Finding trustworthy and in-depth information about blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies is notoriously difficult. The space is filled with crypto evangelists and purported “blockchain experts,” with massive—and often undeserved—followings.
Luckily, in this bizarre industry, there are also brilliant, patient, and sober-minded people. These are speakers of truth—who build, explain, and question—and remain committed to digital money, year after year. These are people who take ethical stands and call out others who fail to uphold basic moral (and legal) standards.
Of course, when we talk about the future of blockchain and cryptocurrencies, we still need to include the dreamers. In the words of Bloomberg columnist Matt Levine, “it is hard to distinguish among the CEO who promises the impossible because she is committing fraud, the CEO who promises the impossible because she is deluded, and the CEO who promises the impossible and then goes and does it.”
However, we will attempt to separate the wheat from the chaff.
So, you want to learn about bitcoin…
If you’re brand new to the world of virtual money, it can be overwhelming to hear a word vomit of unfamiliar terms. Bitcoin’s creator, the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, helpfully laid out his (or her or their — no one really knows) vision for the cryptocurrency in a white paper, but by page two most people are already lost.
The best person to turn to for an explanation of bitcoin is Andreas Antonopoulos, an early cryptocurrency adopter and advocate. He has written several books on bitcoin, geared toward both lay audiences and technical audiences (i.e., software developers), and produced hundreds of videos explaining key cryptocurrency concepts, like the one above.
Neha Narula, director the the Digital Currency Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, has also delivered popular presentations explaining bitcoin.
A history lesson
Before long, you’ll probably understand the gist of bitcoin and you’ll be looking for a bit more context. One big, obvious question: Is Satoshi Nakamoto’s identity really unknown?
Many cryptocurrency enthusiasts believe that Nakamoto is actually computer scientist Nick Szabo, inventor of the term “smart contract” (more on that later). But regardless of Satoshi’s identity, it’s endless fun to dive into the rabbit hole of early bitcoin history. These are a few of the best places to start.
- Nakamoto’s Neighbor: My Hunt For Bitcoin’s Creator Led To A Paralyzed Crypto Genius (Forbes)
- The Face Behind Bitcoin (an infamous Newsweek story which falsely claimed to identify Nakamoto)
- The colossal arrogance of Newsweek’s Bitcoin “scoop” (Ars Technica)
Of course, bitcoin’s history is far more convoluted—but we’ll return to it in a moment.
As you stumble your way through bitcoin’s origins, two of the most important tools you’ll learn are exchanges and block explorers. These allow you to purchase bitcoin and track transactions on the network. You should know about the popular price tracking website CoinMarketCap (some prefer LiveCoinWatch), and the popular bitcoin block explorer (of course, there are alternatives out there, too).
You should also be aware of Bitnodes, a website that estimates the size of the bitcoin network, and Digiconomist, a frequently referenced but questionable index of bitcoin’s energy consumption. It’s worth knowing about the latter because the site’s calculations shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
Misconceptions and criminal activity
When bitcoin arrived on the scene, many people believed the coin could be used anonymously (spoiler alert: it can’t be). Many articles about bitcoin from the early 2010s—even from experts—suggested as much. Although this was corrected when technology titans examined bitcoin, the rumor held fast for far too long.
Two of the most defining events in bitcoin’s history, which helped dispel the anonymity myth, were the collapse of Mt. Gox (at one time, the largest bitcoin exchange) and later the takedown of Silk Road, a dark web marketplace. These are my favorite primers on the topics.
- Mt. Gox, once the world’s largest Bitcoin exchange, shuts down (Ars Technica)
- The Tax Sleuth Who Took Down a Drug Lord (NYT)
One person you’ll soon come across in your research is Katie Haun—now a partner at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, but previously a federal prosecutor who began the US government’s first cryptocurrency task force. Haun spearheaded the investigation into the collapse of Mt. Gox and the corrupt Drug Enforcement Administration agents who brought down Silk Road. In September, she debated New York Times columnist-economist Paul Krugman on the usefulness of cryptocurrencies. You can watch it above.
