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On Bitcoin, Illegal Drugs & First Impressions

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"What's this Bitcoin thing that's used for drugs and illegal stuff on The Internet?" My father recently asked me.

I've been interested in Bitcoin for a few years and gave him the bullet points:

  • Bitcoin is a digital currency.
  • Bitcoin is not backed by any government, it's 'backed' by its users.
  • Bitcoin allows anonymous transactions.

In effect, if you took cash, separated it from government control and put it on The Internet, you'd have Bitcoin.

It might not sound like a big deal, but in terms of positive, society-changing technologies: Bitcoin is on the same level as the Internet, though still in its larval form. Bitcoin in the early 2010s is as The Internet was in the early 1980s: usable only to a small group of hard-core geeks but screaming its potential to those willing to listen.

In the 1980s normal people still didn't use the Internet, but they might see a news story or two on it and get interested. The same is now happing with Bitcoin: normal people -- like my father -- are learing about it for the first time.

So, where did my father hear about Bitcoin? From this article in Forbes making the rounds which links Bitcoin with The Silk Road, a website that sells drugs.

First impressions matter and Bitcoin ≈ Crime is a damning introduction and something almost every mainstream article does.

Why?

Imagine you're a tech journalist. If you're good at your job, you've heard about Bitcoin and might want to write an article about it. But Bitcoin is a challenge to explain even to an Internet-savvy audience and near-impossible to explain to a general audience. Therefore, if you can't discuss the technicalities, you're going to need a different angle. Luckily there's a website that sells drugs using Bitcoin which is good news for you: everyone understands drugs and crime, scary stories get more traffic and your deadline is a few days away.

Here are two quotes from the article to give you the flavor:

Bitcoin-funded services deep within the dark Web, masked by anonymity tools… claim to offer everything from cyberattacks to weapons and explosives to stolen credit cards.

and

It's a rule as timeless as black markets: Where illegal money goes, violence follows. In a digital market that violence is virtual, but it’s as financially real as torching your competitor’s warehouse.

Now no ill will toward Andy Greenburg, the author of this particular piece -- he's a guy doing his job. But my concern is that articles like these are most normal peoples' introduction to Bitcoin and, given quotes like that, they're going to come away with negative thoughts about the new currency that can change their lives for the better.

Money & Power

There are two big forces that will oppose Bitcoin: governments and financial corporations. Governments stand to lose political power from competing currencies and financial corporations stand to lose money from decreasing transaction fees.

When government interests and financial interests align, there is a difficult fight ahead.

If a government like the United States says: 'Bitcoin is used for selling drugs (and maybe for funding terrorism)' and if the only thing normal people know about Bitcoin is from articles like the one in Forbes: then it's game over for digital currencies. Possibly for a decade or more.

Again, Bitcoin -- or something like it -- will ultimately triumph. Bitcoin has proved that the technology works and governments & corporations can't fight technological progress forever. But delays in technological progress hurt everyone.

A Man, A Plan

Were I in charge of marketing for Bitcoin my action plan would look something like this:

1. Ask The Silk Road to Shut Up

I would ask the operators of sites like The Silk Road to not give interviews about Bitcoin. Quotes such as this only antagonize the government:

[The Silk Road's owner] isn’t shy about naming... the cryptographic digital currency known as Bitcoin. “We’ve won the State’s War on Drugs because of Bitcoin,” he writes.

While exposure in sites like Forbes (possibly) brings with it an uptick in sales, in the long term it's damaging to the very currency they're using for business.

2. Ignore 'Normal' People

Normal people don't care and won't care about Bitcoin until it's as mainstream as Amazon gift cards. Positive news stories would be nice but, as explained above, journalists don't have incentives to run them.

Any PR effort spent on converting normal people at this stage of Bitcoin's development would be wasted: the goal should be to keep Bitcoin out of the news. Leave peoples' minds a black slate on the new currency and focus on point #3

3. Target Small Business Owners

The only counter to a make-Bitcoin-illegal campaign is having a bunch of pro-Bitcoin votes. Given the (understandable) apathy of normal people, the focus must be on people who would directly benefit from using Bitcoin: small business owners.

Small business owners can benefit financially because Bitcoin allows them to accept payment over the Internet while avoiding transaction fees which can rage from 5% to 30%. What small business owner wouldn't want that kind of boost in margins?

In addition, Bitcoin also offers something else of value to small business owners: control.

Without warning, companies that process transactions can freeze your account. Indefinitely. (PayPal is notorious for this). Waking up to discover that you can't access any of your business funds is a bad day. (I'm speaking from experience here, being currently involved in a project with a month-long delay in transaction processing.)

The final pitch to small business owners is that Bitcoin users love the currency and are looking for places to spend it. This gives businesses that move first an advantage in finding new customers and this is good for the currency as a whole. Think hotel WiFi a decade ago: geeks first used it to differentiate hotels but as The Internet expaned and become more useful eventually normal people expected WiFi as standard.

If small business owners see Bitcoin affect their bottom line they will rally the normal people in their lives, their friends, their family to vote to support it.

The goal is make the first time someone hears about Bitcoin be from a family member saying how they've earned more money from their business or a store offering a 10% discount if they pay with Bitcoin.

Conclusion

The constant association with Bitcoin and drugs in the mainstream press is a real problem. Not because Bitcoin -- or something like it -- won't eventually succeed: it will. But rather because it takes a lot of effort to reverse a poor first impression and gives an edge to already powerful entities to delay Bitcoin's widespread use. A decade without truly digital currency is a decade without its benefits.

If you want Bitcoin to succeed: stop talking to the press and go forth to find small business owners who will benefit from using it.


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