Bitcoin began from nothingness. The genesis block was mined on January 3rd, 2009, and yeah, the design was good and there was no double spending and Bitcoin’s followers became many. They used Bitcoin to buy a pizza and alpaca socks and drugs on the Silk Road, and they told their friends to use Bitcoin, and they emailed eBay to ask it to let people pay in Bitcoin, and they told their friends to email eBay, and they created long threads about Bitcoin on the eBay support forum, and it was good. There was one team, and it was Team Bitcoin.
But soon, Bitcoin got attention from journalists, governments, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street, and the network began to slow down. Team Bitcoin realized that if nothing was done, the network would become unusably slow, with transactions taking days or weeks to clear. If users wanted their transactions to clear faster, they’d have to pay high fees for priority, making Bitcoin impractical to use. Thus began the scalability crisis.
Two factions emerged: the big blockers and the small blockers, each armed with different solutions to the scalability crisis. Everyone hated the idea of splitting up Team Bitcoin, but each side believed in their righteousness, and they would not yield. On August 1st, 2017, the big blockers seceded. They duplicated the Bitcoin blockchain, the ledger with the history of all transactions, and begat a daughter, Bitcoin Cash. This was known as a “hard fork,” and it meant that the two currencies would split ways forever, with Bitcoin Cash transactions recorded on a separate ledger. Everyone who had Bitcoin on August 1st would be granted an equal amount of Bitcoin Cash.
This was the start of the Bitcoin “civil war,” and it continues to this day. Warringsubreddits. Wikipedia edit wars. April Fools’ Day sent shockwaves through the cryptocurrency community with fakeannouncements that die-hard advocates of Bitcoin had endorsed Bitcoin Cash.
In early April, a moderator at the Deconomy conference in Seoul asked, “Why does there have to be such animosity between Bitcoin and Bitcoin [Cash]?” Bitcoin Cash advocate Roger Ver responded that the split had “diverted” the project and “that means more babies are dying around the world because they have less economic freedom.” His fellow panelist Samson Mow, a Bitcoin supporter, was more measured, saying that the animosity comes from the use of the Bitcoin name — but he’s less aloof on Twitter, where his tweets are full of digs at Bitcoin Cash. (Gavin Andresen, who served as the lead developer for Bitcoin after Satoshi Nakamoto disappeared, once called Mow a “toxic troll.”) A week later, some in the Bitcoin community cheered when Twitter briefly suspended the Bitcoin Cash-supporting @Bitcoin Twitter account — possibly due to false reports from Bitcoin supporters.
It has now been eight months since the blockchain split, and there is no going back. So why are the two sides still devoting so much time to insulting each other?
“The arguments have devolved over three or four years of bitter debate,” said Andreas Antonopoulos, the author of Mastering Bitcoin and Internet of Money. “The principles are real and they are important to preserve, but a lot of the drama has nothing to do with principles anymore. A lot of this debate is now more about hurt feelings. It’s about bruised egos. It’s about things that were said that can’t be unsaid, insults that were exchanged, and personalities and ego.”
Antonopoulos has tried to remain neutral in the Bitcoin-Bitcoin Cash debate, something he’s been criticized for. “If you don’t take a side, then you get accused by both sides of not taking their side,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”
The only definitive difference between Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash is a technical one: Bitcoin Cash allows for larger blocks, or batches of transactions that get passed through the network, which theoretically means it can process more transactions per second. Bitcoin is also concerned with increasing transaction volume, but its solution involved moving some data off the Bitcoin blockchain, therefore keeping the blocks on the blockchain small. This theoretically preserves the spirit of the Bitcoin experiment because small blocks make it cheaper for anyone to run a “node,” which means the network can be run by a giant collective of small users instead of by institutions like banks.
In general, the Bitcoin Cash coalition favors the use of its currency as a medium of exchange for commerce. “The generic saying Bitcoin Cash people like to say is, ‘Will my Grandma be able to use it?’” Cory, the co-host of the podcast The BCH Boys and organizer of the NYC Bitcoin Cash Meetup, who asked that only his first name be used, told me in an email.
