Imaginaries and Crystallization Processes in Bitcoin Infrastructuring
Imaginaries is a concept from Neumann and Star that signifies ‘points of understanding’ of the various stakeholder visions of an infrastructuring project. Stakeholders use imaginaries to negotiate their differences and identify shared visions. The ways in which these stakeholders negotiate these differences to agree on concrete artifacts and practices is known as crystallization. However, the CSCW literature has not studied crystallization in detail. Our case study examines imaginaries and crystallization within the infrastructuring of Bitcoin, an open source digital currency and payment platform that is the first of emerging forms of peer-to-peer computer networks facilitating digital transactions. We conducted participant observation of two Bitcoin conferences held in December 2015. Each conference lasted between two to three days, amounting to 40 hours of observation. In these conferences, we examined Bitcoin infrastructuring taking place across different contexts, including open source development and startup communities. Each of these contexts contains pre-existing infrastructures along with powerful gatekeepers (e.g., software committers and financial regulators) who maintain its system of practices and artifacts. The Bitcoin actors, including open source developers and entrepreneurs, make use of imaginaries to identify differences among them, negotiate, and reach points of crystallization in order to integrate with these infrastructures. Based on these findings, we contribute the concept of imaginaries branching and discuss roles of imaginaries in an expansive infrastructuring work interacting with multiple installed bases, some of which also introduce practical limits to the imagined information system.