A Graveyard of Protocols

In July 2019, I set out to report the Tour de France live.

I had two remote grand tours under my belt, knew the racers and the teams, and was intimately familiar with waking up at 4 am to catch the pre-race interviews.

So, with nothing but a shitty Nikon camera and my laptop, I booked a ticket to Milan, where my "guide," Luis, was supposed to pick me up for a road trip to Brussels for the grand départ.

Only Luis never showed up in Milan. There were some complications with his trip, a few things he had to get done beforehand, and so on...

I was stuck for three days in the little town of Saronno, with a little bit of pocket change to my name, my rudimentary grasp of Italian, and the looming anxiety of the Tour being about to start, me being 544 miles away.

Out of sheer spite, I managed to make my way to Brussels, hoping to meet with Luis and my entourage for our journey across the French countryside. Only to be met with closed-off streets, no sign of my compatriots, and yet another missed day of the race.

This story repeated for the next four days. I'd grab a train to Strasbourg to reach the Champagne region and arrive just as the peloton boarded their buses to go to the next stage. No sign of Luis.

Finally, after nearly giving up and depleting most of my budget and energy, we finally met up. He was the definition of a hustler — A short 50-something with a fidgety look about him and a sly way of speaking, like a salesperson looking to get you in on the next big investment of your career.

Honestly, I was a little guarded at first, especially after the week from hell I had just gone through. But as we finally joined the TDF circus, I saw clearly why he'd become a valuable asset to my mission and a dear mentor and friend.

Day after day, Luis would introduce me to all the riders, managers, mechanics, you name it. I sorely needed an in to record my own interviews and write my daily chronicles of the race. When you’re reporting on something as big as the Tour de France, any exclusive is worth every pixel in gold. So far, I had depended on whatever appeared on TV and online forums to get anything out on time for my Colombian audience, which came out to be kind of silly on my part, being right there and whatnot.

The Tour moved at a frantic pace, and unless you were a well-known figure, most people wouldn’t give you the time of day. Thanks to Luis’ guidance and experience, I had what I needed and much more. The TDF Caravan opened up before me, and I felt like I had finally tapped into something enormous.

Not long after I got settled, I started noticing some looks and snickers behind our back. We Colombians had a strange reputation among the Tour de France journalists and riders: On the one hand, the "Scarabs" (our moniker due to our ease of going up slopes, this will be relevant) were rightfully intimidating as the best climbers in all of cycling, no one could get past our riders once they got into the zone when going uphill; on the other hand, our country's reputation came with some embarrassing baggage in the way the world stage perceived us.

You'd see the French and British journalist teams arrive in decked-out buses, staying in 5-star hotels and living it grand alongside the best news sources. Lagging behind, in a rickety old white van with no windows that only the shadiest of characters would use, came the Colombian entourage: Luis, the photographer; Alfredo, the radio voice they pulled out of retirement for this race; A driver Luis had dug up from some shady corner of Madrid, and myself, the young journalist and unofficial translator; cause none of the former could speak a word of English, let alone French.

The days blurred, and we were two of the three weeks in. We'd wake up at 6 am at some roadside motel, drive 2-3 hours to the next location, have a quick bite on the Tour's official press room (which my compadres took as an opportunity to resupply their backpacks with 10+ bananas and 8 water bottles each), and then we'd go to the start line for some early-morning interviews before the race began.

At this point in the race, most international journalists had caught on to the fact that Colombia had finally decided to send a journalist who could speak English. So, I'd be the point of communication to the world for most outside reporters. A quick live translation here, a question about whether we gave any weird substances to our riders there, and we'd be off, following the peloton and rooting for our riders to make some noise.

After a day of racing and social media posting, I'd end my evenings by writing a race report, overemphasizing the role our riders played and making sure to keep the spirit of the race alive for the audience back home.

It's not much to write home about, but it was an honest living, and I got to see the French countryside, one motel parking lot at a time.

It all changed on the day of the 19th race, the second to last, and one of the most challenging climbs up the Alps at the recreational town of Tignes.

To this day, I can still remember every detail of that morning: something in the alpine air awakened something within me; for the first and only time since Belgium, I wasn't tired. I walked confidently into the press room, making sure to share a joke about how we were almost exactly at Colombia's average altitude with the security guard at the entrance, who was a pretty staunch Thibaut Pinot fan, as most of France was by then.