By contrast, the Bitcoin coalition is generally friendlier to cryptocurrency investors and less concerned with everyday payments. “Bitcoin is a store of value, first and foremost,” Michael Moro, the CEO of Genesis Trading, which brokers Bitcoin trades for institutions and large investors, said in an email. “I don’t think it’s very useful currently for payments, for a whole host of reasons.” He said his firm is agnostic toward individual coins, but that “investor interest in Bitcoin Cash has basically been non-existent in the last couple of months.”
“If I look at the two coins, on the Bitcoin side I see this enormous focus on price, an enormous focus on the ‘store of value’ narrative,” said Emin Gün Sirer, a professor at Cornell, co-director of the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies and Contracts, and a Bitcoin Cash supporter. “Store of value” refers to an asset that doesn’t depreciate.
“If you’re looking at what’s happening with Bitcoin Cash, they’re not focused on price,” Sirer said. “They’re focused on trying to get people to use this thing. If you look at the forums and so forth, every day there is a new message. ‘On this tiny little island I converted a little booth [to accept Bitcoin Cash].’ But they are doing it grassroots, organically, from the ground up.”
There is one other reason for the divisiveness: Craig Wright, an Australian businessman who claimed to be Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin who disappeared in 2011, but was neverable to prove it. Wright is an advocate of Bitcoin Cash, parroting the slogan that “Bitcoin Cash is Bitcoin.” He has some supporters in the Bitcoin Cash community, although other members of the movement consider him a liability and would rather not talk about him. Sirer referred to Wright as “an interesting character with a history of fraud.” “There are cults of personalities in every community,” he said.
It’s important to note that the Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash communities are decentralized coalitions. Each side has its vocal advocates, but there are no central bodies or official spokespeople. Some Bitcoin advocates want Bitcoin to be a medium of exchange, while Bitcoin Cash has attracted its share of speculators. There are also users who support both.
The real question facing Bitcoin Cash is whether people are actually using it. Bitcoin Cash trades at less than one-tenth of the price of Bitcoin, and the Bitcoin Cash economy is still minuscule compared to Bitcoin. Still, the Bitcoin Cash economy is not small. According to Chainalysis, a research firm that analyzes the Bitcoin blockchain and other cryptocurrencies, $230 million worth of Bitcoin Cash was sent from exchanges in March, a general measure of economic activity, while $2.62 billion was sent in Bitcoin.
It is remarkable that Bitcoin Cash was able to rebuild so much of the Bitcoin infrastructure, including nodes, wallets, and development teams, in such a short time. Mike Hearn, a prominent early Bitcoin developer who proposed a Bitcoin Cash-like upgrade in 2014 and then vocally quit the project after it failed, is skeptical of Bitcoin Cash. Still, he said on Reddit, “The speed with which Bitcoin Cash has recovered infrastructure and rebuilt community is impressive.” Furthermore, merchants are eager to start using Bitcoin Cash, according to BitPay, which processes transactions in Bitcoin for hundreds of thousands of merchants including Microsoft and Newegg. In December 2017, merchants were alarmed when the Bitcoin network became overwhelmed with activity and the fee for a single Bitcoin transaction surged. Bitcoin Cash, because of its higher transaction capacity, is theoretically resistant to this kind of surge. BitPay started offering its clients the option to accept payments in Bitcoin Cash in addition to Bitcoin earlier this year. “Ninety percent of our large merchants have turned it on,” said chief commercial officer Sonny Singh.
Bitcoin Cash detractors like to call the cryptocurrency “Bcash,” “Btrash,” or simply, a scam, while Bitcoin Cash advocates insist that their implementation is a more pure form of Bitcoin. (A Bitcoin Cash conference that met in Tokyo in March was called “Satoshi’s Vision.”) “They have inferior technology so they rely on censorship to try to stop the advances of the one true Bitcoin,” tweeted billionaire Bitcoin Cash proponent Calvin Ayre.
Antonopoulos finds this sort of infighting aggravating.
“The bottom line is that the world is dominated by closed monopolistic, state-owned, manipulated, controlling, surveillance-based currencies that pose a fundamental existential threat to democracy and liberty in the world,” he said. “We are at a crossroads and the crossroads is not between Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash.”
There is a new slogan that has emerged, Antonopoulos said: BUIDL, a misspelling of “build.”
“BUIDL something. Anything. Do your part. Write code. Write documentation. I don’t care if it’s Bitcoin Cash or Bitcoin or anything else, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “They’re getting distracted by all this bullshit.”