The great Bitcoin fork of 2017—when the original blockchain split last August to create Bitcoin Cash—appears to have ended pleasantly, at least for investors. The sum of the parts turned out to be greater than the whole: Within a week of the split, the two assets together were worth more than $15 billion in additional market value that didn’t exist prior to the fork.
Far away from Wall Street, however, the schism—which came about when two factions couldn’t agree on whether to speed up transaction times by expanding the size of units on the blockchain (Bitcoin Cash favoring larger blocks)—is still seething. There are signs the rift is growing more acrimonious, threatening to polarize the Bitcoin community around the world.
I witnessed the bitterness of the so-called scaling debate when I visited Tokyo in late March to report on new twists in the saga of Mt. Gox, the hacked Bitcoin exchange, for my latest magazine feature, “Mt. Gox and the Surprising Redemption of Bitcoin’s Biggest Villain”. There I found that much of the once tight-knit community had since become alienated by the Bitcoin Cash split.
I’m not going to analyze the technical merits of the scaling debate—regarding the speed and cost of transactions—here today, both for the sake of brevity and because the latest flare-ups have been less technological and more philosophical: The Bitcoin-Bitcoin Cash battles are now often over ethics, censorship, transparency, and even the political parties of their supporters.
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Case in point: Coincall, a portfolio tracking site for cryptocurrency investors, this week labeled Bitcoin Cash a “shitcoin” for “intentionally misleading newcomers to believe it’s the ‘real’ Bitcoin, for example by misusing bitcoin.com and the @bitcoin Twitter handle.” (Last month, scandal arose after the @bitcoin account appeared to endorse Bitcoin Cash, and was subsequently suspended by Twitter.) But even if those criticisms are accurate, they have nothing to do with whether or not Bitcoin Cash is actually faster, cheaper or easier to use than Bitcoin.
In Tokyo, however, Bitcoin Cash now seems to dominate the Bitcoin scene: Supporters have their own meetups; their own bars accepting Bitcoin Cash—they even have their own Satoshi Nakamoto, an Australian named Craig Wright. (Wright, though, has failed to irrefutably prove that he is the mysterious creator of Bitcoin—and others have offered evidence debunking Wright’s claims.)
My trip coincided with the Satoshi’s Vision Conference, an event that makes the case that Bitcoin Cash is the true Bitcoin. At a happy hour following the conference, people exclaimed “Make Bitcoin great again!” One guest called out to a woman carrying a baby: “Future big-blocker right there!”
They aren’t joking around. “This is war,” said Aaron Gutman, an organizer of the Tokyo Bitcoin Cash meetup. Proponents predict the coming of what they call “the flippening”—when Bitcoin Cash will displace Bitcoin as the most valuable cryptocurrency, and be recognized as the “real” Bitcoin. They claim they’ve been unfairly persecuted by the Bitcoin majority, that their posts about Bitcoin Cash have been deleted from the main Reddit Bitcoin forum.
At the center of the controversy is Roger Ver, an early Bitcoin evangelist living in Tokyo and CEO of Bitcoin.com who has now thrown the full weight of his support behind Bitcoin Cash. “They called him the ‘Bitcoin Jesus,’” says J. Maurice, who runs the Tokyo-based Bitcoin mining company WIZ, and used to consult for Ver, but has since become estranged. “Now he’s like the Bitcoin Judas.”
To see how the Tokyo rift is spreading, look no further than a CNBC article from a couple of weeks ago bearing the headline, “Forget bitcoin. Now is the time to buy bitcoin cash: Crypto trader.” The article is based on an interview with Brian Kelly, CEO of investment firm BKCM. But Kelly didn’t actually advise against Bitcoin, and in fact owns both it and Bitcoin Cash. “I’m not taking sides,” he said in the same interview. “I just want to make money.”
He has that in common with most New York crypto investors I know. And if your goal is purely to make money, Bitcoin Cash has lately been a better bet than Bitcoin: In the past month, the Bitcoin Cash price is up some 115%, while the Bitcoin price has risen 30% by comparison.
But as for the potential flippening, it still seems a long way off: Today the value of Bitcoin Cash is worth just under 16% of the total value of Bitcoin—barely more than the 14% it was worth when it was created. I won’t say it can’t happen. But first it would help to at least have an open and honest debate.