Here’s where it gets complicated
Bitcoin’s public record keeping system, the blockchain, was believed to be useful for much more than digital currency. That’s where ethereum comes in (see the crypto-libertarian utopia described in the cringey marketing video above). This public computing platform, created by Russian-Canadian programmer Vitalik Buterin, launched in 2015 to much fanfare. Although it can be difficult to understand Buterin, his presentation (below) is still more accessible than the spec document for ethereum, otherwise known as the yellow paper.
The problem was—and is—that ethereum is highly experimental, not only from a programming perspective, but also from a social one. Sadly, the first major project on the ethereum network, the “DAO,” an acronym for “decentralized autonomous organization,” was hacked for $55 million not long after it was created.
The DAO was meant to automate and democratize venture capital investing, codifying it through smart contracts—which aren’t really “smart” and aren’t really “contracts,” at least not in a legal sense. If you have even a basic grasp of programming, these constructs are like dressed up “if-then-else” statements running on lots and lots of computers. Theoretically, public blockchain projects—also called decentralized applications, or “dapps”—are enchanting, but practically, they have been extremely disappointing.
Nonetheless, the ethereum project has persisted and served as a crowdfunding platform for many other crypto projects (which are themselves highly speculative). In the blockchain-cryptocurrency world, the term ICO, or “initial coin offering,” describes these digital token projects and their fundraising endeavors. One of the most infamous is Tezos, an ethereum competitor which raised more than $200 million.
For a retrospective on the ICO boom, I recommend the following:
- What is an ICO? (Bitcoin Magazine)
- The big ICO swindle (Wired)
Etherscan: follow transactions on the ethereum public network
DappRadar: user numbers for decentralized applications (“dapps”)
State of the Dapps: list of all ethereum-based applications
Finally, no reliable guide would be complete without referencing opposing views. To get a sense of the skepticism, you can check out the following articles:
- Ex-banker cheerleads his way to cryptocurrency riches (Reuters)
- Why Bitcoin is bullshit, explained by an expert (Vox)
- There’s no good reason to trust blockchain technology (Wired)
- What do we mean when we talk about blockchain anyway? (Quartz)
If you want to dig deeper
Despite the chill of the crypto winter, there’s a large and vibrant community devoted to all things cryptocurrency. Here are some suggestions of what to read and who to follow if you want to go farther:
Developers to follow on Twitter:
- Ameen Soleimani (SpankChain)
- Jameson Lopp (Bitcoin)
- Jeremy Rubin (Bitcoin)
- Lane Rettig (Ethereum)
- Peter Todd (Bitcoin)
- Qiao Wang (Messari)
- Tony Sheng (Decentraland)
- Udi Wertheimer (Bitcoin)
- Vitalik Buterin (Ethereum)
- Vlad Zamfir (Ethereum)
Attorneys / Professors
- Angela Walch (St. Mary’s Law) recently published a paper on “Deconstructing ‘Decentralization’: Exploring the Core Claim of Crypto Systems.”
- Jake Chervinsky (Kobre Kim LLP) posts helpful explanations of the latest issues concerning bitcoin-linked financial products and other cryptocurrency issues.
- Katherine Wu (Messari) writes entertaining and insightful analyses of various blockchain and cryptocurrency projects.
- Kevin Werbach, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania recently published his book, “The Blockchain and the New Architecture of Trust.”
- Preston Byrne, an English attorney, debunks fallacious claims made by crypto companies. He also adores marmots.
- Stephen Palley (Anderson Kill) posts pointed—and often hilarious—observations about the most important blockchain and crypto-related legal cases.
- Caitlyn Long (Wyoming Blockchain Coalition, cofounder)
- Jerry Brito (CoinCenter, executive director)
- Peter Van Valkenburgh (CoinCenter, director of research)
- Neeraj Agrawal (Coin Center, director of communications)
Consultants, entrepreneurs, and venture capitalists
- Angus Champion de Crespigny (independent consultant, former blockchain lead at EY)
- Chris Dixon (Andreessen Horowitz, general partner)
- Fred Wilson (Union Square Ventures, cofounder)
- Jill Carlson (consultant)
- Tim Swanson (consultant)
- Ryan Selkis (Messari, CEO)