Smaller validator operators are at risk. We're at risk of extinction in these early staking days. Larger validator companies dominate many of today's staking networks.
They command disproportionate stake holdings and with it, control of these networks. Their business models depend on it.
Yet smaller validator operators are necessary to decentralize these networks. After all, isn't this why we're in this decentralized game to begin with?
Or, are we in it to simply recreate the unbalanced financial and power structure that lays at the root of so many of society's problems and the human suffering they cause?
There's also a more practical argument to decentralize these networks. As regulators continue shaping policy, it's becoming clear that "sufficient decentralization" is required for a token to NOT be considered a security.
There are many reasons smaller validator operators are at risk. In this post, I focus on one of them, the voice of smaller validators.
Noisy Staking Communities
It's difficult to be heard in today's noisy world. We're bombarded by a continuous and overwhelming stream of information trying to command or even outright steal our attention. This is true generally especially in crypto (OK, hopefully not the stealing part though!).
Staking is no exception. The number of staking networks coming online continues to increase at a rapid pace. As the number of operational staking networks increases, so does the noise.
Cutting through this noise requires more resources every day. Doing so requires a dedicated effort to be heard by the networks' core teams, other validators, delegators and the networks' communities at large.
Now consider that validators need to operate on multiple networks. This spreads limited resources even more thinly across the communication spectrum.
The priority for any validator is to run their systems well. This applies to large validator companies and smaller operators.
Yet as mentioned above, it's becoming increasingly important for validators to be heard in the communities of the networks we validate on. It's very difficult to maintain this required presence while running a high availability validator operations.
Having this voice requires a dedicated presence in countless chat channels, Twitter, blogs, podcasts and other social media outlets. More and more this means needing a dedicated team member to make sure the validator's voice is heard. Adding a person like this is challenging for smaller validators.
Hiring a person to do this, without raising outside funds, is challenging in these early days of staking. Raising outside funds for a validator business is a challenge in and of itself.
As a result, the smaller validator operators' voices often goes unheard.
Validator communities can be an intimidating space to operate within. Even in these early days, some are trending toward becoming exclusive and borderline elitist. More experienced operators truly set the tone here.
The tone can be one of collaboration or competition. The networks typically start as a collaborative and open space that encourages and rewards curiosity, dedication and good intention.
Over time, especially when Mainnet launches and real money starts flowing, some of these communities then start to close in on themselves. They become more competitive, less collaborative and welcoming, and in extreme cases can turn hostile.
Many times the hostility is thinly masked through passive-aggessive, sarcastic comments, aimed at diminishing other community members. So even when a smaller validator operator is able to participate in the various chat channels and social media channels, they may hesitate to contribute, depending on the tone of the group.
Also, because the smaller validator operator can't be monitoring all these chat channels 24x7, an information asymmetry exists. This asymmetry may then be pounced upon by those community members who are able to maintain a more consistent presence. They may use the information gap to try and paint other participants as less capable, experienced and/or dedicated.
These dynamics also have a significant impact on new validator entrants. A critical and unwelcoming environment may discourage new smaller operators from entering the validator group, further diminishing the changes of decentralizing the network's stake.
As a result, smaller validator struggle to be heard and larger validators dominate the conversations. This larger validator voice becomes a powerful influence on how delegators delegate their stake and how networks design and launch their networks.
Larger validators are starting to apply for and receive grants to amplify their voice even more, for example by running working groups essential to shaping the developing ecosystems.
This influence then enjoys a compounding effect, making it harder and harder for smaller validator operators to be heard, keep up and ultimately survive. This encourages even faster stake accumulation in the hands of large validator companies and discourages decentralization.
Giving Smaller Validator Operators a Bigger Voice
However, we're in the early days of staking's evolution. It's not too late to turn the tide. Yet doing this first requires awareness of the issue and what's at stake. Raising this awareness is this post's first intention. Turning the tide then requires smaller validator operators to take action. It's only through our cooperation that we can amplify our voice to levels that compete with those of the larger validator companies.
Here are some ideas on how to do that -
1 - Contribute where you can
Participate in the chat communities when you can. Do so with good intention, recognizing you'll be at an information disadvantage with those who monitor (and sometimes troll) the channels 24x7. Don't let that stop you from asking questions, questioning decisions, suggesting solutions and presenting alternative ideas from the unique perspective of a smaller validator operator.
2 - Vote
Be conscious of the proposals you're voting on. Take time and read them, carefully. Consider who the proposals ultimately benefit. Vote with your values. Don't feel pressured to vote along with the crowd.
3 - Connect with and support each other
Reach out to each other. Connect with other validators who share your struggles and values. Remember, you're not in this alone. None of us have it all figured out yet or ever will.
Support each other in the chats and on social media. Back the ideas and opinions you agree with, even if they may go against the grain. Help each other stand against the trolls, in whatever form you're comfortable with, when you see one go on the attack.
4 - Continue to advocate for smaller validators
Call attention to times you see smaller validators under-represented. Offer to represent the smaller validator perspective when you do. For example, the recent Trust Less conference was fantistic in many ways. Yet when you look at the participants, you'll see the vast majority are the usual representatives from the larger companies in the staking space.
5 - Apply for grants
Don't be afraid to apply for grants from the projects you support. Each of us has something unique to offer. Because these networks are so new that they have lots of diverse needs.
It's likely that they need something that you are uniquely positioned to offer. Also, consider partnering with other smaller operators to build something together.
Surviving and Thriving Together
It's not too late for smaller validator operators to take steps that lead toward a different future. We can survive and thrive, yet only by working together.
Staking Defense was started to provide a platform to enable this collaboration. Please use it as a forum to discuss the issues raised in this post and any others you see related to it.
We've also recently started a Staking Defense Telegram Group to kick-start the discussion. Let's continue this discussion there.