Who’s who in eth2: Camila Russo from The Defiant

In the seventh edition of our Who’s who in eth2 series, Elias Simos interviews Camila Russo, financial journalist, founder of the DeFi-focused content platform The Defiant, and the author of The Infinite Machine, a book on the history of Ethereum.

Who’s who in eth2: Camila Russo from The Defiant

By Elias Simos · Dec 10 2021

Welcome to Who’s who in eth2, presented by Elias Simos, Protocol Specialist at Coinbase Cloud. In this series, Elias interviews key contributors to the development and growth of Ethereum and eth2, exploring their involvement in eth2, visions for the future, and perspectives on what eth2 means for the world from people deeply embedded in its ecosystem.

The series includes interviews with notable builders, researchers, infrastructure experts, and leaders from the eth2 ecosystem, along with principal members of eth2’s four client teams—Prysmatic Labs, Sigma Prime, Nimbus, and Teku.

In this seventh post Elias interviews Camila Russo, financial journalist, founder of the DeFi-focused content platform The Defiant, and the author of The Infinite Machine, a book on the history of Ethereum.

Why don’t we start with a little bit of background about yourself and your involvement with Ethereum. How’d you get here, and what was the lightbulb moment that made it all make sense in your head?

Before going full‐time crypto I was a reporter at Bloomberg News for eight years. I started as an intern in New York in 2010. Then I moved over to the emerging markets team, and shortly thereafter I went to Argentina covering markets there for four years; a fascinating time in Cristina Fernández’s second term. There was a lot going on in Argentina as there always is... inflation, currency controls, a debt default, nationalizations — just a crazy first job at Bloomberg. That's actually when I wrote my first story on Bitcoin, in 2013.

In 2013 there was also this really bullish crypto market and that's what prompted the Bitcoin community in Argentina to really gain steam. So I wrote a story on that. And because I was living the problems of inflation and currency controls myself — I was earning my own salary in Pesos — Bitcoin really clicked for me. It really made sense that it was important to have an independent currency that didn't depend on, or rely on, central banks or financial institutions.

After that first story, I always kind of kept track of the cryptocurrency space. And then after Argentina I went to Madrid, got really bored of covering Argentine stocks, and then took the opportunity to join a new markets team in New York.

"It really made sense that it was important to have an independent currency that didn't depend on, or rely on, central banks or financial institutions."

This was in 2017, and, obviously, you know, crypto was really popping (again) at the time. Because I was already interested in this space I took the opportunity to cover crypto at Bloomberg. There was a lot of demand for crypto content at the time; anything with Bitcoin on the headline would immediately become the most read story. So I was one of the few reporters covering crypto day‐to‐day at Bloomberg. That really made me become even more interested in the space — made me understand crypto better — and I decided I wanted to write a book on something in crypto. I just thought it was fascinating, what I had just witnessed, all the craziness of 2017. So, I thought, you know, what's the most interesting story to tell that hasn't been told? That's how I came to the conclusion that I should write a book on Ethereum.

There have been so many books written about Bitcoin but really nothing on the history of Ethereum, which to me was worth documenting because besides being the second biggest crypto by market cap, it had fueled a lot of the craziness of 2017. But, most importantly, it was taking blockchain technology a step further by enabling smart contracts and this more flexible network and more programmability.

So to me, even if Ethereum crashed and burned, it would still be relevant in the long‐term because it had made this huge breakthrough for blockchain. I thought, "There definitely needs to be a book about this." That's how I came to pitch The Infinite Machine; and Harper Collins decided they wanted to publish it. Then, I was working at Bloomberg and writing the book all through 2018, and decided to finally leave Bloomberg in 2019 to focus on finishing my book and to become an independent journalist.

It was in that process of researching The Infinite Machine and trying to just immerse myself in the Ethereum community that I started learning about all of the different innovation that was happening in the space — the different applications that were being created. DeFi was taking shape, in 2018 and then 2019, basically that's how The Defiant started, and I've kind of never left the Ethereum and crypto space since then. That's my sort of entry into the whole thing.

What a great story! My entry into the crypto rabbit hole was very similar. I’m from Greece originally, and back in 2015 there were capital controls, Grexit, etc. That was the moment where it all clicked for me. So your origin story resonates a lot with me.

More broadly, why crypto? What is it that motivates you on a day-to-day basis to do the work that you do?

Why crypto? Well, it's an important technological innovation. The fact that we can be our own bank, as cliché as that is, but really — take control of our assets, transact value without intermediaries, in this global network that anyone can be a part of. I just think that’s a really exciting technology to cover as a journalist. I think it's really one of the most important innovations of our time. So to me as a storyteller, I really want to be on the ground covering this space as it develops. I think beyond just that first innovation, of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and decentralization itself, is carrying that even further and building an entirely new financial system.

