This has been a big week for Bitcoin. On Monday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held the first-ever Congressional hearing on Bitcoin. Later in the day, the currency's value reached an all-time high of more than $800.
That has left a lot of people scratching their heads. What's Bitcoin? How do you use it? And why would anyone want to? Read on for answers. (Inspired by Max Fisher's classic explainer on Syria)
1. What's Bitcoin?
Bitcoin is an online financial network that people use to send payments from one person to another. In many ways, Bitcoin is similar to conventional payment networks like Visa credit cards or Paypal. But Bitcoin is different from those and other payment networks in two important ways.
First, Bitcoin is decentralized. For-profit companies own the Visa and Paypal networks and manage them for the benefit of their respective shareholders. No one owns or controls the Bitcoin network. It has a peer-to-peer structure, with hundreds of computers all over the Internet working together to process Bitcoin transactions.
Bitcoin's decentralized architecture means that it is the world's first completely open financial network. To create a new financial service in the conventional U.S. banking system, you need to partner with an existing bank and comply with a variety of complex rules. The Bitcoin network has no such restrictions. People don't need anyone's permission or assistance to create new Bitcoin-based financial services.
The second thing that makes the Bitcoin unique is that it comes with its own currency. Paypal and Visa conduct transactions in conventional currencies such as the U.S. dollars. The Bitcoin network, however, conducts transactions in a new monetary unit, also called Bitcoin.
2. That seems really weird! Why would anyone use a payment network based on an imaginary currency?
It is weird. Almost everyone who encounters the idea for the first time (including me) has the same reaction: That can't possibly work. But so far the market has proved the skeptics wrong: