over dinner to "show them the plan" and "build the business." My parents dedicated a huge amount of time and energy to this, almost as much as they did to the entire rest of the time they spent running their Amway IBO ("independent business operation"). And how did they gain recruits? Among other ways, by "drawing circles."
"Drawing Circles" was another catch phrase. I'd seen my parents do this on many an occasion, and it (allegedly) came straight out of the Amway training materials. The pitch went (allegedly) more or less like this:
The economic system we live in is rigged. Hard working Americans can't get ahead. Working for a living is a dead end. Why make a boss rich when you can be your own boss?
This is (allegedly) when you would start drawing circles. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I recall there were at least two phases to the pitch. The first part (allegedly) started with something like this "Most manufacturers sell their products not directly to the consumer, but to wholesalers, who in turn sell them to retailers, and only then do customers get to buy them. All along the way, there are huge markups." Several circles for each of these groups are drawn. Then you (allegedly) draw a huge X through everything except manufacturer and consumer. "We eliminate the middlemen. This creates an enormous amount of value that you, the independent business owner, can capture."
The second phase (allegedly) goes into how the actual business model of uplines and downlines actually works. It's been a long, long time, and my memory is fuzzy, and it's entirely possible and even super likely (given all the lawsuits) that Amway has changed things significantly since the 90's, but this video on YouTube still rings a lot of bells for me:
The bottom line is that I remember thinking to myself, "I don't understand how this is supposed to sustainably work. I guess I'm just a dumb kid and don't understand economics and business. Maybe when I grow up, I will understand it."
News flash: there was nothing to understand (allegedly).
One thing web3 and Amway both (allegedly) have in common is talking about eliminating all these middlemen, all the while introducing new ones.
Another is turning your friends into wild-eyed fanatics who can't stop trying to sell you on a convoluted and complicated system that they're totally gonzo for, but still can't articulate exactly how it is supposed to work. The best example of this would be Marc Andreesen's conversation with Tyler Cowen:
This clip is so astounding to me because Marc Andreesen is a really smart guy and even he can't coherently articulate a clear, simple, and credible answer regarding what Web3 is supposed to be for.
Another great example is PackyM's conversation on this podcast:
It wasn't this hard to come up with a credible use case for say, the Internet. Or email. Or instant messaging. Or online video games. Or Amazon.com. Or eBay. Or even all the famous dot com busts, like Pets.com – even if they went belly up, it was at least clear from the start what the value proposition was supposed to be (buy pet supplies over the internet).
I'm going to be instantly accused of cherry picking here, so I will throw the Web3 crowd a bone. I have thought long and hard on this, specifically in the arena of blockchain games, and I have actually identified one crypto game I don't hate. It's called Dark Forest, it uses blockchain in a genuinely innovative way (though it's a very narrow innovation and I'm not convinced yet it's going to be all that revolutionary). Here's a long Twitter thread about it if you care:
Dark Forest genuinely earns the Lars Seal of Non-Disapproval, an extremely rare feat. See? Even I can grudgingly admit when my gut instincts are wrong about something.
But the point remains that I've spent the last seven months doing hardcore deconstruction after hardcore deconstruction of blockchain game projects for Naavik, I actually do know what I'm talking about here, and I'm prepared to defend that credibility publicly. What's really telling to me about Dark Forest is that it's essentially completely un-financialized; it's a nerdy MIT student project that doesn't care about money. And money doesn't seem to care about it, either.
As for the rest of Web3, just like Amway's plan (allegedly), there just is no there there. It's complicated flim-flam that intentionally obfuscates itself to dazzle you into thinking that you're not quite smart enough to fully grasp it, but surely all these very serious adults running around must know what's going on. Don't fall for it.
Back to Amway.
There was a series of lawsuits, the most infamous of which was Morrison V. Amway, in which some of Amway's own high-level distributors (allegedly) called out Amway for underhanded behavior and aired some very embarrassing dirty laundry. This dragged on for over a decade and ended with an appeals court siding with the plaintiffs against Amway. The many disgruntled Amway distributors I knew at the time (allegedly) complained that the "drawing circles" presentation of Amway was not at all how points and rewards were calculated in practice and that the entire organization was (allegedly) ripe with corruption and artificial picking and choosing of who was allowed to ascend the ranks.
