Cryptocurrency is an encrypted decentralized digital currency transferred between peers and confirmed in a public ledger via a process known as mining.
Below, we take a simplified look at how cryptocurrencies like bitcoin work. First, let’s review the basics and essentials of cryptocurrency, and then we will do an overview of the other properties that have made cryptocurrency what it is today.
TIP: If the page below feels overwhelming, check out: “how does cryptocurrency work (for beginners).” Meanwhile, if you are mainly interested in trading, investing in, or using cryptocurrency, check out “how to trade cryptocurrency (for beginners).” This page provides an overview of the mechanics behind cryptocurrency.
The Cryptocurrency Basics
In order to understand how cryptocurrency works, you’ll need to understand a few basic concepts. Specifically:
Public Ledgers: All confirmed transactions from the start of a cryptocurrency’s creation are stored in a public ledger. The identities of the coin owners are encrypted, and the system uses other cryptographic techniques to ensure the legitimacy of record keeping. The ledger ensures that corresponding “digital wallets” can calculate an accurate spendable balance. Also, new transactions can be checked to ensure that each transaction uses only coins currently owned by the spender. Bitcoin calls this public ledger a “transaction block chain.”
Transactions: A transfer of funds between two digital wallets is called a transaction. That transaction gets submitted to a public ledger and awaits confirmation. When a transaction is made, wallets use an encrypted electronic signature (an encrypted piece of data called a cryptographic signature) to provide a mathematical proof that the transaction is coming from the owner of the wallet. The confirmation process takes a bit of time (ten minutes for bitcoin) while “miners” mine (ie. confirm transactions and add them to the public ledger).
Mining: In simple terms, mining is the process of confirming transactions and adding them to a public ledger. In order to add a transaction to the ledger, the “miner” must solve an increasingly-complex computational problem (sort of like a mathematical puzzle). Mining is open source, so anyone can confirm the transaction. The first “miner” to solve the puzzle adds a “block” of transactions to the ledger. The way in which transactions, blocks, and the public blockchain ledger work together ensures that no one individual can easily add or change a block at will. Once a block is added to the ledger, all correlating transactions are permanent and a small transaction fee is added to the miner’s wallet (along with newly created coins). The mining process is what gives value to the coins and is known as a proof-of-work system.
The Anatomy of Cryptocurrency
Although there can be exceptions to the rule, there are a number of factors (beyond the basics above) that make cryptocurrency so different from the financial systems of the past:
Adaptive Scaling: Adaptive scaling essentially means that cryptocurrencies are built with a number of measures to ensure that they will work well in both large or small scales.
Adaptive Scaling Example: Bitcoin is programmed to allow for one transaction block to be mined approximately every ten minutes. The algorithm adjusts after every 2016 blocks (theoretically, that’s every two weeks) to get easier or harder based on how long it actually took for those 2016 blocks to be mined. So if it only took 13 days for the network to mine 2016 blocks, that means it’s too easy to mine, so the difficulty increases. However, if it takes 15 days for the network to mine 2016 blocks, that shows that it’s too hard to mind, so the difficulty decreases.
A number of other measures are included in digital coins to allow for adaptive scaling including limiting the supply overtime (to create scarcity) and reducing the reward for mining as more total coins are mined.
Cryptographic: Cryptocurrency uses a system of cryptography (AKA encryption) to control the creation of coins and to verify transactions.
Decentralized: Most currencies in circulation are controlled by a centralized government, and thus their creation can be regulated by a third party. Cryptocurrency’s creation and transactions are open source, controlled by code, and rely on “peer-to-peer” networks. There is no single entity that can affect the currency.
Digital: Traditional currency is defined by a physical object (USD representing gold for example), but cryptocurrency is all digital. Digital coins are stored in digital wallets and transferred digitally to other peoples’ digital wallets. No physical object ever exists.
Open Source: Cryptocurrencies are typically open source. That means that developers can create APIs without paying a fee and anyone can use or join the network.
Proof-of-work: Most cryptocurrencies use a proof-of-work system. A proof-of-work scheme uses a hard-to-compute but easy-to-verify computational puzzle to limit exploitation of cryptocurrency mining. Essentially, it’s like a really hard to solve “catpcha” that requires lots of computing power. NOTE: Other systems like proof-of-work (such as proof-of-stake) are also used.
Pseudonymity: Owners of cryptocurrency keep their digital coins in an encrypted digital wallet. A coin-holder’s identification is stored in an encrypted address that they have control over – it is not attached to a person’s identity. The connection between you and your coins is pseudonymous rather than anonymous as ledgers are open to the public (and thus, the ledgers could be used to glean information about groups of individuals in the network).
Value: For something to be an effective currency, it has to have value. The US dollar used to represent actual gold. The gold was scarce and required work to mine and refine, so the scarcity and work gave the gold value. This, in turn, gave the US dollar value.
Cryptocurrency works with a similar concept in regards to value. In cryptocurrency, “coins” (which are nothing more than publicly agreed on records of ownership) are generated or produced by “miners”. These miners are people who run programs on specialized hardware made specifically to solve proof-of-work puzzles. The work behind mining coins gives them value, while scarcity of coins and demand thereof causes their value to fluctuate. The idea of work giving value to currency is called a “proof-of-work” system. The other method for validating coins is called proof-of-stake. Value is also created when transactions are added to public ledgers as creating a verified “transaction block” takes work as well.
Learning More on How Cryptocurrency Works
If at this point, you feel a little bit confused, don’t worry and don’t give up! Wrapping your head around the foundational concepts of cryptocurrency can be a challenge! One explanation works for some people, and a different explanation works of others.
The trick with cryptocurrency is not getting worried if you don’t understand it at first – each new video, explanation, or article that you learn from will make your personal understanding of cryptocurrency clearer and clearer until, eventually, it clicks.