We’ve been been hearing buzzwords like “Bitcoin,” “Ethereum,” and “Coin Exchange” floating around in the news. That’s because the world of cryptocurrency has started to take off and is gaining national attention. You may feel left out because you don’t understand this trend. Don’t worry, this complete beginner’s guide will teach you everything you know.
What is a cryptocurrency?
According to Cryptominded, a curated directory of cryptocurrency resources, “Cryptocurrencies have been around for over eight years, and they currently have a market value of around $170 billion.” Simply put, cryptocurrency is money in digital form that utilizes computer cryptography to secure transactions. It’s almost like digital cash. Cryptocurrencies are revolutionizing the way we do financial transactions. Here’s the big kick: Cryptocurrency allows for seamless, direct transactions between parties without needing the validation of a central authority. It used to be that external parties such as banks had to validate each transaction you made. You gave them your information, and they, in turn, managed and kept track of your transactions. Instead, cryptocurrencies eliminate the need for a “middle man,” per se. As the owner of your cryptocurrency, you have control of all payments without a central authority watching.
How does cryptocurrency work, and can I trust it?
Cryptocurrency runs on what’s called a blockchain. What’s a blockchain, you ask? A blockchain is a ledger that stores transactions in a log, just like a normal accounting ledger. Its name comes from the fact that it stores groups of transactions that happened in a similar time frame in a “block.” Each block is eventually added to a chain with other blocks of transactions that took place at other points in time, which gives it the name “blockchain.”
The security of the blockchain is maintained by computer cryptography, which is where the “crypto” in cryptocurrency comes from. It’s important to know that blockchains are public, so every transaction that’s logged in its ledger is visible to anyone forever. Blockchains are also immutable, so nobody can ever change the contents of the ledger. Once a transaction is confirmed, it’s set in stone.
Security is of utmost importance when handling money, and, since cryptocurrencies let you be the full owner of your money, it’s your responsibility to make sure your money is safe at all times. But, there’s no need to worry: Blockchains are naturally secure there, and there are many measures in place to make sure your money is secure and in your hands. So, you can rest assured that it’s improbable for someone to tamper with it.
When you have cryptocurrency, money is stored in your own personal wallet. A wallet consists of two main components: a private key and an address. Each wallet is secured by its unique private key, which is a secret string of letters and numbers only accessible to the owner. You can use a wallet to create transactions and send people money, or you can use it to receive money from others.
Which currencies are the most popular?
Today there are thousands of cryptocurrencies in existence, but for the purpose of this guide we’ll focus on the most popular three.
Bitcoin (symbol BTC) has the No. 1 spot by far. It’s the first cryptocurrency to exist and has the greatest market capitalization at $16.7 billion, which makes it the most valuable cryptocurrency at the moment. The creator of Bitcoin is unknown, however. The inventor goes by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. While the name may suggest the creator is a Japanese man, many speculators believe Satoshi Nakamoto is the name for a group of people.
Litecoin (symbol LTC) is another popular cryptocurrency. Created by MIT grad and former Google engineer Charlie Lee, Litecoin is often called “the silver to Bitcoin’s gold” because of its close relation to Bitcoin. Investopedia describes Litecoin and cites, “…it has a faster block generation rate and hence offers a faster transaction confirmation.”
Another popular coin is Ethereum (symbol ETH). Ethereum adds more functionality to its blockchain ledger by supporting smart contracts. Smart contracts are pieces of computer code that run on the entire Ethereum network all at once, which lets Ethereum act like a “global computer.” Members of the Ethereum team say the technology can be used to, “codify, decentralize, secure and trade just about everything.” Ethereum was created by 19-year old, Russian-Canadian programmer Vitalik Buterin. He launched Ethereum in 2015, making it a very young project. A little-known fact about Ethereum is that, unlike many other cryptocurrencies, its basic unit of currency doesn’t have the same name as the technology: The currency in Ethereum is called Ether.
Okay, now that I know the basics, how can I get involved?
This new industry is very lucrative, even for teens. Take 16-year-old Eddy Zillman for example. This Ohio teen started trading with money he received from his bar mitzvah and, after some hard work, he now has his own cryptocurrency consulting business and has “made close to a million from trades.”
The first step is to buy coins. One of the most popular cryptocurrency exchanges is Coinbase, and their service also doubles as a wallet to store the coins you buy. Through exchanges like Coinbase, you can buy and sell a handful of cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, Litecoin and Ethereum. To make money, you must buy at low prices and sell when the prices go higher than you bought the coins for. Although this sounds easy at first, keep in mind that cryptocurrencies have notoriously volatile, unpredictable changes in price.
Kraken is another well-known exchange platform founded in July 2011 by Jesse Powell. It’s a San Francisco-based company that boasts being “the largest Bitcoin exchange in euro volume and liquidity and also trading Canadian dollars, US dollars, British pounds and Japanese yen.” The company goes on to say that they have been rated the most secure Bitcoin exchange.
Gemini is still relatively new, founded in 2015 by the Winklevoss twins, Tyler and Cameron. These two gained popularity when they alleged Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea of Facebook from them. Gemini is renowned for being the world’s first licensed ether exchange. Gemini allows people to buy and sell Bitcoin and Ether.
This all sounds good, but what are the drawbacks?
Perhaps the largest disadvantage of cryptocurrency is that it is not widely accepted for use in day-to-day transactions. As of now, there are few websites that accept cryptocurrencies as a form of payment. In fact, cryptocurrency has yet to be legalized in many countries.
Another disadvantage of using cryptocurrency is that you can potentially lose your wallet. You can have money stored in a digital wallet on your phone or on your computer; however, it is adamant that you keep your password for those devices. If you can’t access your wallet, you can no longer access your digital currency. To continue, digital currencies have no reverse payment guarantee. That is to say, that if you mistakenly pay someone using cryptocurrency, there is no way to undo it. Your only option is to request a refund. Keep in mind that the person can refuse the refund and your money is will not be returned.
Lastly, like all things digital, cryptocurrency is prone to attacks. In reality, this is something that can’t be avoided. Many exchanges are prone to DDos attacks. Don’t let that deter you- there are many ways you can keep your wallet safe, just do a little research. Try keeping some wallets offline in a method called cold storage.
A safe approach to get involved in cryptocurrencies is to buy at any price and hold your purchases for extremely long periods of time (maybe even never sell). Cryptocurrency experts call this act “HODLing.” If you’re just started out, hodling coins if your best option because it gives you time learn the market and get your feet wet in a secure way.
Whew! That was a lot!
Cryptocurrencies are relatively new and can even be a little intimidating, but be proud yourself for learning more. Use this information as a starting point and learn some more on your own. Teach your friends, too! Digital currency can be a very lucrative market.
Lauren, 16, is a junior at Alpharetta High School who enjoys running and listening to music. She sent this story and art to VOX as part of our Atlanta Teen Voices programming — any Atlanta teen can submit. Just click here!