Things (allegedly) got so bad that Amway changed their name in North America to Quixtar, and started focusing their energy on other continents instead. If you google "Amway showing the plan" today you'll find a lot of videos targeted towards the Indian population, for instance:
So that's Amway in a nutshell. (Allegedly), a complicated pyramid-like structure of recruiting other people to buy products from each other, in a way where you all (allegedly) accumulate points somehow and make money by spending money buying Amway stuff.
In web3 lingo, you might call it "Spend-to-Earn."
Allegedly, the real way that Amway distributors made money was not by selling products, but by selling a never ending stream of motivation tools to their downline to help them "build an independent business." This is one of the ways in which it often differs from Web3 – a lot of Web3 scams are just transparent Ponzi schemes, though some are getting good at obfuscating their shaky foundations (the recent algorithmic stablecoin de-pegs are a great example). But overall, Amway was a lot more centralized, and a lot more sophisticated as an operation. Sure, it (allegedly) had a pyramidic structure, but it didn't directly monetize that with membership fees or even product sales, that was all just (allegedly) an elaborate front for the true grift of soaking downlines with tools.
What the two cultures really have in common (allegedly) is selling you on a dream of independence, while delivering what is actually total and utter dependence on a system outside of your control, putting you (and your money) entirely at its mercy.
Eat, Breathe, and Sleep Amway
The next thing Web3 and Amway culture have in common is how quickly they both tend to take over people's lives and become the center of their identity. Web3 enthusiasts jokingly refer to themselves as "apes" or "degens" (short for degenerates) and put a large amount of their personal investments into NFTs, coin protocols, virtual real estate, etc. Some people get really into this and buy NFTs for their friends and fall down a self-referential rabbit hole that's all just crypto memes about crypto memes.
But Amway culture's method was even more insidious. The main way Amway (allegedly) sucked you in was by replacing every consumable good in your house with Amway branded equivalents. Why would anyone do this? Well, you have to buy toothpaste and breakfast cereal and shoe polish anyways, so why not earn points while you're doing it? And then you (allegedly) encourage all your family and friends to do this too; buying from you, of course. Remember, we're cutting out the middlemen, so think of all the value we're (allegedly) freeing up for ourselves!
The Amway products themselves were of decent quality, though I soon got tired of them. You know how kids in certain religious sects weren't allowed to have access to things like CD's or PG-13 movies or D&D, and would wind up obsessing over them? With Amway it was the same way. Can you guess my forbidden fruit?
Non-Amway-branded breakfast cereal.
Honey Nut Cheerios™ and Lucky Charms™, mmm, that's the good stuff. None of this "Honey Nut Toasted O's" and "Happy Days" nonsense.
Of course, we couldn't have any of that. We couldn't allow negative breakfast cereal in our house.
Wait– negative breakfast cereal? What?
Welcome (allegedly) to the world of Amway's positive thinking lingo. Non-Amway branded products were (allegedly) slapped with the label "negative." You see, Amway culture (allegedly) had this huge hang-up with positive thinking. All the motivational materials your upline was feeding you were constantly (allegedly) proclaiming how important it was to set ambitious goals, to really want to succeed, and to keep a positive attitude at all times. Anyone and anything that dragged you from your goal was "negative." If it was a negative person, they didn't want you to succeed. And if it was a negative thing or product, it was a nonproductive distraction from your goal at best, and a dangerous temptation to spiral into negative thoughts at worst.
This has a lot of overlaps with web3 culture. Witness all the cope that comes out after a major project goes bust. Degens/apes are constantly exhorted to "stick it out," "buy the dip," "just keep building," and "persist through the crypto winter", and critics are maligned and dismissed as "negative" jealous sourpusses at best, and as shadowy agents of malevolent forces trying to undermine the revolution at worst.
Here's a relevant quote from Joshua Brustein's piece on Bloomberg from one of the Axie founders:
Zirlin said he empathized with people who’d lost money—life-changing sums, in some instances. But he added that a crash that got rid of Axie profiteers could have its upside, too. “Sometimes having to flush out the people who are just in it for the money,” he said, “that’s just the system self-correcting.”
