Ever since its discovery, blockchain technology has been heralded as a disruptive innovation for the digital economy. Today, more than a decade later, however, the digital society still seems largely untransformed by blockchain. Was the biggest hype phenomenon since the dot com bubble all just smoke and mirrors—or did something happen after all that we simply missed by looking in the wrong direction?
The definition of ‘blockchain’ is a notoriously elusive one. Without a structured socio-economic delineation, perceiving and understanding the phenomenon’s effects on digitalization is difficult. To this end, this dissertation investigates whether permissionless blockchain systems could be delineated in a structured and comprehensive manner as digital multi-sided platforms. By applying a critical realist methodological approach, the dissertation explores public permissionless blockchain systems through a multitude of research methodologies, such as case studies and design science, and several focal perspectives, e.g. cost, governance and incentivization. Through the frameworks of multi-sided platform theory and transaction cost economics, the dissertation makes an effort to elucidate the platform characteristics and the transformative impact of blockchain systems to the digital platform economy and digitalization in general.
The dissertation finds that permissionless blockchain systems can be coherently described as multi-sided platforms. Differing from conventional multi-sided platforms in multiple ways, blockchain systems provide an alternative method for deploying, growing and sustaining multi-sided platforms as ahierarchical peer-to-peer networks. Their eccentric growth dynamic enables a new kind of ‘fire-and-forget’ approach to platform deployment—but with the trade-off of higher operating costs and platform resource scarcity. Thus, blockchain systems should not be misconstrued as substitutes for conventional multi-sided platforms, or improved versions thereof. Instead, they seem to represent a limited example of a transition from the conventional service-structured business logic towards an even more all-encompassing value co-creation and platform co-opetition perspective than what is facilitated by contemporary multi-sided platforms.
Contributing to the discussion on the transformative impact of blockchain systems, this dissertation concludes that a digital transformation has taken place in their wake over the past decade. However, this transformation seems largely misinterpreted due to poor choices of explanatory frameworks and overinflated expectations. Transcending the more popular perspectives rooted in decentralization, trust, and digital currency, this dissertation paints a picture of this transformation through a lens of platform deployment, vertical integration, and horizontal modularity. By systematically linking the blockchain phenomenon to the comprehensive socio-economic framework of digital multi-sided platforms, the dissertation enables better and more comprehensive exploration of this transformation.