oleganza

Journalist’s guide to describe Bitcoin and not look like an idiot

oleganza:

When writing about Bitcoin many journalists use certain phrases that are not quite correct and do not explain anything to everyone else. Dear journalist, if you read this short article you will finally understand what are you talking about and outperform 99% of your colleagues.

In a short paragraph, Bitcoin can be described like this (you can take my text without asking):

Bitcoin is a payment network with its own unit of account and no single controlling entity behind it. Users make transactions between each other directly and verify them independently using cryptographic signatures. To prevent duplicate spendings, many specialized computers spend a lot of computing power to agree on a single history of transactions. Due to historical reasons, this process is called “mining” because new bitcoins are created as a reward for performing this work.

Anyone who validates next block of transactions can claim transaction fees and a fixed amount of new bitcoins. Transactions are validated at a constant rate (10 minutes in average) and every four years allowed amount of new bitcoins is halved. This means that the total amount of bitcoins is limited by the protocol (21M total, 11M already created). Transaction fees are not fixed and determined by the market.

Bitcoin mining is secondary to the whole idea and the term “mining” is unfortunate (early Bitcoins were generated before anyone was doing any transactions yet, so the whole process was called “mining” instead of “paying for transaction verification”).

One common pitfall is to start talking about mining without describing its real purpose. It is not to generate new units (who would need them?), it is to validate transactions. Bitcoins are valuable only because of robust payment network which is maintained by the miners. And miners get paid for their work in form of transaction fees and newly generated bitcoins.

Second common pitfall is to say that miners “solve complex algorithms”. They do not solve anything. They do two things: transaction verification (checking digital signatures and throwing away invalid and duplicate transactions), and a long and boring computation which means a repetitive computation of a well-known algorithm with slightly different input until a “good enough” number appears as a result that will be accepted by other users as a proof of performed work. This has nothing to do with “math problems” or any other intellectual task. It is merely a way to guarantee that the resulting number really took some time to produce. This allows people to build a single chain of transactions and see that it would be economically impossible to produce a parallel chain (without trusting each other personally).

The last pitfall in describing mining is saying something like “tasks are getting more complex over time”. Tasks are not getting any more complex. The are all the same and not complex at all (any amateur programmer can understand them). But the difficulty of a boring “proof of work” is adjusted by everyone every 2 weeks to maintain the same rate of transaction validation (10 minutes). If people throw more resources at mining, difficulty will rise. If mining gets less profitable, some computers will be shut down and the difficulty will get lower. If a miner produces a “proof” which is not difficult enough, it will not be accepted by other users.

The last point is related to amount of units available. In fact, “1 Bitcoin” is a name for 100 million smallest units, thus the total amount of units ever possible is around 2100 trillion. Alternative currencies based on Bitcoin source code sometimes advertise more units (e.g. Litecoin has 4 times more), but the difference is only in names and divisibility of the total money supply, not in actual value (if you cut a pie in 10 pieces instead of 5, the total value does not really change). So it would be fair to mention that 1 bitcoin is much more divisible than dollars and euros.

Hopefully, this knowledge will help you to avoid common mistakes when writing your article and make some friends in enthusiastic Bitcoin community.

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