Let's lean more into that "us versus them" mentality. Let's talk about Rhinos and Cows.
Rhinos versus Cows
Nowadays the term "RINO" is a negative epithet in conservative culture that stands for "Republican In Name Only," and is leveled at anyone who identifies as Republican or conservative but is perceived as too squishy or soft compared to people like this guy.
But back in the 90's, "RHINO" was a term of endearment, a positive label drawn from a popular 80's self-help book.
Let me explain. Amway Culture built off of existing 90's rugged individualist self-help culture. Zig Ziglar and Tony Robbins to my knowledge were never affiliated with Amway, but Amway people were constantly passing around their motivational tapes and materials because that kind of generic motivational fodder was right up their alley. The same goes for plenty of other popular 90's self-help material. But no specific motivational tool loomed as large for my generation of Amway Distributors (allegedly) as one book: Rhinoceros Success.
Note this book was first published in 1980. The author, "Scott Alexander" is a totally different guy from the "Scott Alexander" of the SlateStarCodex / AstralCodexTen blogs, who likely wasn't even born when this book first came out.
The modern edition surprised me by having a forward written by none other than Dave Ramsay, the famous personal finance guru. I don't remember him ever being officially associated with Amway, so it's more likely he was just a fan of the book. One of his callers asked him whether Amway is a good idea and he gave this tepid non-recommendation:
Back to the book. Here's what Ramsay has to say in his forward:
Rhinos are intense, passionate, and focused. Rhinos see where they want to go and start charging, knocking down anything that gets in their way. Rhinos get things done.
For what it's worth the book is really thin on content and is basically just a standard-issue self help book that says "Get up! Get motivated! Go do stuff! Don't get discouraged. Don't quit!" over and over. It comes across as extremely cheesy and vapid today, but back in the 80's and 90's it was probably most people's first contact with that sort of message and it probably came across stronger.
A key part of its message, however, is dividing the world into two opposite poles: motivated, successful Rhinos, and lazy, complacent Cows. Here's Ramsay accurately summarizing the book:
But most people don't win, because they're mediocre. They make mediocre efforts and get mediocre results, and most of them are happy with that. This book calls them Cows. Cows are average, leading average lives, milling around in the field munching cud and keeping their heads down.
Here's a captioned illustration from the book, the same one that graces the cover:
As much as this kind of framing offends the sensibilities of liberals (and myself, a filthy moderate who eschews left/right labels) there is of course some truth to this: moral judgments aside, there objectively just are some highly driven people in the world, and there just are some people who for whatever reason lack motivation, who seem to trap themselves in downward spirals and are frequently observed blaming everybody else for their problems. I of course find the book's derisive and elitist framing of that underlying grain of truth highly offensive and totally unhelpful, but we all probably know at least one person who could genuinely use a little more motivation in their life (in my case it's often myself!).
The real problem I have with this book is how predatory cultures like Amway (allegedly) exploit this framing to convince people to be "Rhinos," specifically in order to get them to ignore and blast past all their inhibitions, just so that they are easier for predators to wring dry.
I mean why are you hesitating? Oh, it's because you're negative. You are addicted to your comfort zone. You don't want to try to better yourself. You're always blaming other people for your problems. And you don't want other people to succeed either. You are a crab in a bucket.
Now before I proceed, let me just take a moment to burnish my credentials. By this book's definition, I am a quintessential example of the Rhino class. I have been engaged in free enterprise since my early 20's, have founded four companies, and am currently doing quite well for myself. I set a goal very early on in life to become a professional video game developer, persisted through lots of adversity ("damn the torpedoes" and relying on my "two-inch thick skin", as the book would say), and ultimately found financial success! And you know, I did read this book years ago, and as a dyed-in-the-wool Amway kid, I admit I found it inspiring at the time. So maybe I need to give it a modicum of credit for all that.
But now that this Rhino is 38 years old and has had a successful career doing something other than hawking cheesy self-help books and patting myself on the back for it, I can say with confidence this book and its message are utter dreck. And the last thing anyone can do is dismiss me as saying that just because I'm a mere loser – a cow – who is simply butthurt that he can't succeed in life and needs to take that frustration out on other people. Or that I'm "NGMI" (not gonna make it), and should "be happy staying poor," as you'd say it in web3.
