Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Bitcoin in the mainstream

So Sydney-siders can now use their bitcoins to buy beers, as we mentioned here.

The launch event dubbed #beers4bitcoins saw The Old Fitzroy in Woolloomooloo open its doors to its regular Sunday trade as well as a group of bitcoin enthusiasts and plenty of new faces, curious as to what this "bitcoin thing" was all about.

Not only could people buy their scooners with digital currency but they could tip the bar staff and even the live band.

At the height, more than one hundred people attended, one even as far flung as Canada. Admittedly he did not come to Sydney purely for the event, but he had seen it advertised on whats on sydney and decided to come along to find out more.

And this was the thing, this one afternoon in a historic, back-street pub, generated quite a bit of hype. There was promotion by the Sydney bitcoin community of course but there was interest from many other areas. It was covered by the main Sydney papers, it was mentioned on news and tech websites across the Internet and was even covered by the ABC's national triple J radio breakfast programme.

For the Australian bitcoin community, this was a momentous occasion. But for bitcoin itself, this was a positive step. So often bitcoin in the mainstream press is given sceptical if not scathing coverage and generates a lot of negative publicity.

This thought was reaffirmed when I was browsing some news sites and happened on the UK's very reputable Channel 4 news site: a news programme, which I believe covers a great range of interesting stories with unique depth and insight. Its articles on bitcoin all tended towards the negative. There was one explainer piece, with the headline: "Has the internet currency's day come?" The two most recent articles from September were: "How illegal drugs are bought and sold on the dark web" and "Criminal underworld exposed on the 'hidden Internet'"

It seems TV news is so often seduced by bitcoin's associations with the "dark, hidden underworld" of the web and any reference to bitcoin is often made when talking about how its anonymity is benefitting the illegal drugs trade. This might make a good, gritty story, but what about some balance, and does anyone know if it is the majority of people holding bitcoin that use it for illegal activity or shock, horror, do they perhaps use it for something quite unextraordinary such as making a trade, buying a pizza, some honey, hiring a taxi, or yes, maybe now buying a beer?

Admittedly there are so few businesses accepting bitcoin that to go about daily life using only bitcoin would be a very difficult task, just ask Austin and Beccy with their life on bitcoin experiment. There's also no denying bitcoin is being used for illegal activity but then, are we saying that fiat currency isn't? How's this for a headline: US Dollars Used To Buy Drugs. Well, let's all fall over in shock.

I'm being slightly flippant but my point, I think, is a fair one. A cursory glance at just some of the main news orgaisations' coverage of bitcoin by typing 'bitcoin' into their search functions reveal primarily stories on money-laundering, illegal online activity, bitcoin's volatility on the markets and the risk of bitcoin theft. Many offer a 'what is bitcoin' feature or video and most have several articles with questioning headlines: Is this the end for virtual currency? Or some such.

Journalists are paid to question but how about questioning: Is this the end for fiat? The closest I came to finding one was this on Forbes.com.

I also think that there are plenty of good news stories out there: how bitcoin is helping many small businesses profit by avoiding credit card charges and the hassle of payments gateways; how it is increasingly becoming a viable alternative to a constantly devaluing fiat... But with ratings and 'clicks' being key, these stories just won't cut it for the nightly news. Where's the celebrity? Where's the drama? Will the audience understand or care about something so 'technical'? 

And here's the crux. It is also the case that sex, scandal and drugs always have and do sell (just ask rap musicians) and bitcoin, being the newest thing out there, finds itself mixed up in all three. Like the new kid at school, trying to find their way and where to fit into the social ecosystem, bitcoin is establishing itself in the financial one. If the new kid happens to speak to the 'wrong crowd' now and again, its reputation is sullied for a while until people forget that was ever an issue. 

Perhaps, in years to come, bitcoin's association with the "dark side" will also be consigned to the archives or at least, no longer be the predominant headline.

By Louise @ BitScan