Cryptocurrencies are just lines of computer code that hold monetary value. Those lines of code are created by electricity and high-performance computers.
Cryptocurrency is also known as digital currency. Either way, it is a form of digital public money that is created by painstaking mathematical computations and policed by millions of computer users called ‘miners’. Physically, there is nothing to hold.
‘Crypto’ comes from the word cryptography, the security process used to protect transactions that send the lines of code out for purchases. Cryptography also controls the creation of new ‘coins’, the term used to describe specific amounts of code.
Governments have no control over the creation of cryptocurrencies, which is what initially made them so popular. Most cryptocurrencies begin with a market cap in mind, which means that their production will decrease over time thus, ideally, making any particular coin more valuable in the future.
What Are Bitcoins?
Bitcoin was the first cryptocoin currency ever invented. No one knows exactly who created it – cryptocurrencies are designed for maximum anonymity – but bitcoins first appeared in 2009 from a developer supposedly named Satoshi Nakamoto.
He has since disappeared and left behind a Bitcoin fortune.
Because Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency to exist, all digital currencies created since then are called Altcoins, or alternative coins. Litecoin, Peercoin, Feathercoin, Ethereum and hundreds of other coins are all Altcoins because they are not Bitcoin.
One of the advantages of Bitcoin is that it can be stored offline on a person’s local hardware. That process is called cold storage and it protects the currency from being taken by others. When the currency is stored on the internet somewhere (hot storage), there is high risk of it being stolen.
On the flip side, if a person loses access to the hardware that contains the bitcoins, the currency is simply gone forever. It’s estimated that as much as $30 billion in bitcoins have been lost or misplaced by miners and investors. Nonetheless, Bitcoins remain incredibly popular as the most famous cryptocurrency over time.
Why Bitcoins Are So Controversial
Various reasons have converged to make Bitcoin currency a real media sensation.
From 2011-2013, criminal traders made bitcoins famous by buying them in batches of millions of dollars so they could move money outside of the eyes of law enforcement. Subsequently, the value of bitcoins skyrocketed.
Scams, too, are very real in the cryptocurrency world. Naive and savvy investors alike can lose hundreds or thousands of dollars to scams.
Ultimately, though, bitcoins and altcoins are highly controversial because they take the power of making money away from central federal banks, and give it to the general public.
Bitcoin accounts cannot be frozen or examined by tax men, and middleman banks are completely unnecessary for bitcoins to move. Law enforcement and bankers see bitcoins as ‘gold nuggets in the wild, wild west’, beyond the control of traditional police and financial institutions.
How Bitcoins Work
Bitcoins are completely virtual coins designed to be ‘self-contained’ for their value, with no need for banks to move and store the money. Once you own bitcoins, they behave like physical gold coins: they possess value and trade just as if they were nuggets of gold in your pocket. You can use your bitcoins to purchase goods and services online, or you can tuck them away and hope that their value increases over the years.
Bitcoins are traded from one personal ‘wallet’ to another. A wallet is a small personal database that you store on your computer drive (i.e cold storage), on your smartphone, on your tablet, or somewhere in the cloud (hot storage).
For all intents, bitcoins are forgery-resistant. It is so computationally-intensive to create a bitcoin, it isn’t financially worth it for counterfeiters to manipulate the system.