No, the biggest thing this entire book series gets wrong is its constant assertion that you just need to keep charging forward and damn the torpedoes.
The problem is sometimes what you actually need to do is quit doing the thing that's not working and try something else. You see, shortly after become a successful independent video game developer, I realized that I was in an incredibly volatile and difficult business that was getting more competition every day, while platform distribution became increasingly consolidated as player expectations kept rising along with production values and development costs.
Instead of putting my head down and "keep charging!" I instead pivoted – and now I'm an analyst and consultant, and my career has never been more stable (or profitable). I still make games (I'm working on one right now and am making a lot of progress after a recent daring escape from development hell), but I'm no longer dependent on the feast-or-famine life of an indie game developer trying to make a living convincing enough people to give me $15 for something that took me
three years five years way too long to make. In my day to day actually-pay-the-bills work I help all kinds of people on all kinds of projects, sometimes writing essays, sometimes doing research, and sometimes writing code. My horizons have broadened considerably, and I'm just happier and healthier than ever. I even have a lovely wife and three great kids. I'm living the American dream! (Note: this isn't just down to my good choices, but also a lot of good fortune and most especially excellent timing, neither of which was fully under my control).
But you see, if you encourage "brave entrepreneurs" to take advice like that, you might tempt them to stop "building through the pain" and give up on keeping their "diamond hands" steady. What would normally be good advice ("keep trying when things get hard!") gets exploited and transmuted into "literally never quit and never cut your losses," because someone on the other side is depending on you to be their exit liquidity.
The first book in the series is actually relatively tame. Where things go totally off the rails is in the second book, Advanced Rhinocerology. I still have a copy of this, a sort of cursed souvenir from the haunted days of my childhood. Get ready for a trip.
First of all, apparently nobody under the age of 18 should come near this book. We're already off to a great start.
Again, the world is divided into COWS and RHINOS. Cows are bad, but now they're explicitly associated with the government, while Rhinos are a species exclusive to the private sector:
Get out there and get charging, y'all! What are you waiting for? Oh, but by the way you may lose your shirt and get wrecked. Or as web3 aficionados would say today, "never invest more than you can afford to lose."
Jungle life can at times be so frustrating that some, rather than wait to be killed, will kill themselves. No one said it was going to be easy!
I think this is just supposed to be some kind of cute metaphor but financial losses and financial stress are a leading cause of actual suicide. Encouraging people to throw caution to the wind is really dangerous.
This juxtaposition of massive gung-ho-ness, paired with this "oh by the way you may lose everything and it will be your own fault, not mine" prevails throughout this book, and also (allegedly) all the Amway culture and messaging I recall from my youth. There's a pretty direct parallel there with web3 – you need to join right now, this is the best opportunity ever, but by the way you may lose all your money and if you do nobody will feel sorry for you, it's your fault.
Mr. Alexander goes ahead and lays his entire philosophy bare for us. The government and its agents (cows) are universally bad, and entrepreneurs (rhinos) are universally good:
Look, I'm sympathetic to some libertarian ideas, but this argument is made with all the subtlety and nuance of a sledgehammer:
Of course, Rhinos can have a little government, as a treat. You know, like police and the armed forces. But the one thing we for sure don't need are meddlesome regulators.
Okay, look. I agree a lot of government regulations are dumb. Like municipal zoning, or the Jones Act. And occupational licensing for e.g. hair braiders. Let's repeal all those please. Also Iowa farm subsidies for corn. And state-level pre-emptions on municipalities who want to provide municipal broadband internet. And government granted eternal copyright protections. And software patents. And telling farmers who grow their own feed to give to their own animals that this somehow constitutes interstate commerce. And all the other bad government regulations, I don't care, make your own list.
But Mr. Alexander's broadsides against basically all regulation ever rhymes really strongly with web3 advocate hatred of the entire banking system and all of its hard-won lessons and regulations, and the SEC in specific. Yes, I hate big evil banks too. But we left the wildcat banking era for a really good reason, even if opportunists swooped in to take advantage of the regulatory apparatus.
