As Bitcoin’s price has rapidly declined in recent months, uncertainty and distrust have begun to overshadow early enthusiasm. Researchers Rick Wash and Megan Knittel investigated one of the largest and most important Bitcoin online communities, the r/Bitcoin Reddit forum. Their work was presented for the first time at the Association for Computer Machinery’s leading conference on computer-human interaction, ACM CHI (pronounced ‘kai’), in Glasgow in early May 2019.
In their research, which was presented for the first time at ACM CHI, Wash and Knittel examined a vocal subgroup of users identifying themselves as “true Bitcoiners”, and their continued devotion to Bitcoin. The subreddit participants explained and justified their trust in Bitcoin in three primary ways: identifying characteristics of beneficial versus harmful Bitcoin users, diminishing the importance of problems, and describing themselves as loyal to Bitcoin over time.
Simon Cocking of Irish Tech News interviewed Wash, a professor at Michigan State University, and Knittel, a doctoral student there, via email about their research and what it reveals about bitcoiners and their Reddit community.
SC: How would you describe a true Bitcoiner?
Researchers: “True Bitcoiners” are people who work to get others to trust in Bitcoin’s future. In our study, we identified a “True Bitcoiner” as a person who expresses an ideological viewpoint consisting of two core beliefs:
1) That gathering and hanging onto large amounts of Bitcoin is good for Bitcoin’s future as a global currency.
2) That Bitcoin is worth trusting because Bitcoin allows you to rely on technology, rather than people, in managing and protecting your money.
True Bitcoiners consistently use these ideological viewpoints to justify trusting Bitcoin and to convince others to trust Bitcoin, especially in the face of problems like price drops and security breaches. This group of people is unified by their trust in Bitcoin’s technology, their belief that Bitcoin will bring about positive social change in the future, the value they see in accumulating Bitcoin, and their tendency to use this ideology to justify their trust in Bitcoin.
SC: What are the characteristics of true Bitcoiners on Reddit versus others in the Reddit Bitcoin forum? What are examples of behaviours of true bitcoiners compared to others in the forum?
Researchers: True Bitcoiners trust in Bitcoin’s “technology,” assuming that the fact that bitcoin is technological and is run by computers, not people, is what makes it trustworthy. They will often describe certain features of this technology as being especially trustworthy and important, such as the decentralized network or the blockchain (even though they rarely explain how they work or why they are trustworthy).
True Bitcoiners also actively work to discredit or diminish people who bring up problems with Bitcoin. One way they do this is through reinterpreting widely recognized problems as benefits; for example, in response to people lamenting Bitcoin’s price crash, some True Bitcoiners responded that this was a good thing because it will encourage people to focus on things that make Bitcoin valuable besides potential profit.
Additionally, True Bitcoiners frequently discuss ways in which they care about Bitcoin for reasons besides profit, such as improving society, creating more efficient money, or improved monetary privacy.
SC: Why is this group and their activity interesting to you?
Researchers: Bitcoin is complicated. It involves complicated technology, complicated economics, and complicated social dynamics. And most people who use it don’t fully understand it. But still, people need to trust it if they are going to use it. We wanted to understand how and why people trust in this complicated, but potentially important thing.
In looking into this trust, we found this interesting group of people who repeatedly say that they trust in the technological parts of Bitcoin, explicitly because they don’t trust in the people parts. But even though they don’t trust in people to run financial systems, these people still spent a lot of time in online forums trying to convince others to trust Bitcoin, and seem to think that it is important to get others to believe in Bitcoin as they do.
SC: What’s the takeaway or what does it say about the Reddit forum and the true Bitcoiner?
Researchers: True Bitcoiners are strongly ideological — and are good at maintaining their beliefs even when evidence in the world disagrees with them, or when their beliefs are internally inconsistent. Still, they are an important part of what makes Bitcoin work, because they put a lot of effort into educating other people and getting them to also trust in Bitcoin. And if people don’t trust Bitcoin, it isn’t worth anything.
Rick Wash is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University in the Department of Media and Information. His work involves understanding how people think about their interactions with computers, and their interactions with other people through computers, with a particular focus on cyber-security and collaborative systems. His research is supported by multiple grants from the US National Science Foundation, including an NSF CAREER award.
Megan Knittel is a doctoral student at Michigan State University in the Department of Media and Information. Her research involves understanding how people design and use computing technology, with a focus on online community development and how computing design practices relate to social identity and inclusion.