The triumph and misery of bitcoin investors is unbearable

The triumph and misery of bitcoin investors is unbearable

CultureDecember 14, 2017 By Reilly Capps

The air around bitcoin is electric.

At Amante Coffee in Boulder, at the bitcoin ATM machine there, a man buys $5 in bitcoin for his brother in law as a Christmas present. "It's like a lottery ticket," he tells me. And as he steps away, teens quickly take his place, scrambling to put in cash. "It's the future," one says.  

Bitcoin is made-up Internet money. Ones and zeros. Money no government prints, no company controls. For years, it was most commonly used to buy drugs off the darknet.

In 2017, some big banks started to accept its existence. So did some governments. The price of a bitcoin rocketed to space.

In the history of the world, there have been few times when so much money was made by so many people so quickly. This year, a quarter of a trillion dollars appeared in the bitcoin world, as the price jumped from $1,000 to $16,000 (roughly).

And that's sending shockwaves through the national money system, through the delicate nerve systems of some very excited early bitcoin investors.

At the monthly Boulder bitcoin meeting, held at Alfalfa's grocery store, there's the air of gamblers counting cards who learned how to get the best of the casino.

For years, four people would show up to a typical meeting. Tonight, there's 37 around a packed table.

Amid jargon-y talk of "atomic swaps" and "shapeshifts," there's a hunger in the room.

There's also a vibe of "I-told-you-so." An older lady in a knit white cap seems to feel it. "I've been talking about bitcoin for five years with everyone, with limited response," she says. "And today in my office I had five people huddled around me asking questions."

And so is a sense of "benevolent genius." A 50-ish man in tennis shoes says, "A few years ago I talked my Pilates instructor into taking bitcoin. She's very very very very grateful now."

People here are cagey about giving a reporter their name, or admitting how many bitcoins they have. They're afraid of being hacked. Remember, they only had to have snagged about 60 bitcoins back when they cost a dollar, in 2011, to be millionaires today.

We met a guy online who says he mined a few hundred bitcoin back in 2010 when they were trading for around a dollar and hung on to them. He went to college, got married, has loads of student debt and huge rent costs. This week, he cashed out those bitcoin for more than a million dollars. "We will be using the money to pay off all student debt, to buy a sustainable, efficient house that is close to our work so that we can bike to work instead of driving. The rest of the money we are going to put into an index fund that we will hold onto until we want to retire," he says.

(It's so hard to buy and sell bitcoin at the moment, the guy says, that he had to pay a broker more than 50 percent in fees.)

For every story of near-instant wealth, the cryptocurrency world is full of people who just missed the boat. This close to driving Lambos on the moon. Conor Williams, 22, a student in computer science at CSU, tells us how he used to own ethereum, a digital currency that's a lot like bitcoin. "I had 2000 ether back when it was like a dollar," he tells us. As the price went up, he sold if off, making thousands of dollars. He used the money to fund trips to Asia and Europe. "At today’s prices that's — what's ether at right now?" He does the math. It's about a million dollars. There is a silence. "They were good trips," he says.

And that sentiment is all over the bitcoin world today: what could have been. If only I'd sold my car and bought some. If only I'd hung on.

(Personally, I did a story about bitcoin in May and used the currency to buy a $15 sandwich. At today's prices, that's a $150 meal.)

Real believers don't care that much about the gains and the losses. The point of crypto, to them, is revolution. It will put control of money in the hands of regular people, not big banks and government.

"Governments don't control it, banks don't control it," says Rick Munoz, a veteran and bitcoin evangelist. He's stoked, even though he says he doesn't own very much bitcoin.

Yet some are calling bitcoin the biggest financial bubble in the history of the world. But not Munoz and the other believers. To them, as he says, "This is just the beginning."