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March 6, 2019, 4:05 p.m.

How to buy into journalism’s blockchain future (but this time in only 33 steps)

Five months after its failed token sale, Civil is back with a revised, streamlined process. If you’re not an experienced cryptocurrency trader, though, it’ll still take you a while.

It no longer takes 44 steps to buy the cryptocurrency undergirding Civil, the journalism blockchain startup.

It takes about 33, give or take.

Let’s back up for a minute. Civil, you may recall, was a startup first announced back in 2017, in the early days of a cryptocurrency boom symbolized by Bitcoin’s rise into the stratosphere. It said it was building a “self-sustaining global marketplace for journalism that is free from ads, fake news, and outside influence,” to be accomplished via a new blockchain-based token called CVL, which would serve as a combination currency/governance structure/voting mechanism.

Despite lots of confusion over what Civil actually was, it launched a number of newsrooms that started putting out good work. Some of my friends joined up, and as I wrote at the time: “I have no idea if it will work. But I’m interested, and I’d rather participate than watch from the sidelines.”

The main event was to be the official sale of those CVL tokens, originally planned for late 2017 and eventually pushed back to September 2018. But the sale failed badly — raising less than 20 percent of its minimum goal. One reason cited for the failure was just how hard it was to buy CVL tokens, a confusing, 44-step process I chronicled at the time. In a world where you can order a refrigerator with a couple of clicks, that’s problematic.

The folks at Civil went back to the whiteboards, revamped the process, and launched a new token sale today. So I gave it another try.

There are definitely some improvements from last year.

  • Most of the process happens on the Civil website, with less time bouncing from site to site.
  • The steps and the language used to describe them are all much clearer.
  • You only have to pass one quiz this time, not two.

And perhaps most importantly, unlike last time, there’s no deadline to buy. This sale won’t happen in a defined window; it’ll end whenever (or if ever) Civil sells 34 million tokens.

That said…if you’re not already a crypto veteran, buying tokens is still far more complicated than sending money overseas, or buying tickets to Burning Man.

The reasons you might want to buy CVL tokens in the first place haven’t really changed. The most compelling is probably that holding tokens makes you part of a news distribution platform (kind of like Facebook) where the participants own the network, govern each other, and promise to do ethical journalism (not at all like Facebook).

If you buy your tokens directly from Civil (and not on the open market), your purchase also supports the Civil Foundation, which supports several newsrooms in the Civil orbit — though now you can also just make that donation with a credit card, no tokens required. You can also use tokens to tip Civil newsrooms and journalists. And at the $1,000 level, you can start a Civil newsroom and unlock various blockchain-related publishing goodies.

For me, the reward is a hands-on class in cryptocurrency and the Civil experiment.

Notice I haven’t mentioned “profit” as a reason to buy CVL. As the Civil tutorial says: “While the value of Civil tokens may increase over time, you also must be prepared to lose some or all of their value.”

Consider me warned. Here’s what I did to buy Civil tokens this time.

First steps

I started the process on Civil’s “Buy or Sell Civil Tokens” page.

  • I clicked “Sign up or log in.”
  • I then entered my email.
  • Like signing up for a newsletter, I went to my inbox, opened the confirmation email, and clicked the link inside.
  • Back at the Civil website, I clicked “Continue.”
  • At this point, I needed to connect my cryptocurrency wallet to Civil. I had set up a Metamask “hot” wallet last time, so this was easy. If I hadn’t, it’d be another five steps.
  • Clicked “Connect Your Wallet.”
  • A Metamask popup window appeared, and I entered my Metamask password.
  • Clicked “Connect” to link my Metamask wallet to Civil.
  • The Metamask window closed, but I couldn’t click the “Continue” button. Stumped for a moment, I clicked the only active button on the page, “Open Metamask” (even though it was just open).
  • I was asked to “sign” a statement that says “I control this address @ 2019-03-06T14:50:21.729Z.” Sure thing. Clicked “Sign.”
  • I was reminded to keep my Metamask password and seed phrase in a safe place. (Speaking of which, I remember that last time I was told not to photograph my passphrase or type it into my computer in any way. I’m honestly not entirely sure where I wrote that down — so I made a note to find it later.) I clicked “Continue.”