I truly do believe that a new financial system is being built from the ground up on blockchain technology. We're seeing it in front of us, with our own eyes, emerge. That is just really exciting as a storyteller, to see this new system that's better than the old one emerging. I just think it's an incredible opportunity to be here when it's just getting started. I imagine decades from now, when DeFi is just finance, it will be really cool to have been in the trenches as one of the first media companies covering this phase, writing what will become part of the history of finance. I think it's just super exciting.

"To me as a storyteller, I really want to be on the ground covering this space as it develops. I think beyond just that first innovation of Bitcoin, Ethereum, and decentralization itself, is carrying that even further and building an entirely new financial system."

Thinking about the work that you do, and the service that media provides within a nascent space like the one that we’re in, what’s your perspective on the importance of media and the power of stories in helping push the space forward, and helping coalesce people in this space?

I think media and information and journalism is so incredibly important in this space because it is so new that there just isn't a lot of information, and because it's a space that deals with people's money. It is even more crucial that people understand what's happening, because they risk actually losing their money if they don’t have the correct information. So it really can't be overstated how important journalism and information is to this nascent space. I think that mainstream media, because it’s really not their job to cover something as small as DeFi is right now, they've really kind of overlooked what's happening.

So you can’t really rely on them to understand what's going on in DeFi at least in the day‐to‐day — they will cover crypto more broadly. They'll cover the price movements right now. We're seeing stories about those millionaires, but that isn't very helpful for people who really want to understand what's actually going on in this space. So new media platforms and content platforms, like The Defiant, are even more important in this space because you really can't rely on your traditional news sources that you used to rely on to stay informed.

That's where it becomes dicey, because if you're not relying on the trusted news sources and you're having to rely on me, you, information sources, it's really hard to find the ‘who’ to trust. In this phase there's a lot of promotion that is conflated with journalism. I think that's very dangerous for users and investors in this space. Just to put it more clearly, there's a lot of investors who are pushing their investment in their own content platforms.

It's hard to know who to trust on the newer and more specialized platforms, so an objective and professional content platform becomes even more important for new users and readers. That’s what we're trying to bring to this space with The Defiant.

Agreed, there is a clear dislocation between where attention defaults to and where high quality information lies. Any ideas on how we can bridge that gap?

Great question — it’s definitely really tough. I think it just requires a lot of work, producing content that a lot of people have recommended, so that it will be one of the first things that people see when they are searching for different crypto and DeFi concepts. The Defiant and other quality crypto sources come up in Google's algorithms, because in the end that's what will drive people to our content. That takes time. It takes building up traffic, building up people linking to our content, and recommending it.

That’s the search‐based answer to that. The other is more organic recommendations. So people who are already in this space who have recognized which information sources are trustworthy, and those people sharing those sources with their friends who are interested in this space. I know that's how a lot of people come to The Defiant, because it is usually one of the top places people point to when they're asked "How do I learn about DeFi?"

I think that there's no really easy answer. It's just that hopefully the trusted or high‐quality content sources will be what people recommend, and that will lead to those sources becoming more visible in different kinds of search algorithms, basically.

From where I stand, you have been doing excellent work in making that happen. I’m curious, as new people enter the space but at the same time we are maturing, what’s the makeup of the readership of The Defiant?

I have seen a trickle‐down effect where The Defiant started out as a very kind of niche publication — our readers were very much hardcore DeFi traders and builders — but now I'm seeing more and more beginners reading The Defiant, and a lot more newcomers to the space using The Defiant as their main source.

So I’m finding myself with these two very different readers and different audiences. I'm doing things like highlighting our 101 section, which is like a DeFi basics section, on our website and on our YouTube channel, making more tutorials, and making sure that we're explaining hard, technical concepts in our articles. It’s making sure that our content, though it's still very much in the weeds of DeFi, can be accessible to newcomers. It’s a hard balance to strike, but I'm really happy to see that happening, that and that newcomers are increasingly finding The Defiant.

I want to switch gears a little bit and drive the conversation towards eth2 specifically. You’re in a very unique position to have been the conduit between the story and the audience as the author of The Infinite Machine and the work that you do with The Defiant. I’m curious to hear, from the research that you did, the stories that you collected, and so on, what is your perspective of the importance of eth2 within the broader Ethereum concept?