I watched Luis almost get into a fistfight over a strange charge to Alfredo's card; I tried to hide in shame from the other journalists who'd witnessed the whole thing. Apparently, the race may have been held up because of a landslide.

I went out for a long walk to the finish line. Before I could make it, I heard a huge commotion coming from the crowd: Once the race took off again. Egan Bernal, the young Colombian promise, had taken a gargantuan lead on the rest of the peloton; the kid was gliding up the slope as if possessed.

None of us saw it coming. We knew Egan had it in him, but the strategy of cycling made it so that your entire team rides in service to a leader, and Egan was second in command this year. Geraint Thomas, the previous year's Tour champion, had faltered on the climb, and Egan's team gave him the green light to send it. And that he did.

When the day was over, Egan had secured the first spot on the General Classification for the entire race. All he had to do was keep that spot for one more day, and he'd secure the maillot jaune for Colombia.

Suffice it to say, when I got back to the press room, the clash between my compatriots had dissolved, and I could've sworn I saw a single tear fall from the security guard's cheek.

The 20th stage was a blur. At this point, Egan's victory was pretty much guaranteed, so he played it safe and made sure not to lose his advantage. Val Thorens was over, and our champion cemented himself.

That day, I was one of the privileged few who got to congratulate Egan in person. The press room was quiet as journalists from all over the world were left astounded by the spectacle.

That night, we drove from sunset until almost dawn to make it to Paris in time for the great Champs Elysees celebration. I remember Paris having a different vibe that day. The normal smugness and hostility gave way to the clamor of crowds that could be heard for miles.

I walked up and down the Champs Elysees, feeling like the king of the world. A combination of national pride and the feeling of having connected with the true spirit of the world’s biggest cycling race took over me as I rallied the chants of every Colombian flag I saw waving past the security fence.

Alfredo showed me and the world why he's a living legend. His passionate speech caught the attention of everyone in the room and soon enough became viral as the voice of an entire country's celebration of triumph. Egan was the first Latin American to conquer the Tour de France; with his victory, a glass ceiling had shattered, and Colombians all over the world felt it regardless of whether they were cycling fans or not.

I walked down the boulevard one last time, the Colombian anthem playing in the background as Egan received his well-deserved podium spot. Walking past the team buses, I saw the riders popping champagne and celebrating.

That night, I wrote what I can say is the most passionate article I've written in my entire life. In it, I called Egan something along the lines of "The hope of an entire generation" and "The turning of a page for our country." It was 2 am when I posted it and signed off from our company's social media account. The last thing I did before falling asleep that night was read the replies to our IG stories from thousands of people, thanking us for letting them live this moment vicariously through my eyes.

And Then I Lost that Piece Forever.

This story was just the setup to get you in the right headspace. Now, onto the real article:

That chronicle I wrote for the Tour de France 2019 was lost forever a couple of months later. A back-end update to our website accidentally scrapped all of the on-site content. All of my articles, all of my carefully crafted copywriting, everything was gone.

It took me four months to recover from the TDF. After returning home, I sunk into the worst burnout I've ever experienced. Even Luis himself had told me, "If you're looking to get into journalism, you shouldn't have started out with the Tour; this one's for the veterans."

As I lay in bed watching endless YouTube gaming videos, I received a text letting me know about that fatal update that had ruined so much of my work.

Thankfully, I've always been dutiful in keeping a local backup of most of my writing. I had the originals for most "top 10 gear" guides, my race reports for the previous Tours de France, and even most of the recent ones I live-reported, except for that last one.

That piece I wrote from a Paris motel room while still riding the victory high was lost to time, and to this day, I haven't been able to find even a line from it.

Losing the most powerful piece I ever wrote is one of the reasons I learned to love onchain publishing and the main reason I still do it, despite the uncertainty and frustrations of being an *earliest* adopter.

You've probably experienced something similar to me at some point: a video you loved taken down from YouTube, a childhood photograph lost to mold, or a teenage memory going away with a stolen phone.

We trust devices to contain aspects of us, and we're left a little emptier when these containers leave us for one reason or another.

Well, now that we can ensure smart contracts and blockchains survive any flood or back-end update, how does that affect these pieces of ourselves we seed onchain?

What Happens when Protocols die?

This piece came to me a couple of months ago as I considered migrating my writing elsewhere. The Permaweb is great at making content survive, but it does a pretty bad job of making it readily available for people to engage with. I know this sounds sacrilegious to some of you, but the ability to fetch data and display it anywhere doesn't mean anyone will want to read it.

