A few weeks ago, I introduced somebody to Brave, a browser that works faster than other browsers, uses less energy, blocks trackers, and pays a little cryptocurrency, Basic Attention Token (BAT), to everybody who uses it.
After she installed it on her laptop, she asked me when she’ll get her bitcoins.
There are no bitcoins.
There is only BAT, the token that powers the Brave ecosystem. It’s the glue that holds together a new framework for digital privacy, online adverting, and content monetization. It’s a cryptocurrency, but not bitcoin.
Did I explain the difference?
No. I told her BAT is the same basic technology as bitcoin, just applied to a different problem. As a result, the developers needed to create a different cryptocurrency.
Missed opportunity, Mark
Shame on me, you might say.
I had a chance to teach her about online advertising and all that’s wrong with it. After all, education is supposedly the key to adoption. People need to know the truth!
Then, after explaining BAT, I could’ve pivoted to bitcoin.
First, I’d explain how money works, tell her about all the problems with government money systems and the crazy things central banks are doing.
Next, I’d discuss the value of self-custody, privacy, and hard money. I’d tell her how much better the world would be with open, public, permissionless, borderless, neutral, censorship-resistant money systems.
To finish, I’d explain how a peer-to-peer electronic cash system fixes everything.
I could’ve done that, but I didn’t. She was interested in crypto, and I left her hanging.
Or did I?
Big Speeches, Little Reaches
If you show people a video of Andreas Antonopoulos talking about bitcoin, they’re probably going to scratch their heads and ask “ok…but what’s it backed by? Isn’t it like Venmo? What do I do with it? Can you buy it for me?”
While bitcoin’s biggest advocates get massive online followings and top billing at conferences, their messages don’t necessarily connect with people outside of the cryptosphere. Celebrity is not influence. Exposure is not impact.
Most people do not know what it means to “short the bankers.” Self-custody sounds like something the police make you do.
Inverted yield curves? Must be a new type of traffic sign.
Fiat money? Is that like a car rewards program—cash back off MSRP?
Many people understand that you can use bitcoin for crime, make money investing in it, and hide your wealth from a government you don’t trust. Those are real uses.
Other uses seem abstract and vague.
You could put bitcoin in every high school curriculum, write children’s books about it, and force all college students to write a report on Consensusland.
That will not move the needle.
As a city manager once told me, “call me when bitcoin can solve parking tickets.”
Bitcoin can’t do that.
Cryptocurrency can’t compete
Banks, governments, and financial institutions have spent centuries figuring out how to make money easy for people.
These entities employ more marketing specialists, U/X designers, and operations experts than bitcoin has HODLers. Their leaders have decades of experience and a deep network of connections.
They also have an entire social infrastructure around them—family connections, industry groups, NGOs, and lobbyists. Colleges offer degree programs, even PhDs, for people who specialize in traditional financial systems. Jobs come with perks and prestige.
About 90% of people in the U.S. and half of the rest of the world use the traditional financial system. Almost everybody uses some service that interfaces with this system.
Unlike the traditional financial system, cryptocurrency has a tiny reach. Few people use it for anything. Why would anybody care to learn about it?
Almost nobody knows how the traditional financial system works—and they use it every day. Their lives and livelihoods depend on this system. Yet most will not lift a finger to learn about it.
Do you think they’ll put any more effort into learning about a niche technology that only a few people use?
Bitcoin ain’t easy
It only takes two steps to get into crypto, far less than you need to get a bank account. RhythmTrader puts it nicely in this tweet:
While that’s true, think about what goes into those first two steps.
First, you have to learn the software, generate your keys, secure your keys, and learn how the app works. Then, you need to figure out how to use QR codes and addresses. After that, you need to fund your wallet. When you send bitcoin to somebody, you have to wait 10 minutes or more to confirm the transaction went thru.
For hardware wallets, you also need a computer.
Running a full node? Good luck with that. I know people who run full nodes. It sounds like a real pain in the ass.
When you open an account at the bank, you’re greeted by a person who’s trained to do everything for you. If you have a lot of money, they’ll even smile and serve you coffee!
You just sit down and let somebody else take care of you.
Eventually, bitcoin will get much easier. As Square, Opennode, and lots of other projects simplify bitcoin for your average person, it will seem like less of a fuss. Until then, education will only show people hard it is to use bitcoin.
You’re not an expert
If you’re reading this article, you know more about cryptocurrency than 99% of people on earth. That doesn’t make you an expert.