I think the importance of eth2 in Ethereum is having this light at the end of the tunnel that everyone is expecting and waiting for. Right now, whenever Ethereum becomes congested and hard to use because of gas prices, there is a sense that this is a good sign because it means that there are so many people wanting to use this network that it's getting congested and that you have to pay high prices to use it — but also that this is temporary. This is the state of things now in Etheruem because Ethereum hasn't finished its path towards its final stage, which is eth2.

So whenever Ethereum users are having this experience, eth2 serves as this kind of hope that it isn't meant to be this way. This is temporary. And in the end, we'll have a more scalable version of Ethereum where this will all just be a bad memory. I think this is the importance of eth2 in the larger Ethereum story.

Were there some stories that you uncovered, or some parts of the narrative as the narrative evolved, that were particularly striking or impressive to you?

Well, I think a couple of things have impressed me as I've been covering Ethereum, from The Defiant but also from when I was writing The Infinite Machine. The first thing on eth2 was realizing from how early on it's been a part of the plan. I don't think a lot of people realize that, and you see that when people criticize it for switching gears or switching narratives. So many times you see that Bitcoiners love to point that out. But actually, you know, eth2 and proof of stake and sharding have been in the works since the very early days of Ethereum. That was surprising to me to learn when I was researching The Infinite Machine.

Another big milestone was seeing the Beacon Chain live, like the actual proof of stake chain of Ethereum working. I think in my coverage too that's been kind of the biggest moment, and the biggest story for eth2, because proof of stake and eth2 has been in the works and the roadmap for so long. Like I said, since the first couple of years of Ethereum it’s been in the research documents and posts, and has been in the world. So for those in this space, seeing so much work having been put into proof of stake, and being something that was planned to happen since I think 2015 or 2016, seeing it go live at the end of last year was a major story. And then already having so many people participating in staking and in running their own nodes... I think that was a very important milestone to see, and to cover.

Are there any big misconceptions or narrative violations in the Ethereum<>eth2 story that you uncovered through your research? Were there things that were largely misunderstood, or have consistently been a different way than the popular narrative has them?

That's interesting. Well, I think eth2 is just very broadly misunderstood. So, for one, I think a lot of people don't realize that proof of stake is a completely new chain. I don't know — like a lot of people realized, "Okay, proof of stake is a different thing that's running right now that you can join as a validator. And it's different than the consensus mechanism that's supporting Ethereum right now, which is proof of work." I think because of the way blockchain upgrades usually work, which is through these software upgrades and forks, that a lot of people would assume that's the same way that eth2 will happen — where it's just like one more upgrade rather than like a completely new chain that was built to support Ethereum applications.

"I see proof of stake often being represented as Ethereum's way to scale, and I don't think that's accurate. The way I understand it, proof of stake is a way to make the network become more decentralized and more sustainable."

So I think that's interesting. Now — and this just happened recently, so I also don't think a lot of people realize — rather than eth2 being this proof of stake chain where Ethereum applications will somehow port to, instead, there will be this merge of the application layer with the consensus layer, and that Ethereum users and ETH holders don't have to do anything. I think this is a pretty new concept that not many people are aware of.

I think the other misconception is the scaling aspect. I see proof of stake often being represented as Ethereum's way to scale, and I don't think that's accurate. The way I understand it, proof of stake is a way to make the network become more decentralized and more sustainable. Having anyone who can hold 32 ETH become a validator just lowers the barriers of entry to who can become a node, or a participant, in the network, because they don't need to be running these expensive and energy‐intensive mining machines anymore. They just need to hold 32 ETH.

That just lowers the barriers of entry and will hopefully make the network more decentralized. But that doesn't mean that Ethereum itself is more scalable because of it. That's where sharding and Layer 2 solutions come in. So I think that’s another misconception I've seen, equating proof of stake with scalability.

You touched on the merge as a major reference point in the eth2 story. And as the merge approaches, there are voices in the community that are proponents of fading the “eth2” label, in favor of “Ethereum.” Do you think that the eth2 story, as it was communicated and reiterated over the last few years, has served its purpose? And if so, what was that purpose?

The purpose was what I mentioned before, that 'there's an improved version of Ethereum coming.' All this pain with transactions pending, with high gas prices, this is all temporary. So I think that’s the purpose the eth2 name served; eth2 was because of the way that this transition was structured before it was. There will be a proof of stake chain and then by some mechanism — which has taken many different forms, but by some sort of mechanism — Ethereum applications will migrate from eth1 into eth2. And then in the meantime to make each one more usable, there are all these scaling solutions. That makes eth1 this transition phase between each one.

So that was the narrative, but then, as you say, that's kind of fading away now. The idea is to just merge the application layer with proof of stake, and not have applications have to port over or migrate. I think now that's the case and it's just one chain, having the eth1<>eth2 concept doesn't make sense anymore. I think, by the way, that's just much simpler for people to understand. It’ll be Ethereum from proof of work to proof of stake.