In his 2021 piece "What Comes After Open Source?" Mirror co-founder Denis Nazarov explores how onchain data, or "state", when compounded towards a particular use, can be both a moat and a catalyst, depending on how accessible it is to outside believers and creators. This, in a nutshell, is what motivated me to join crypto in the first place. Few people still realize how much potential is held in readily available onchain transactions and protocols to be built on top of.

Ironically, Mirror is also an example of how this state moat can sometimes be forced upon you. A few months back, while helping build an onchain article aggregator, I learned just how much is still being done internally (i.e. not composably) to display what we call "onchain publishing." Yes, the data is there for you to aggregate and display. But things like attribution, NFT minting, and splits are still far from what the ideal of composability would lead you to believe.

I get the compromises we all have to make to build a usable platform. My only qualm with this is: what happens when there's no one to maintain these platforms? Similar to how a back-end update killed “the piece that got away” for me. Who's there to guarantee the permaweb's permanence if the company behind a protocol is no longer here?

Does anyone remember Glass protocol? They were among the first projects that sought to make onchain video streaming; before the days of Livepeer's dominance over this department, Glass took on a curated and Vimeo-like approach to video minting.

The technology wasn't there at the time. Ethereum gas fees and little interest in video patronage led to them migrating to Solana in an attempt to curb the high premiums attached to their core idea. After agonizing years of trying to make it stick, they officially folded in 2023.

In their announcement tweet, the Glass team made it clear that all of their smart contracts would still be available for anyone to use and interact with. But I'm left to wonder, what's the point of that? If there's no one to tell the story, did any of Glass' drops really happen?

In a similar and earlier example. I've been here long enough to remember when Hic et Nunc's developer ragequit their project and left it at the mercy of the Tezos chain.

I remember standing in awe as the community came together and reclaimed the contracts and mints to give them a new home, a place where they're still alive and thriving today.

To me, this is the prime example of what could happen in an ideal scenario if any of our media protocols were to die. The thesis of progressive decentralization can only really matter if there are people with the excitement and know-how to tend to the lore left onchain with every mint and every contract call.

There are countless stories similar to this: former bull-run NFT collections that are handed off to the community after their founders take the cash and leave (like Pudgy Penguins, Cryptopunks, Moonbirds, and Mooncats). The circumstances behind each are unique. Sometimes, it's the noble pursuit of giving back to the community, and sometimes, it's a corporate acquisition not dissimilar to what we’d find in Silicon Valley. But the constant remains. Every protocol is only as valuable as the people who are willing to make it endure.

The Cult of Onchain

We've all joked about how crypto can sometimes feel like a cult. But I mean it when I say this comparison goes a lot deeper than the chants and the rituals.

When thinking about this piece's core question of "What happens when a protocol dies?" I often drew parallels with religions and languages.

I grasped to find any other instance in human history when something truly permanent is created, and what happens when society leaves it behind.

With man-made edifications, nature will eventually reclaim its land. With artifacts and names, history will do its thing and bury it all beneath the sand. The only real thing we humans can create that will truly outlast us, as I've said time and time again, is stories.

And what are religions and languages but stories? They're the codices of belief, behavior, and understanding that frame our world. And even when buried, these are the only things that never truly die.

It took almost 5,000 years for us to re-learn cuneiform scripture. The Minoan writing system is still being decoded, and our common languages are framed over a hypothetical "proto Indo-European" tongue from which all Western speech seems to have originated. When we look at it over a long enough time span, the permutation will always point towards the root. There are immortal things in our world, all driven by belief.

When we first re-discovered Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Western world underwent what was called an "Egyptomania." The excitement and intrigue of uncovering how our distant cultural ancestors lived their lives and saw the world took society over. And coincidentally, most of it was driven by a contemporary religious frenzy of trying to prove the bible right. People wanted to find Noah's ark, to prove that Jewish slaves built the pyramids, and that Joseph had saved the world from starvation through prophetic dreams.

Protocols are just a digitized version of this frenzy. As I skimmed on Whole Earth Theory, you can build a database big enough to contain every possible interaction and piece of content, but you can't put a limit to the ways people believe and tell stories around that information.

No matter what company goes under, or what treasury runs out of funds, as long as there is a way to give the protocol back to its believers, and there are people to believe in it in the first place, there will be a Rosetta Stone that revives and re-contextualizes any piece of media we leave behind onchain.

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