If Bitcoin is to achieve mainstream success it cannot stop at the limited crowds of Internet geeks, libertarians and privacy advocates that it is hitting now, and it must find some way to attract the mainstream public. The mainstream public seems like a difficult target: it has eluded many products ranging from desktop Linux to Esperanto, as it seems like it values only convenience, but convenience cannot be attained without the public already supporting it. But the mainstream public is not a homogeneous entity; it has many dimensions — rich and poor, urban, suburban and rural, young and old — and some could potentially be more interested in Bitcoin than others. And it is by dividing and conquering that the revolutions that do succeed do so — Facebook started from Harvard students to students in general to now the entire world. Bitcoin can benefit from such a strategy, and the logical target for Bitcoin is younger people, who are less established and comfortable in their lives and are more willing to try something new. And who are the youngest and most adventurous of all? The answer is teenagers.
Here are five reasons why teenagers are an excellent adoption demographic for Bitcoin:
- Teenagers want Internet purchasing power. The idea of an allowance and even children having their own spending money is deeply ingrained in our culture, but there is simply no equivalent for the Internet. In many jurisdictions, you must be at least 18 to sign up for a credit card, so when someone younger than 18 wants to buy something the only option is to use a parent’s credit card. Parents can adopt one of two strategies: they can either freely give their children their credit cards and let them buy whatever they want, hoping that the child won’t buy too much, or they can make their children ask for permission for each purchase. The first is too negligent, and the second is, for many, too authoritarian and there is no easy way to strike a balance between the two under the current system. But with Bitcoin there is: parents can set an allowance, send that allowance to their children every week or month, and there is no way they can possibly overspend — an exact equivalent of cash for the digital world.
- Bitcoin teaches good financial wisdom. With credit cards, you spend first, and worry about it later. If you want, you can even worry about it much later since you can just pay the minimum payments every month until you are almost bankrupt and the creditors start calling every day. With Bitcoin, the opposite is the case. Money has to enter your account before you spend it, and although in a Bitcoin world there would still be debt, going into debt would be a conscious choice, not the seamless transition from positive balance to negative balance that it is now. There is a limit on how much you can spend and when you spend anything at all the transaction appears on the Bitcoin client and stays there until other, newer, transactions push it off the screen and replace it, and the pain of spending is felt yet again every time you look at your remaining balance. Just having one’s remaining balance in such a prominent location, to be looked at every day, has a powerful psychological effect: it causes you to constantly think, “I have 47.2 BTC left, and 14 days until I get paid next, so that’s about three and a half BTC per day, so is it really that good an idea to buy this new gadget for 15 BTC today when I might want to buy something else later?” It’s a proven fact that people spend less when they pay cash, and Bitcoin would have an even stronger effect.
- Bitcoin still allows teenagers financial privacy, just as cash does. People want privacy, and many teenagers these days would be horrified if they found out that their parents would be keeping track of all their purchases from now on. Our society perceives such infringements of privacy as unreasonable, and they are ultimately unhelpful: when the kid goes off to college he will immediately proceed to buy everything that his parents had earlier forbidden him. Bitcoin, on the other hand, is Weight Watchers for your wealth: it’s not what you buy, it’s how much you buy, and teenagers can make their own decisions about what they value most and adjust accordingly, rather than worrying about satisfying their parents’ ideas of what is financial wisdom and what is extravagance. Prudence is enforced by reality, not authority.
- Bitcoin encourages teen entrepreneurship. The Internet is more and more the primary way teenagers interact with each other socially, but it is also a powerful opportunity for them to start interacting with others economically. Everyone has their own talents, whether in music or art or writing or computer programming, and Bitcoin allows people to easily start earning money from their skills even while they are still in high school. Cash was the economic liberator and exciter of such youthful entrepreneurial energy 50 years ago, with the iconic images of children with lemonade stands and 11 year old boys on bicycles delivering newspapers, and the culture that resulted from this gave us the greatest era of economic prosperity we’ve ever seen. Now, the equivalent of this is the Internet, where the sky is the limit: if your work is good enough, you can reach hundreds of thousands of people and earn vast quantities of money that the lemonade stand owners would never have dreamed of. But for teenagers to be economically liberated, they need an economically liberating currency, and Bitcoin is the perfect candidate: unlike credit cards, being a producer and earning money is just as easy as being a consumer and spending it.
- Teenagers are the future. They are not yet bogged down by the way we currently lead our lives, with our credit cards, loans and mortgages, and some may even choose to lead their lives bank-free entirely, using Bitcoin right from the start. While for most people switching to Bitcoin is a short-term pain as they’re already comfortable with their credit cards, for teenagers getting through the process of applying for an account and a credit card is the pain, and they would really rather just get started earning and spending some coins. Finally, they are not yet corrupted by the credit card system’s psychology, one where quick, temporary money is much more easily attained by pleading than by producing, and the psychology that they adopt will, 10-20 years down the line, be the driving psychology of society. If we, the Bitcoin community, are seeking to fundamentally alter the way the world thinks about money, teenagers are the best place to start.
Vitalik Buterin is a co-founder of Bitcoin Magazine who has been involved in the Bitcoin community since 2011, and has contributed to Bitcoin both as a writer and the developer of a fork of bitcoinjs-lib, pybitcointools and multisig.info, as well as one of the developers behind Egora. Now, Vitalik's primary job is as the main developer of Ethereum, a project which intends to create a next-generation smart contract and decentralized application platform that allows people to create any kind of decentralized application on top of a blockchain that can be imagined.