Bitcoin’s Image Problem

I know manias. I’ve seen them again and again – hordes of people find out about a product or idea, back it with all their might, and are angry when anyone refuses to genuflect to their sacred cow. It happened to Notion Ink, it happens to Apple, it happens to Blackberry, and it happened in the vaccine autism scare, in the truthers, and in countless other subcultures who manifest their undying love with endless devotion and unremitting anger. “Beliefs make history, especially when they are wrong,” said historian Will Durant. “It is for errors that men have most nobly died.”

Bitcoin is on the verge of being wrong.

To be clear, I’m a BTC fan. I understand the value of the system as a .zip file for wealth. An unmonitored, seamless, and international transaction system is the future and, in the end, it will become part of the status quo. But Bitcoin has an image problem. Its followers see themselves as freedom fighters, attacking outsiders with vengeance and talking up their own accomplishments in the language of the already victorious. Forums like /r/bitcoin on Reddit are endlessly effusive, crowing that this cafe is accepting bitcoin and this dentist is filling cavities for bitcoin. These slight wins are literally meaningless, as important to the future of bitcoin as their decision to stock a certain type of Roma syrup. These incremental hoots make it seem like bitcoin is growing. It isn’t, at least not in a global sense. These new wins are simply PR ploys and the bitcoins exchanged are immediately converted into fiat currency.

Then take the Winklevii, white knights in the bitcoin army, who are asking for little to no regulation of the bitcoin markets, a prospect that will further drive away “respectable” users. As it stands now, bitcoin is used to buy drugs and maybe stuff from Overstock. Also, evidently, Sacramento Kings tickets. There is no impetus for the average user to dump money into an unregulated system that appears as volatile as the currency of some banana republic run by a capricious dictator. There are ways to solve this but the Winklevii asking for an unregulated market for their investments is not one of them.

Finally, bitcoin users are seen as misogynistic and sexist. While this post by Arianna Simpson is not indicative of the entire culture, it is a cautionary tale for those who may want to take part in a meet-up or seminar. Furthermore, new users trying to ask questions in forums or IRC chat rooms are bombarded with invective, and posts like this one casting a negative light on BTC receive countless defensive replies. If bitcoin users don’t want to be seen as sexist, insular nerds, then the change begins from within.

TechCrunch learned far too late that a clear non-harassment policy with real teeth is imperative for any gathering. Bitcoin advocates need to take this into consideration. Fans of many dead creeds have also learned, too late, that fanaticism is not bedrock on which to build longevity, it is a mire. Bitcoin is still in its infancy and the rise of potential bitcoin competitors wholly owned and operated by major corporations is coming. Stripe is rumored to be looking into starting its own cryptocurrency and there is nothing stopping Visa and MasterCard from adopting the cryptocurrency technologies and reducing their money transfer rates aside from an entrenched but aging population of bankers grown fat on arbitrage.

Bitcoin needs to entrench itself in the same way the Internet has entrenched itself. However, unlike the Internet, there is no clear way forward, no use case that the average user will accept as valid. The Internet changed the way the world did business, but there is no calm, stolid for bitcoin, just warring fiefdoms blowing hot air. A clear, central message is key. Just as the Internet’s message was “Get it all done, faster,” Bitcoin’s message should be, “send money for free.” The rest – the uptake, the acceptance, the death of the incumbents – follows from there. As it stands now, however, the message is unclear and unheard. That must change.

Image: Composite with Shutterstock photo