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Why Do Blockchains Split? An Actor-Network Perspective on Bitcoin Splits

Disagreements within public blockchain communities often lead to a split that permanently diverges a blockchain into two or more potential paths. Bitcoin Cash (BCH), for instance, resulted from a Bitcoin (BTC) split due to a disagreement among the communities about increasing the block size. In a similar vein, a split took place in Ethereum to create two separate blockchains, Ether (ETH) and Ethereum Classic (ETC), after the blockchain was hacked. Hence, it seems that public blockchains feature a tendency towards splitting, or forking if we use more technical language.

There has been surprisingly little prior literature on blockchain splits. Thus, we set out to examine the process that culminates into the split of the blockchain and the actors involved in the process. In our paper published in Technological Forecasting and Social Change, we investigate the focal actors in a blockchain network and their heterogeneity in splits. Our study describes how disagreements in blockchain communities often lead to splits in both the blockchain and the community. We use three key elements of the actor-network theory — punctualization, translation, and actor heterogeneity—and employ case study methodology to examine Bitcoin splits. We identify several human actors, such as miners, developers, merchants, and investors, as well as non-human actors, including blockchain, exchanges, hardware manufacturers, and wallets, involved in Bitcoin splits.

Our results show that the consolidation of actors in homogeneous groups plays a key role in blockchain splits. We further describe how the human and non-human actors’ fluid moves into micro and macro actor positions in the network affect the development of the split. Additionally, we discuss the roles of these actors and their engagement in forming micro and macro agencies in blockchain splits. We show how Bitcoin, that was originally initiated to embrace the idea of openness and inclusiveness, has now turned into an oligopoly dominated by a small number of key actors.

See the full paper here.

Bibliometric information: A.K.M. Najmul Islam, Matti Mäntymäki, Marja Turunen (2019) “Understanding the Role of Actor Heterogeneity in Blockchain Splits: An Actor-Network Perspective of Bitcoin Forks”. A part of the book Proceedings of the 52nd Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, pp. 4595-4604