On one side we have the Rhinos and the Degen Apes, the paragons of strong, red-blooded American small enterprise, and on the other side we have the lazy, jealous, mediocre wage slaves and scheming parasitic government bureaucrats trying to drag us all back into the socialistic welfare doldrums where they think we belong.
Take it from me, a certified Rhino: there are good regulations and bad regulations, good entrepreneurs and bad entrepreneurs, and this us-vs-them framing is unhelpful and dumb. Unless, that is, you need to instill an image of heroism in your followers so that they'll "charge forward" under any sense of danger, throw caution to the wind, and let you take all their money (allegedly).
Later Alexander comes out to remind you that not only is the government bad, but also that the poor exploit the rich ackshually, and that it is you who ought to be doing the exploiting, and that this is a good thing.
He later quotes a letter from a lady who lavishes praise on the one good thing the government ever did – pass Proposition 13! That's the famous California law freezing property tax assessments, effectively entrenching a class of hereditary landed gentry who have seen their property values skyrocket thanks to the hard work and investment of the tech industry that has driven increased demand for their land, all while they sit on their duffs doing nothing.
(What is it about every topic people ask me to write about that always inevitably circles back towards Georgism? Seriously I had no idea this section was in the book until I flipped through it just now)
Flash forward to today and the prevailing sentiment among many "Rhinos" in the tech industry about the sort of person Mr. Alexander is quoting looks a little something like this:
As I said in a guest post for the other Scott Alexander titled Does Georgism Work: Is Land a Really Big Deal?, it's actually the rent-seekers (particularly California landowners) who are the passive extractors in the economy. They reap where they do not sow, growing rich on the labor and ingenuity of others while they sit around indolently chewing their cud. Gee, that doesn't sound at all like a "Rhino" to me. I wonder what other kind of animal metaphor might be appropriate? Hey, I think I hear a lot of mooing coming from that public hearing on new housing development...
...or is it coming from the Metaverse?
Hmmm, I wonder what kind of tax would fix this.
It wasn't uncommon (allegedly) to attend an Amway function, seminar, or rally (yes we had pep rallies) and hear everyone break out into a chorus of "Nothing's gonna stop the Rhino." The song is hard to find these days, but I think this is the one I'm thinking of:
Hey hey hey hey ho ho ho
Nothing's gonna stop the Rhino!
His skin is thick as concrete
He rises to the call
Perfectly prepared for any challenge great or small
This is another weird point. Amway had its own entire culture of music. Plenty of it was borrowed from standard motivational fare – We Will Rock You, Get On Your Feet, I Wanna Be Rich, but there were some original "Amway bands" too, of which the above single is presumably an example. I'm almost certain that "I'm going Diamond" (more on that phrase later) by the Goads is another example:
I need my independence
I'm declaring it today
One two three
Four five six
I'm going diamond
That's it, period!
The Amway songs were just these incredibly simple high-energy motivational songs about success and money and pumping you up.
"Going Diamond" was a bit of Amway lingo. Amway (allegedly) had a complicated points system with various gem levels – sapphire, ruby, emerald, that sort of thing, and the big milestone where you had made it was "Diamond." So "Going Diamond" was (allegedly) this mark that you had really, really made it.
There was this magazine that would (allegedly) show all the people who had gone Diamond that month, and at many Amway functions you would see recently minted Diamonds (allegedly) walk across the stage to fanfare and applause. This repeated highly visible set of Cinderella stories kept reeling you in (allegedly), making you feel like success was right around the corner, the same way seeing high profile stories of someone who minted an NFT collection that went to the moon, or bought a token that Elon Musk tweeted about, kept people in Web3 sticking in hoping for the next big break to shine on them. "Just wait! <Token> is going to PUMP! HODL!"
Anyways, back to music. Here's a few examples of web3 culture music. First is the rap song "Apesh*t" celebrating the Bored Ape Yacht Club:
Goin' Apesh*t (time to hate me)
Doin' Apesh*t (we all gonna make it)
The closest thing to an "Amway Band" in web3 would be the infamous Axie Sisters, who attached their brand to the "play to earn" game Axie Infinity:
We all gonna make it
Love Love Love Love
Do you wanna make it
To the moon!