Applications will keep running as normal. Nobody needs to do anything. It's just that the underlying network, the way that transactions are approved, is different. I think it's just a much simpler concept to understand.

Thinking about stories, are there any stories that are not very much talked about from your perspective and research that have had a disproportionate impact compared to the degree to which they’re being talked about?

I think one interesting narrative is the miners, because there is this tension between developers and miners. Obviously with this transition, the proof of work miners will have to either become validators or go to other chains. So I'd like to know more about where they fall, what they're planning, and what will happen to all these powerful Ethereum mining pools. I think that's been under‐covered.

Another super interesting aspect, but it's just mind‐blowingly complicated, is also related to miners actually: MEV, the miner extractable value, and Flashbots, and all these wars that are being played out in the very core of Ethereum. That story is so complicated, but so SciFi and futuristic — I just find it fascinating. These bots are finding ways to make millions of dollars from frontrunning, or backrunning, or doing different things to take advantage of transactions in the mempool, and what will happen to all of that ecosystem with proof of stake, will that change?

I believe, because of how blockchains work, that we will always have that risk of bots frontrunning transactions and taking advantage of users, and there are so many different projects trying to solve this issue. So, I think that that's just such an important aspect. These miners and bot runners are making so much money off of these kinds of inefficiencies. I'd like to see how that changes with proof of stake and how that develops.

You wrote the history of Ethereum in The Infinite Machine. In 2, 3, 4, 5 years — however long — you write the sequel. What are you going to call it?

Well, I don't know. It took me writing the entire book before I could come up with the title for The Infinite Machine, it took me two years to come up with that title. So, yeah, I don't think I can come up with a title for the next book, but I'm so excited to write it.

And I’m excited to read it! Using your imagination, and your knowledge of Ethereum so far, what do you think that book would talk about? What does the world of Ethereum look like two, three years down the line?

I'm thinking the second book will be about DeFi. So 2, 3, 5 years down the line, I think DeFi will be a lot less fringe than it is today and will be somewhat like FinTech. I imagine, in the same way that some people just interact with FinTech apps on their phone to handle their money, a growing number of people will be doing that but with DeFi protocols. So it will be a bit more mainstream in five years.

And so the book will talk about the story of this group of another army of hackers. I talked about the army of hackers building Ethereum; this will be a different army of hackers building DeFi, how this army got there, and how they essentially built a new financial system.

There are just so many interesting stories — the whole UniSwap/SushiSwap drama, the MakerDAO founding story, all the craziness with DeFi summer last year, the Curve token self‐launch, and the YAM token and yield farming and food tokens — I don't know, there's just too much, there's too many good stories. All the crazy hacks, the flash loan attacks, the cultural aspect of it, the test and prod philosophy, the anonymous founders, the rock pools... I think there's just so much good material.

"A lot of this stuff is obviously being built by technical people, and they are not always the best at communicating what they're building. So one piece of advice would be to talk about the stuff that you are building in just human language."

Completely agree! I admire your resolve in putting a thread through all of that, because it truly is like an explosion of confetti — all over the place.

Before we bring this interview to a close, a bonus question from my colleague Melissa Nelson: What do you think that the Ethereum ecosystem needs, other than reliable and accurate content, to bring us to mainstream from a narrative and storytelling perspective?

Two things come to mind. One is that a lot of this stuff is obviously being built by technical people, and they are not always the best at communicating what they're building. So one piece of advice would be to talk about the stuff that you are building in just human language. You know, I think whenever there's a new project launching, or a new feature, you read these blog posts and they're just really hard to understand as someone who hasn't been in this space for years or covering it everyday.

It makes it hard for outsiders to peek in and really get what's happening. There's just so much jargon, like, okay, what is that? I have liquidity providers, impermanent loss, but not even that gets you very far. You need to explain these using concepts that anyone can understand. I think that's just talk in human language, stop using jargon, and explain what you actually are saying, you know?

And then two, I think, is getting the more human aspect of Ethereum and dapps. That's what I tried to do with The Infinite Machine. Just getting the story of the people behind Ethereum, because it's a lot more interesting to read about people than it is to read about tech, or abstract concepts. So I think that's what draws people in, like the founding story of Uniswap, who is Hayden, who's this kid, you know, that's a lot more interesting and inspiring than, say, the bonding curve behind Uniswap.

I don't think a lot of people care about that, but I think a lot of people would be inspired by Hayden’s story, for example.

Interview by Elias Simos

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