Really, can anybody claim to be an expert in a field that has only existed for ten years? Does anybody know enough about finance, economics, computer programming, psychology, governance, and law to claim expertise over cryptocurrency?
No. Nobody can say that.
Before you share your knowledge, take a step back and think about how it looks to others. Put yourself in their shoes.
Imagine you own a decent car that runs fine. While you have problems now and then, they rarely cause more than an inconvenience—at least, nothing serious enough to worry about. That’s the cost of car ownership. Everybody deals with it.
At the neighborhood holiday party, a guy named John approaches you. You’ve heard John tinkers around with cars, but you’ve never seen him working on any. He’s an accountant from the apartment building down the street. He rides a bike to work.
While you sip a glass of wine and nod politely, he tells you your car’s going to fall apart, the global car-parts industry is failing, and you should buy magic car parts created by a computer program. These car parts can never be warped, tampered with, or manipulated—and they’re very rare, so their prices will go up.
How likely are you to believe him? He’s not a mechanic. He doesn’t have an engineering degree.
Even if he did, what makes him qualified to comment on the global car-parts industry? And why should you listen to him when he’s literally the only person you know who says this?
Unless you’re a really good teacher, very charismatic, or a compelling speaker, your expertise may actually drive people away.
Don’t confuse ambivalence with ignorance
That doesn’t mean people don’t “get” crypto or don’t like crypto.
They just don’t care to try.
It’s not just a crypto thing. Most people don’t want to learn about anything—not because they’re ignorant, but because it’s not worth it.
Who has time to learn about everything? Very few of us.
We learn about things that interest us and things we need to know. For many people, that does not include cryptocurrency.
That also does not include cars, refrigerators, pens, computers, Roblox, government, TV production, or many other useful, valuable things.
As long as these things work, we don’t need to understand them (even if we probably should). That’s a lot of work, and who has the time?
For example, I have a day job, family, friends, and all sorts of social and professional engagements. On top of that, I write about cryptocurrency. I can barely keep up with my emails.
Do you really think I want to learn about cars, refrigerators, pens, computers, Roblox, and TV production? I already know how government works — and that’s bad enough!!!
At the end of the day, we trust people to understand these things for us. For example, mechanics, appliance servicers, pen makers, programmers, kids, politicians, and Hollywood.
I have never met a mechanic who thinks education will make more people want to service their own cars.
People will learn once they care to do so
Once cryptocurrency gives people something to care about, they’ll want to learn about it.
For some people, that means privacy and human rights. Others may find it more interesting to create financial products, identity services, and payment processing equipment. A few enjoy the novelty of calling themselves early adopters or like the feeling of getting into something naughty and esoteric.
For many, it’s the idea of getting rich.
Since we don’t usually know exactly what other people care about, we can’t force it.
Meanwhile, cryptocurrency is still getting its feet wet.
Bitcoin is slow, complicated, and volatile. Layer 2 projects still struggle. Altcoins have their own problems.
Every cryptocurrency has kinks to work out and many countries still don’t know how to regulate them.
Fortunately, people still have problems cryptocurrency can fix. Merchants still want to cut processing fees. Businesses still want to track things. People still want access to secure money. Developers still want to solve problems related to spam, recordkeeping, privacy, identity, and all sorts of other human endeavors.
Cryptocurrency will do that for them—eventually.
Until we get practical, real-world solutions that work, we need to do what we always have done: wait for prices to go up. Once prices go up, new people will get into cryptocurrency.
Based on what the market’s done so far, we’re not getting close. I’d hate for “teachers” to drive them away.
Be a friend, not a missionary
What authority do I have to say any of this? What expertise do I have?
I have something more important than authority and expertise: an opinion.
My opinion’s based on conversations with many people from across the cryptosphere. I asked them for their thoughts and reflections about conversations they have with people who don’t know or care about cryptocurrency.
A lot of themes came out of these conversations, some of which I need to follow up with the people I spoke to. Over the course of the year, I’ll keep sharing key insights.
People come to bitcoin, not the other way around.
Once they’re interested, they’ll learn. We have plenty of books, blogs, classes, courses, YouTube videos, and websites about bitcoin. Not to mention, all sorts of information about altcoins and blockchain in general.
For now, we just need to welcome newcomers and let bitcoin do its thing.
Relax and enjoy the ride.
Mark Helfman is editor of Crypto is Easy and a top writer on Medium for bitcoin and investing topics. His book, Consensusland, explores the social, cultural, and business challenges of a fictional country that runs on cryptocurrency. In a past life, he worked for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.