Update: Commenter Steve Estes points out a grievous error with this piece. Somehow I was not yet aware that *Mark Zuckerberg's sister*, Randi Zuckerberg, did a music video called "We're All Gonna Make It," set to the tune of Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It." The error is deeply regretted and has now been rectified, please gaze upon it in its full glory:
Throughout both web3 music and Amway music you see this common through line of how "we are all going to succeed" and that outside haters want to be negative and drag us down because they just don't believe.
Okay, I've spent way too much time (allegedly) obsessing over a couple stupid books. But I have to nail down just how squarely this Rhino series, and the mentality it illustrates, pervaded all of Amway culture (allegedly). Rhinoceros Success felt like an Amway distributor's Bible to me.
The C Word
Speaking of the Bible... the other thing about Amway was that it was particularly effective at harnessing the strong sense of personal work ethic, moral duty and missionary zeal of conservative evangelical Christians. Rhinoceros Success made this appeal in its pages explicitly:
Did you know that the Bible is the original success manual? You don’t need to read Rhinoceros Success or any other book to learn to live your life successfully. All you really need is a copy of the Bible. Every answer is in there. Every success book is based on the Bible, only worded differently.
This is normally the part of the article where the author would give a detailed account of their deconversion from fundamentalist Christianity and start trashing how ignorant and backwards everyone associated with it is.
I'm... not going to do that.
For one, I was technically never a true evangelical Christian, even though I was surrounded by those people growing up in Texas. My mom's an immigrant and I was actually raised Norwegian Lutheran–by which I mean full blown Norwegian language liturgical services in Houston, Texas (life is weird). And now in my adult life I've become an Eastern Orthodox Christian, but that was all for mostly boring reasons that have nothing to do with my experience in Amway. But even if I had become a Buddhist or an Atheist or something, and Amway had been the specific impetus for the change, I still don't think it would be a useful point to make in that way.
My problem with typical internet deconversion stories is that whatever religion you don't belong to anymore always seems to get hyperbolically derided as a dangerous and evil Cult with a capital C, and now you've seen the light and belong to whatever your new, cooler religion (or lack thereof) is, which could never fall prey to the same biases and organizational abuses. That's because only smart and good people belong to it, and only stupid and evil people could belong to the old garbage your sucker parents fell for. I just don't care for that kind of argument, and it often misdirects anger and derision at the rank and file faithful (themselves often chief victims of the bad behavior), rather than at the bad leaders responsible for the abuse.
But let's talk about that C-word, "cult," anyway. I hesitate to use it, for this exact reason. Plenty of people call Amway a "cult." A lot of people call web3 a "cult," too. "Cult" is an extremely poorly defined word, and therefore a fairly useless one, because everyone means something different by it. The one thing it kind of consistently shakes out to is "a religion or organization I don't like." Case in point: all the Southern Baptists I know who insist the Catholic Church is a "cult." Okay, you aren't Catholic, great, I already knew that. But why is Catholicism bad? Oh, because it makes theological claims you disagree with? I also already knew that. How is that any different from say, Mormonism, in that respect? Oh, they're a cult too? Great.
The only actually useful definition of "cult" in my view is an organization that exhibits a particular form of manipulative and dishonest behavior in order to harness its adherents' energy for free labor and to drain their savings accounts and abuse them in other ways. Yes, you could stretch this to cover literally anything you don't like, including governments and jobs and blah blah blah. The emphasis here is on the word particular. There's a very particular way this works out and you kind of know it when you see it. It's squishy and very easy to argue dishonestly, which is why I hate wading into this kind of discourse, but here goes.
This particular kind of organization usually has a hard time lasting more than a few generations in this particular form, because they either flame out and die from being unsustainable, or evolutionary pressure pushes them towards being less predatory and extractive. Of course, some, like the Scientologists, are (allegedly) able to consistently pull off being sustainably awful and scary into the long-term.
So let's leave the C-word behind and just talk about the particular pattern of manipulation and dishonest behavior that is (allegedly) common to both Amway and Web3 cultures.
Chief for me is the parasitic replacement of the host's original religion with the worship of a blasphemous idol directly opposed to the original religion's most sacred values.
