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A postcard from Crypto-world

A postcard from Crypto-world

When Jon Boone arrived in finance’s parallel universe, he didn’t even know how to speak the language. But soon he was surfing the Bitcoin wave

When Jon Boone arrived in finance’s parallel universe, he didn’t even know how to speak the language. But soon he was surfing the Bitcoin wave

Jon Boone | January 30th 2018

It is 2am and my laptop is howling. It is about to expire under the weight of web pages.

The first browser of the day sprouted so many tabs that another had to be launched. Then another and another. I am logged into seven exchanges where I can buy and sell Bitcoin for more than 1,000 copycat digital monies. I am following a fast-moving stream of 139 crypto accounts on Twitter. I have lost track of all the tech blogs, Medium articles and YouTube channels I have clicked on. My brain is as frazzled as my CPU, but I’m not done for the night. I need to find the next Bitcoin, buy a bit of it and watch it soar in value.

My curiosity about cryptocurrencies was piqued in early 2017 when a City-trader friend told me he had inadvertently made a fortune on Bitcoin. He acquired them to buy drugs on the dark web and, having forgotten about them for a while, discovered that they had soared in value. Intrigued, I bought some, and for months I experienced the daily thrill of waking up meaningfully wealthier than when I went to bed.

If greed gets you across the threshold of Cryptoworld, fascination and the sheer entertainment value of it keeps you there.

I soon wanted to know everything about the “blockchain” technology that underpins Bitcoin and its imitators. If the web digitised information, this digitises value. It could all come to nothing. Or it might be the next big thing.

This exotic parallel financial universe has lured in millions. Overwhelmed coin exchanges have repeatedly suspended new account openings. Coinbase, one of the main portals from fiat money to crypto, became the most popular app in America. South Korea is said to have a problem with “Bitcoin zombies” – sleep-deprived people who check their portfolios at every hour of the day. Money has poured into “initial coin offerings”, the process which creates new coins and alarms regulators.

In 2017 the value of all cryptos increased by 1,200%. Inevitably, comparisons to the dotcom bubble of the 1990s have been made. But that episode was largely restricted to American traders with enough capital and nous to have a trading account. In Cryptoworld the barriers to entry barely exist. You don’t even need a bank account. You can get your crypto casino chips simply by shovelling a few bank notes into a “Bitcoin ATM”, which can be found in convenience stores across London.

Sceptics are horrified, warning that these financial novices will get hurt. Enthusiasts say this is what the democratisation of finance looks like: an army of traders who don’t have Bloomberg terminals but do have Twitter, encrypted Telegram channels and something called Discord, a messaging service for gamers. Like me, most of them plunged in without the faintest idea what they were doing.

The crypto seers I follow are young, self-taught amateurs. They have flourished in an ecosystem lacking the big predators of conventional financial markets. They have had time to hone their skills. All day they divine future price moves by assessing Fibonacci retracements, exponential moving averages and the mystical sounding “Ichimoku clouds”. It sounds like sorcery but often works.

Many of them are on a mission to win converts to crypto. Through their YouTube and Reddit forums they are happy to help “noobs” like me. Some are fully paid up libertarians who dream of ending the monopoly power of governments to print money. Others are gamers swept away by the challenge of winning in a highly speculative market. Some are scammers looking for naïve noobs on which to offload worthless coins.

Crypto has spawned its own memes and specialist jargon. Riding those parabolic curves is called going “to the moon”. Picking duff coins and losing everything is called getting “rekt”. People who cling to their Bitcoin during terrifying price falls are “hodlers”, that is, someone who “holds on for dear life”. Crypto sceptics are embittered “nocoiners” annoyed that their Bitcoin-owning friends have become so much richer than they are. Bitcoin alternatives like Monaco, ZCash and Nexium are affectionately known as “shitcoins”. Many of them more than deserve the name. Dogecoin, for example, was set up in 2013 as a spoof crypto. It still made fortunes though, as it raced towards a $1bn market cap.

Skilled traders don’t just look to buy when prices fall, they BTFD (buy the fucking dip). Coin pumps are illustrated by elaborate GIFs involving rockets tearing into the stratosphere. Crashes are marked with jokes about looking for minimum-wage jobs at McDonalds. “Lambo” is the longed-for end state: you have amassed enough wealth to afford a Lamborghini.

I have not. In fact, the real-world value of my modest trading gains were wiped out in mid-January when people stampeded to the safety of fiat currencies, sending the price of Bitcoin from $17,000 to below $10,000. But I’m keeping a foot in Cryptoworld. I take comfort from the website Bitcoin Obituaries that records the 236 times the media has declared Bitcoin dead since 2010. So far Bitcoin has always recovered from its periodic price batterings.

I’ve been converted. I’m a hodler.