It’s hard to think of something so complicated that has become so popular as fast as bitcoin.
With the price of the cryptocurrency soaring—and mainstream interest surging—Yahoo Finance recently invited readers to send us their top questions regarding bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. We condensed questions from nearly 3,500 respondents into the list below, and enlisted a team of Yahoo Finance reporters to answer them, including Daniel Roberts, who’s been covering bitcoin since 2012, and Jared Blikre, our authority on trading. Ethan Wolff-Mann and Julia LaRoche contributed as well. Here’s everything you want to know about bitcoin:
1. What the hell is it? In the most general sense, bitcoin is software that forms a decentralized, peer-to-peer payment system with no central authority like the Federal Reserve or U.S. Treasury. It’s fair to call it a digital currency or cryptocurrency, but at the moment, most investors aren’t really using it as currency to pay for things. Instead, they’re using it as a speculative investment to buy in the hope of turning a profit. Maybe a big profit. (And maybe a big loss).
2. What backs or supports it? Bitcoin runs on something called blockchain, which is a software system often described as an immutable digital “ledger.” It resides on thousands of computers, all over the world, maintained by a mix of ordinary people and more sophisticated computer experts, known collectively as miners. Yahoo Finance’s Jared Blikre dabbles as a bitcoin miner, running mining software in the background on his laptop. Here’s how much bitcoin he has generated so far: 0.000000071589. At the current rate, it would take him about 1,200 years to mine one complete bitcoin. That gives you a sense of how complex it is to mine bitcoin, and how much processing power it takes: These computerized mining rigs throw off so much energy that they can heat your home.
All bitcoin transactions are permanently recorded by miners, who upload bundles of transactions, or “blocks,” to the chain, maintained on all those computers. Blockchain as a technology has become popular among banks and other big financial institutions, who want to use it to settle payments on their back-end systems. But they’re mostly interested in blockchain without bitcoin.
3. Who’s running the show? Bitcoin is decentralized, which means there isn’t one arbiter, central party or institution in charge. Blocks of transactions are validated on the blockchain network through computing “consensus,” which is a feature of the software. Bitcoin was created by someone in 2009 using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto, but it isn’t known who that was, and that person or group doesn’t have control over bitcoin today.
4. What is there to value? The price of bitcoin fluctuates based on buying and selling, just like a stock, but there’s a ton of debate over what the price represents. In theory, the value of bitcoin should reflect investors’ faith in bitcoin as a technology. But in reality, investors mostly see bitcoin as a commodity because of its finite supply. Under Satoshi’s blueprint, the total supply of bitcoin will eventually be capped at 21 million coins. At the moment, 16.7 million bitcoins have been created. A fractional amount of new coins gets created every time a miner uploads a block to the blockchain, which is a reward for mining.
5. Is this a scam? It’s not a scam, in the sense of somebody marketing a bogus product. Bitcoin is a legitimate technology. The question is how useful and valuable it will become.
6. Is there actually a physical coin called bitcoin? No. You can’t touch a bitcoin because it’s essentially software. You may have seen images of gold coins with a “Ƀ” on them. Those are souvenirs that can’t be converted into actual bitcoin. But they’re better for illustrating news stories than the streams of numbers and letters that resemble the actual blockchain.
7. Is it tangible like gold? Bitcoin has one big similarity to gold, in that some investors consider it a good store of value for financial wealth. You can take possession of your bitcoins — as some people do with gold — by downloading the string of digital codes that represents your holdings onto a gizmo that looks like a flash drive. But you can’t run your fingers through your bitcoin the way you might with a pile of gold doubloons, and bitcoin certainly isn’t pleasingly shiny.
8. Is value completely determined by the free market? For the most part, yes. There’s a known and limited supply of bitcoin, so when demand goes up, so does the price. Technical innovation also contributes to bitcoin’s value. It was a novelty when first created in 2009, and the market has determined (for now) that it’s an invention that’s worth something.
[See why bitcoin matters.]
9. How can something that does not exist in the material world have a monetary value? Bitcoin does actually exist in the material world, the same way an operating system for your phone or computer exists in the material world. Remember, it’s essentially software, and it’s very clear that certain types of software have value because of what they allow us to do.
10. If it’s virtual, can’t people make duplicates? Yes, but that’s not a problem. All bitcoin transactions are stored on that public ledger, the blockchain. You can copy the blockchain, but it’s just a record. So you wouldn’t be changing the distribution of bitcoin. To process new transactions in bitcoin, miners with powerful computers solve complex problems that add the transactions in a block to the blockchain. This is called “proof of work” and is one of the core features of most cryptocurrencies. Multiple miners verify the work, which prevents fraud.