Amway is your God now
Rhinoceros Success is shot through with calls to religion. But it's a particular flavor of religion – a very narrow interpretation of the American prosperity gospel. Forgotten is "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:3)" and "it is easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 19:24)." But you'll find plenty of reminders that "For with God all things are possible (Mark 10:27)."
Amway culture at large was (allegedly) right in line with the Rhinoceros book here. A commonly repeated Bible verse I remember was, "Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverbs 29:18)". This was (allegedly) interpreted by Amway speakers as: "people who are not visionary, who do not visualize what they want and set goals for themselves, will not succeed." This is kind of a bizarre understanding of this line, the full verse is "Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he." The word "vision" here clearly refers to prophetic vision, and other translations just render "vision" as "revelation." It's just saying "yo, follow God's law, you know, the one the prophets told you about." This isn't even a controversial interpretation–I've known a lot of fundamentalist, Southern Baptist, sola scriptura, young earth creationist types in my time and they would all laugh at Amway's lazy exegesis here.
But this stuff (allegedly) worked! And it had an incredible effect (allegedly): all of the natural energy and moral devotion that fresh recruits would normally devote to their religious observances was swiftly redirected into Amway. And people who weren't naturally super observant in their religion found themselves "getting religion" for the first time in their lives and (allegedly) got swept up in it. It felt great to (allegedly) be a part of something bigger than yourself, and hey, we're all gonna (allegedly) get rich doing it! Soon you (allegedly) found yourself attending a never ending series of functions, rallies, and seminars and buying lots of tools from your upline. And now you're always listening to motivational tapes in the car–any driving time not spent doing this is wasted, you're (allegedly) told. Your life is now Amway, Amway, Amway, 24/7.
So the religion that Amway (allegedly) parasitized and ultimately replaced in its target population was evangelical Christianity. What was the "religion" that web3 targeted?
Remember when "crypto" was short for cryptography? And remember what Blockchain was like before it got all financialized? Remember when it was all supposed to be about independence, and decentralization? Remember when it was about freedom, and weird nerds, and cool technology? Remember when people felt about it approximately the same way they felt about BitTorrent?
And somehow it became about hundreds of millions of dollars being thrown around by a16z and Animoca Brands to bid up the speculative price of virtual Pokemon knock-offs, bought and sold on a private centralized blockchain that was so sloppily secured that $625 million in assets was entrusted to a single point of failure that got irretrievably hacked by North Korea? And then the founders who coined the term "play-to-earn" trashed their own players and retail investors as caring about money too much?
Or any other of the numerous stupid examples on web3isgoinggreat.com? What does any of this have to do with the original vision of a decentralized monetary system envisioned by Satoshi Nakomoto and a scriptable, decentralized computing platform envisioned by Vitalik Buterin?
Nothing, that's what.
Yes, I was once an eager catechumen of crypto-ism in the early days and was very excited by the possibilities. But that promising early vision I once saw in the Bitcoin whitepaper has been replaced by a golden calf, set up by false prophets who are only out to enrich themselves as they sacrifice us all to Moloch.
But that isn't to say that I wholesale buy Nakomoto and Buterin's visions, either. I still have a soft spot in my heart for old-school non-financialized crypto-ism, but it's now just one of many other value systems I don't happen to belong to, situating it in a relationship similar to the one I have with evangelical Protestant Christianity. I respect both to a degree, with a genuine understanding of the people who sincerely believe in them, all while maintaining my own strong doctrinal disagreements.
But Amway-ism and Web3-ism? I don't merely disagree with those cultures, I actively oppose them, especially because of the innocent people they have exploited by undermining, replacing, and betraying their faith.
To put it bluntly, just as Amway exploited, hollowed out, and ultimately replaced the sacred values of Christianity, Web3 has done the same with the core values of early crypto enthusiasts.
Maybe on guest posts you should indicate the length of read in minutes.
Bahahaha this was amazing. I felt like it was 1990 all over again reading this. I only tangentially knew people who did Amway (or Mary Kay, etc. etc.) so it is super interesting and hilarious to read all the insider stuff. I need a follow up post to learn more about what happened with Lars's parents. Did they go diamond?? Did they have day jobs? I need way more info. PS. For anyone else reading this who also loves trashy MLM content, if you haven't listened to The Dream Season 1 please do yourself a favor and go listen!