Get educated

  • Time to “Start the Civil Tutorial,” which includes a quiz about various crypto topics. (I’d taken two such quizzes last time. But I’m here to learn, so I’m good with it.) Clicked that button.
  • I won’t tally the steps in this tutorial/quiz (I didn’t last time, either). It took a few minutes, and I was reminded of lots of important aspects of holding cryptocurrency. When I made one mistake, the site told me the right answer and that I needed to choose that answer to continue.
  • I passed! On to the buying part.

Buying ETH to get CVL

Civil founder Matthew Iles is technically correct when he says you can now buy Civil tokens “from our website.” But you can’t buy them with dollars (or any other hard currency). You can only buy them with Ethereum (ETH) cryptocurrency — and you have to get that somewhere else.

  • Following these instructions, I headed over to Coinbase, where I already had an account from last time. (If you need to set up an account, that’s a few more steps.)
  • I logged into my account, but I needed to confirm that the computer I was using was legit by opening an email sent by Coinbase and clicking on a link.
  • Back at Coinbase, I clicked on the “Buy/Sell” icon at the top of the page.
  • I changed the “Buy” cryptocurrency to “Ethereum” (not “Ethereum Classic”).
  • It told me that, if I want to use the bank account I’d previously set up, I wouldn’t be able to move the currency out of Coinbase for 10 days. That’d make me miss my deadline on this post, so I added a debit card, which makes funds available instantly.
  • For that, I needed to log into my bank’s website to see two small “holds” (less than $2) that Coinbase had temporarily charged to my debit card.
  • I reported those back to Coinbase and my card was verified.
  • Using that card as the payment method, I put $30 into the dollars box and clicked “Buy Ethereum Instantly — $30.00” and then “Confirm buy.”
  • Okay, so now there is ETH in my Coinbase wallet. But I need it in my Metamask wallet. That’s another transfer. So I clicked on “Accounts” at the top of the Coinbase page, and under my “ETH Wallet” clicked the “Send” button.
  • I opened my Metamask plugin and clicked on my name, which copied my Metamask’s public wallet address to my clipboard.
  • I pasted that address into the Coinbase box that says “Enter a ETH address.”
  • I clicked “Send Max” — apparently my $30 is now down to $27.86.
  • I clicked “Confirm.” And…nothing happened, for about a minute. But then the transactions list on Coinbase updated and there was $27.89 (?!) worth of ETH in my Metamask wallet.

Cool. Back to Civil.

Actually buying CVL tokens

  • Back at the “Buy or Sell Civil Tokens” page, I put $25 into the dollars box and clicked “Convert.” Looks like I’ll be getting about 125 Civil tokens.
  • I clicked “Buy from Foundation in AirSwap” (after reading below a little about what the heck AirSwap is).
  • In the AirSwap popup, I clicked “Metamask.”
  • In the Metamask window, I clicked “Connect” and “Sign” twice. The things I was confirming by clicking “Sign” were completely cryptic, but I did it anyway.
  • I told AirSwap I wanted to buy 125 Civil tokens and clicked “Find Sellers.”
  • I was given an option to buy at the best available rate, and clicked buy.
  • I got a green “SUCCESS” sign and clicked “Finish.”

Done? Not quite.

Unlocking the tokens

Okay, this seemed new:

All first-time token purchasers must unlock their tokens by participating in community votes and the general oversight of Civil. This is to prevent speculators from effecting [sic] the price of Civil tokens. Learn more in the FAQ below.

Unlocking your tokens is straightforward, and you only have to do this once. Simply transfer at least 50 percent of your purchased tokens into the voting balance. And that’s it.

I’ve been following along with Civil for months now. I’ve taken three quizzes. I went through a more complicated version of this entire process once before. I’ve never heard of this. But onward.

  • I clicked “Unlock my tokens”
  • Put 70 of my 125 tokens into the voting box and clicked “Confirm.”
  • This opened my Metamask wallet again, and I clicked “Confirm.” I got a “Waiting for confirmation” for a minute. Or two. And then three.
  • Hmmm. Nothing happening. So I opened my Metamask wallet and there was yet another “Confirm” button waiting for my mouse. Something about “Request Voting Rights.” So I clicked “Confirm” again, and things seemed to move along.
  • Confirmation, and I clicked “OK, I got it.”

Success. I own 125 unlocked Civil tokens.

It took me two hours.

John Keefe is the technical architect for bots and machine learning at Quartz.

POSTED     March 6, 2019, 4:05 p.m.
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