Cryptocurrency isn’t becoming mainstream because it's already there
Read enough articles about whether digital currency has achieved mainstream status and you’ll notice a distinct pattern. First, the author will reference to cryptocurrency’s mysterious origins: the Bitcoin whitepaper, the Satoshi Nakamoto mythos etc. Next, its remarkable trajectory – here you can expect dizzying percentage increases, unfeasibly large market cap values and comparisons to the GDPs of entire countries.
Then comes the disconnect. Authors will usually declare – despite the figures they have just quoted – that cryptocurrency remains a niche pastime, a technological subculture that flirts with the mainstream but hasn’t broken through. A payments bridesmaid, not yet a bride.
Are they wrong?
Well, to suggest that cryptocurrency hasn’t already entered the public consciousness is a little disingenuous. Not only has it been living rent-free in the minds of tabloid journalists for years - as the most perfunctory google search will confirm – it has also seamlessly embedded itself in the cultural identity of both boundary-pushing Gen Zers and trend-seeking millennials. A recent study on crypto adoption commissioned by Wirex and the Stellar Development Foundation explored usage and awareness amongst a section of the general population in four countries (UK, US, Singapore and Mexico), as well as the Wirex and Stellar user bases. It reveals that a whopping 81% ordinary people surveyed had heard of crypto and nearly 40% owned or had owned digital currency at some point. These are not fringe numbers.
However, column inches and social media posts do not necessarily equal true mainstream acceptance. Technology-driven countercultural movements can command a great deal of media and public attention without achieving significant uptake or longevity. Remember Google Glass? What about 3D TVs, or, for our mature readers, pagers? Fashions come and go. Whether they endure is a question of what they offer beyond tabloid-friendly hype.
So, do people actually use crypto?
The short answer is yes - and not just for the reasons you read about online or in the paper. We’ve all heard about crypto’s use as a speculative asset, but media tales of avarice and rags-to-riches redemption are just one extremely superficial aspect of digital money and the supporting blockchain technology.
Take transferring money abroad, for example. Traditional remittance channels are notoriously time-consuming. Options are extremely limited and fees are frequently disproportionately high. Perversely, fees and charges are often significantly higher in developing economies that rely on migrant workers sending home money from abroad according to a study performed by the World Bank. Of the people surveyed in Wirex and the SDF’s report, 53% of respondents felt they were paying too much in fees when making cross-border money transfers - with nearly the same number reporting charges of more than 3% for the privilege.
We already know that blockchain-powered transactions offer a viable alternative to legacy transfer methods, but has crypto’s reputation as a tradeable asset inhibited uptake as a means of international remittance amongst the general population? It appears not. 45% of the general population segment surveyed by Wirex and Stellar revealed that they had sent cryptocurrency to someone in another country. And that’s not all. Of the Singaporean and Mexican participants surveyed, 86% and 71% respectively believe that digital currency represented a legitimate alternative to conventional payment rails for cross-border remittance.
Cryptocurrency has clearly entered mainstream usage as a means of sending money abroad affordably, securely and quickly. But some people aren’t convinced. Popularity amongst men in their twenties and thirties don’t represent mainstream adoption, they argue - and not unfairly.
No girls allowed?
Fortunately, the tired stereotype of tech-savvy, disaffected, young-ish men smashing cans of Monster while they speculate on the market and spam crypto community forums with Shiba Inu memes is just that – a lazy cliché that doesn’t represent crypto’s real user base.
Not only is there good evidence that women make more effective crypto investors than men, the Wirex & SDF study shows that the gap in ownership rates between men and women has fallen to only 16%. More women are investing in and using digital currency than ever before – and the same is true for people outside of the stereotypical ages 20-35 demographic.
The numbers suggest that crypto has achieved mainstream status. Despite this, there is evidence that the asset class has become a victim of its own counter-cultural success. Of the approximately 10,000 people surveyed by Wirex and the SDF, well over a third of participants admitted to a lack of understanding about how to use and benefit from crypto and blockchain technology. While companies like Wirex and Stellar make education a core part of their business models, the crypto industry in general can be esoteric and difficult to navigate, especially for casual investors and users. Coupled with a reputation that is still unjustly coloured by stories of exploitation and fraud, there is a clear need for an image overhaul.
It can be argued that digital currency has achieved mainstream adoption despite the obvious difficulties people have accessing it. With less complex on-and-offboarding ramps, more intuitive UX and a less scary reputation amongst the general public, there’s no reason why crypto cannot compete with conventional banking as a primary means of exchanging value.