Crypto as social phenomenon

Exploring the possibility of harnessing consumer behavior to take cryptocurrencies mainstream

For millennia, people have used physical goods as means of payment — everything from shells to gold coins to paper fiat. But in this millennium, a new form of settlement, as well as an investment vehicle, has emerged from the need to transact among parties digitally, anonymously, and without the backing of a central authority. This need stemmed from an increasing desire to trade goods among people who weren’t in the same place, and perhaps had limited ability to exchange currencies—or to trust each other. Enter cryptocurrencies.

In the years since cryptocurrencies emerged, beginning with Bitcoin, they have been both heralded as the future of finance and derided as a modern tulip mania or the dotcom bubble 2.0. But even if that’s true, one bubble doesn’t have to follow in the footsteps of another: The key to avoiding a bubble burst this time may lie in how quickly—and easily—crypto reaches the mainstream and begins to appeal to, and shape, consumer behavior. What’s more, there may be an inflection point where consumer trust in fiat currency erodes sufficiently to drive more mainstream use of coins.

For example, in Venezuela, which has been subject to one of the worst hyperinflation crises in history, an estimated 100,000 citizens have turned to mining Bitcoin to provide some protection from the crisis, given that electricity to mine the coins is cheap and generates at least a few dollars a day. Even as the broader industry retrenches a bit, this type of mainstreaming—out of necessity—is also happening in other countries that have long depended on remittances, like the Philippines.

Elsewhere, it won’t take a crisis to bring crypto into the mainstream. Instead, it may simply happen when crypto is offered as a viable alternative to other currencies and investments—which is currently limited by a lack of trust, lack of liquidity, and regulatory uncertainty.

While there has been considerable focus on the booms and busts of certain coins, relatively fallow periods have also been marked by continued investment in infrastructure, security, and more, all of which are potentially stabilizing in the long-term—and all of which engender trust.

One other historically significant barrier to the widespread adoption of cryptocurrencies is their high transaction fees, which make them prohibitively illiquid. That’s where the entry of Robinhood, which does not charge commissions and keeps transaction fees low, is interesting when it comes to bringing crypto mainstream; it can act more like a traditional investment in that sense—and thus naturally drive consumers’ behavior toward crypto if it bears a resemblance to something they’re already familiar with.

“We’re pretty relentlessly focused on our mission of making the markets and the financial services system more accessible to the broader population, and that’s a pretty good North star for us,” Robinhood co-founder Baiju Bhatt told Forbes.

Finally, regulatory uncertainty tends to have a dampening effect on both company and consumer activity in the space, something that is being mitigated with continued VC confidence in the sector, and the presence of letter-of-the-law-followers in Coinbase and Robinhood. Indeed, as consumers become more aware of serious investors and companies that are confident in the space—in contrast to those who underscore its current, more speculative nature—and confident that their use of the currencies is not entirely risky, they may become less reluctant to add coins to their everyday use.

But come what may, the cryptocurrency wave represents a fascinating social phenomenon.

“People are paying thousands of dollars for something that is essentially a reward for playing a computer game,” Rick Lehman, Adjunct Professor of Behavioral Finance, has noted. “Wherever it eventually goes, it will undoubtedly provide some of the most enlightening information to date on the psychological and emotional mechanisms that drive human financial actions.”

And, in some cases, it may help reshape human financial behavior, too.