The Zcash Foundation held their first major conference since inception, called Zcon0, in Montreal at the end of June. I was able to attend and wanted to briefly give my own recap.
Zcash is one of the three cryptocurrencies that are currently accepted inside OpenBazaar. Their focus on financial privacy aligns with the goals of OpenBazaar as a platform where people can choose how private they want their transactions to be.
The Zcash Foundation is a relatively young organization, formed to take a leadership role in the Zcash community which has primarily been guided by the Zcash Company. OpenBazaar and OB1 are in a similar situation, where the OB1 company has been leading development on OpenBazaar for years, and we’re now looking to create an OpenBazaar Foundation to move stewardship of the project into a more community-focused nonprofit organization. Part of my interest in attending Zcon0 was to see a community going through an organizational change and see what issues presented themselves and what I could learn.
This was my first trip to Montreal. Everyone says it’s a beautiful city, and they’re right. I arrived the day before the conference and visited Mont Royal, a large hill with a park and a stunning view of the city. My phone’s camera doesn’t quite do it justice.
The director of the Foundation, Josh Cincinnati, was unable to attend for family reasons, but he kicked off the conference with a humorous and thoughtful pre-recorded message (and several of these were presented throughout the conference) welcoming us.
Zooko spoke next, discussing the general state of Zcash and the company, as well as diving into financial details. I was surprised at how open he was with these details. It set the tone of being honest and open with each other about how things really stood in the Zcash community.
Other speakers gave a history of how Zcash came to exist, and then discussed where it was going, with special emphasis on the next big update (named Sapling) coming in the fall.
Perhaps the most valuable presentation that morning was “Using Zcash” by Linda Naeun Lee. She was tasked with trying to buy things with Zcash and reporting on her experience. Though she has a computer science background, she wasn’t familiar with the world of cryptocurrency, and she found it a very confusing experience. Zcash simply doesn’t have good wallets, nor does it have good places to spend the coins either.
However, Linda did take some time to explain one positive experience she had spending Zcash: on OpenBazaar! She explained how she used OpenBazaar to buy a tshirt for someone in Venezuela with Zcash. I was glad to see OpenBazaar working for its intended purpose.
The afternoon was workshops. We got to choose which workshops we attended, and I chose ones on improving user experience and how to achieve wallet scalability. I was able to contribute some thoughts on the UX discussion based on my experience with OpenBazaar, but mostly listened to much more technically knowledgeable people in the wallet scalability discussion. The workshops were intended for the leaders of the sessions to come away from them with new ideas or poll the groups for their opinions on specific issues; I’m not sure they achieved those goals in such a relatively short period of time.
The second day was focused on the technical side of Zcash development. I’m not a developer, and while I’m fairly knowledgeable about how Bitcoin is designed, how distributed networks work, and with the rudimentary basics of cryptography, the majority of these presentations were beyond my grasp.
ZK-SNARKS are interesting - as best I can understand them! - and I appreciated that they also had presentations from other similar efforts, such as the Coda Protocol and Bulletproofs.
This day was mostly me following presentations for the first ten minutes and then losing the speakers entirely when they started discussing the math or code. Still, I got a general sense for who was working on what, and why they were doing so.
That night there was a “Gala Dinner” for attendees. Zooko and Matthew Green had an informal chat with each other on stage while the audience tossed out some conversation ideas. It was a nice idea, but the conversation was unfocused and largely consisted of off-the-cuff personal opinions instead of well-considered thoughts on issues people wanted to hear discussed. But with good food and good company everyone seemed to be having a good time.
This day was devoted to governance, the issue I was most interested in, and I’m glad they took the time to focus on it. They were looking to fill two board seats in the foundation and they explained the voting process they used and their rationale for their approach. The results of the voting were revealed, and it wasn’t only for the board seats, they also asked community members questions about direction of the project.
A few members of the group questioned whether or not this voting system was truly representative of the Zcash community as a whole. It was acknowledged that the system wasn’t ideal, but that it was better than the known alternatives.
Eric Meltzer briefly spoke and proposed creating an investment fund from the founder’s reward. The presentation itself wasn’t particularly notable, but his idea was proposed in the Zcash forums as well, and the thread was soon locked by a Zcash company employee, creating some drama in the community over the past few weeks. It seems like most people are against changing the founder’s reward, but they also are against the Zcash Company controlling the platforms where people discuss these ideas. I believe efforts are underway to transition these forums’ moderation to the Zcash Foundation now.
A speaker gave an illuminating overview of where the foundation had given out grants the year before, and where it was looking to give out grants in the future.
The morning session ended with a panel on governance with Peter Van Valkenburgh, Jill Carlson, Zooko Wilcox, Jameson Lopp, and Vitalik Buterin. There were some disagreements on what proper governance entailed, with Jameson favoring a more anarchic position like Bitcoin. Zooko spoke of his concept of consent, which wasn’t perfectly clear to me; it sounded essentially like “take it or leave it” and everyone voting with their feet.
The conference wrapped up, and I Ieft Montreal with a better understanding of Zcash from several perspectives: historical, technical, and communal, as well as a better idea of what they hope it can become moving forward. I was encouraged to see people thinking deeply about the differences between the company and nonprofit organizations and what roles they should be playing.
If you want to watch some of the presentations from Zcon0, check out this playlist on Youtube.
I appreciate the opportunity to attend and I plan on attending next year.