Bitcoin: A White Young Male Club?

Why does bitcoin just seem to be for young white guys?

Technology and Diversity

Bitcoin was meant to be a digital currency for everyone; a financial system where people who were black or white, rich or poor, male or female alike could benefit. Anyone with a computer and an Internet connection was supposed to be able to create bitcoin, and then spend it. Indeed, they can. But they aren’t. Why?

I recently wrote a report for bitcoin news site CoinDesk, analyzing the demographics of bitcoin user base.

The survey, conducted online, collated responses from around 3500 people who owned bitcoin, or had done at some point in the past. The results were a little depressing. Most of the people in the bitcoin world seem to follow a particular demographic – and it’s predictably young, white, and male.

Of the people who responded to the survey, over nine in every 10 identified themselves as male. And two thirds (65.8%) identified themselves as white. Half of them came from North America (although that could be partly to do with how many people from other parts of the world saw the survey).

Bitcoin users are also relatively young, according to the survey. Almost one in four of the respondents were between 25 and 34 years old, with another 16.5% between 19 and 24. That means more than half of the bitcoin user base is under 35 years old.

A homogenous group

What does this say about bitcoin’s broad base of users?

It tells us that it is a still a homogenous group. There are exceptions, of course – there are women in the bitcoin community have made significant achievements, as have older people, and people of color – but they are the exception, rather than the rule. Basically, it’s still a club for young, western white guys.

This is concerning, but perhaps not surprising. The problem with new technologies is that they tend to be led by technologists, and when we look at the people who make technology, there is still a heavy bias towards men. This becomes a self-perpetuating problem, because it can be difficult for young women to establish a foothold in that world.

The classic answer to this is to say that you’re not personally biased, and that diverse communities are perfectly welcome. And on an individual level, for most people, that’s typically true. But it doesn’t solve the problem.

Even when discrimination doesn’t happen overtly in tech communities, it happens by default. Communities that consist mainly of a single type of person tend to be self-reinforcing. Views and perspectives are the same, and are amplified, because everyone tends to echo similar perspectives. So even if people in homogenous communities don’t intend it to happen, they can end up being exclusive.

As an example, read this account of what it’s like to attend a bitcoin conference as a woman, written by Facebook marketing exec Arianna Simpson. Shortly after writing that article, she became an account specialist at BitGo, which makes a secure bitcoin wallet.

About more than gender

The lack of diversity in technology spreads beyond bitcoin, and it isn’t just about women. Tech communities exclude many different types of people who fall outside of their demographic group, which may be why Facebook hired just seven black people in 2013. We’re guessing that no one at Facebook sat around a table and talked about how they weren’t going to hire very many black people. But people can unwittingly tend to hire people like themselves.

With bitcoin, we’re seeing the same kind of phenomenon that we saw with the development of the web 25 years ago. The early adopters fall into a tech-savvy male demographic, which is self-reinforcing. It will no doubt change – although it isn’t yet clear if bitcoin will be around in its present form by the time that it does.

In fact, Bitcoin’s main existential challenge today is adoption.

Advocates want it to be a mainstream currency, but for that to happen, it has to break out of its tech-focused bubble.

So how can we encourage more diversity in Bitcoin? We could start by actively making space for other kinds of voices in the community. You might not necessarily find a lot of women at some bitcoin conferences, for example, but you acknowledge that they’re out there – lots of them, actually – and consider women as speakers on their merits, just as you would do with the usual people that speak at conferences. The same goes for other groups that don't get much representation in Bitcoin at present.

Cryptocurrency will become egalitarian by itself over time, but the people behind it are smart. If they want to, they can accelerate the process. Call it forced evolution, through disruption of old habits. After all, that’s what bitcoin is meant to be all about, isn’t it?