As the first to advance the theory that natural selection in nature resulted in the continuation of a species through survival of the fittest, Charles Darwin would likely have been a fan of forking as an evolutionary mechanism for blockchains.
And much like natural selection in the natural world, forking allows for simultaneous experiments, choosing which results we like, and causing this wondrous technology known as blockchain to evolve faster and in the direction we choose.
A Hard Fork
While forking is not a blockchain-specific phenomenon, that’s the most likely context in which we see it discussed these days, because blockchain technology, as the underlying foundation to cryptocurrencies like
Bitcoin and Ethereum, is probably the hottest topic going. When we talk about forking a blockchain, it just means to start with the complete and freely available source code of that blockchain and take it in your own direction by adding code to it.
The idea of making source code available to the coding public is unusual. Facebook and Google, as two prime examples of the old, closed internet, would never in a million years take such a step. The very nature of a blockchain is to be transparent and decentralized.
In a perfect world, forking should be a synergistic way for the best and brightest minds in computer engineering to incorporate new, useful features into a blockchain.
Once the blockchain has been modified through a fork, and the forking is approved by blockchain users, the fork becomes part of the original source code and, voila, instant evolution.
What we’ve seen with blockchain forking to date is that the financial incentive for an individual or group to create a fork just isn’t there, since any added economic benefits from the new code stay with the token ownership of the pre-forked blockchain.
Emphasis on the Status Quo
Let’s expand on that previous sentence, because it’s pretty important when considering the ongoing blockchain evolution. Assume there is a group of developers who have an idea of how to improve TokenZ.
Chances are they already own a percentage of TokenZ, or they wouldn’t be interested in it in the first place. This ownership percentage will stay consistent even if their fork, let’s call it ForkedTokenZ is adopted by the community.
There’s no real reason to spend their time and effort on a fork when it doesn’t help them one bit economically.
That’s not to say that forks will never occur under these conditions, but the human race has shown that it is at its most creative when there is something of value to be gained. The future of our forked blockchain isn’t looking rosey at all when you consider that the original version may be worth ten times what the fork is.
Assuming that the developers team percentage remained consistent after the fork, it’s much more likely they spend their future momentum improving the original code, because it will return an exponentially magnified return than the fork.
Refining Blockchain Development
Forking is not a perfect science, especially in relation to the still new landscape of blockchains. First of all, obviously, not every fork will turn out to be successful.
Some will be flawed and fail, which can have a negative effect on the network as a whole when it has to revert back to the pre-forked version. Think of this as a failed mutation in Darwin’s world of organisms.
But perhaps even more important to note is that we have generations of developers accustomed to working in a centralized world suddenly thrown into the playpen of a distributed, decentralized network. The old techniques don’t transfer directly into the new world, and it will take some time to develop new approaches that offer a better chance of success to a fork.
The Bottom Line
The greatest barrier to the inherent potential of forking a blockchain right now is economic. We can see in Bitcoin especially, as the oldest blockchain, that innovation has slowed for fear of destroying value in the original code.
The last thing stakeholders want is for the price to drop after a fork. How to better incentivize groups to try new forks?
One method would be to redistribute tokens after a successful fork, creating more value than new ideas presently generate. One thing is certain. With the blockchain technology undergoing a hyperactive pace of development, expect that we’ll see a solution to the problem of value and forks addressed and probably sooner rather than later.