What is Cryptocurrency? Everything You Need to Know in 2023

24 Aug 2023

Cryptocurrency has evolved from an obscure digital currency used by a niche group of cypherpunks into a mainstream financial and technological phenomenon that is reshaping business, finance and society.

What is Cryptocurrency?

A cryptocurrency is a digital or virtual asset designed to work as a medium of exchange. It uses cryptography to secure and verify transactions as well as to control the creation of new units. Bitcoin became the first decentralized cryptocurrency when it launched in 2009.

The key characteristics of cryptocurrency are:

  • Decentralized - no central authority controls it
  • Secure - cryptography verifies transactions
  • Pseudonymous - accounts are not linked to real world identities
  • Irreversible - transactions can't be reversed or canceled
  • Scarce - new units are created through mining
  • Transferable - users have full ownership and control

Thousands of cryptocurrencies now exist following the launch of Bitcoin. They power financial applications like digital cash, tokenized assets, decentralized finance (DeFi) and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

How Cryptocurrency Works

Cryptocurrencies run on public distributed ledgers called blockchains. A blockchain records transactions chronologically and maintains consensus on the state of the network.

When a new transaction occurs, it is broadcast to the peer-to-peer network of computers running the blockchain. These nodes validate the transaction to confirm the sender has the required amount of the cryptocurrency to complete it.

Valid transactions are written into a new block of data for the ledger. Nodes add these blocks to the existing blockchain through a consensus process that ensures agreement on the order and validity of transactions.

This distributed consensus process allows cryptocurrencies to operate without the need for a central authority. The users collectively run and maintain the ledger. Advanced cryptography provides security for verifying transactions and securing the network.

Cryptocurrency Users

There are several types of users that participate in the cryptocurrency ecosystem:

Miners - Miners add new blocks through the consensus process in proof-of-work systems. They receive newly minted cryptocurrency and transaction fees as a reward.
Developers - Developers contribute to open source cryptocurrency protocols. They propose and implement upgrades to the codebase.
Investors - Investors buy cryptocurrency as a speculative asset or to power financial applications built on blockchain. They aim to profit from adoption.
Traders - Traders try to profit from volatile price swings in cryptocurrency markets through buying and selling. They use trading strategies to capitalize on price differentials.
Users - Users utilize cryptocurrency to power decentralized applications like digital cash, smart contracts, NFT marketplaces and DeFi.
This diverse user base with varying incentives contributes to the decentralized evolution of cryptocurrency technologies.

Cryptocurrency Benefits

Here are some of the key benefits that make cryptocurrency a potentially transformative innovation:


Cryptocurrency removes the need for financial institutions and third party intermediaries. Users have direct control of their funds and participate in an open network.


Anyone with an internet connection can access cryptocurrency and applications built on its public blockchain networks. There are no geographic restrictions.


Military-grade cryptography secures cryptocurrency funds and defends the networks against hacking and fraudulent transactions.


As public distributed ledgers, blockchains allow anyone to trace funds and transactions. This improves accountability and integrity.


Though not fully anonymous, cryptocurrency wallets aren't linked to real world identities. This provides a degree of privacy over traditional finance.


Transactions on blockchains are irreversible and immutable once confirmed. This guarantees the integrity of historical records and the state of applications.

Censorship Resistance

Cryptocurrency users control their own funds. There is no central authority that can block or freeze accounts.


Smart contract platforms like Ethereum allow complex decentralized applications and autonomous digital organizations to be built on blockchain.

Cryptocurrency Types

While Bitcoin established the first widely adopted cryptocurrency, many other models and variants have emerged tailored for specific use cases. Here are the major categories of cryptocurrencies:

Digital Cash

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Litecoin aim to replace physical cash and act as everyday digital money. They emphasize attributes like fast, cheap transfers.


Stablecoins are price-pegged cryptocurrencies that maintain a stable value. They are collateralized to assets like the US dollar to reduce volatility. Popular stablecoins include USDT, USDC and DAI.

Security Tokens

Security tokens represent real world assets like stocks, bonds, commodities and real estate on blockchain. Tokenization improves liquidity and accessibility.

Utility Tokens

Utility tokens give users access to a product or service on a blockchain network. They are similar to software licenses and power decentralized applications.

Governance Tokens

Governance tokens allow holders to vote on decisions for a decentralized blockchain protocol or application like exchange listings and upgrades.

Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)

NFTs are unique cryptographic tokens that represent ownership of rare digital assets like art, collectibles, avatars, and Domain Names.

Central Bank Digital Currencies (CBDCs)

CBDCs are digital forms of fiat currency issued and regulated by central banks. They represent the growing interest in cryptocurrency from legacy institutions.

This diversity of cryptocurrency models creates options for many types of financial and technological innovation on public blockchains.

Cryptocurrency Generation & Supply

Unlike fiat money which central banks can print without limit, cryptocurrencies have predefined methods for how their digital units enter circulation and are capped at a maximum supply.

When a cryptocurrency launches, there must be an initial distribution of the units. This is usually done via a crowd sale called an Initial Coin Offering (ICO) which sells newly minted tokens to early backers and investors.

After launch, new cryptocurrency enters through a decentralized issuance process called mining. Mining serves two functions - securing the network and minting new tokens as a reward incentive.

Proof-of-work mining involves solving computationally intensive mathematical puzzles using computing power. This protects blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum from cyber attacks. Miners who solve a puzzle first earn mining rewards.

The puzzle difficulty automatically adjusts to target a consistent block production rate. As mining power increases, puzzles get harder to solve. This means the supply rate stays fixed no matter how many miners join.

Many cryptocurrencies have a capped maximum supply. Bitcoin supply is limited to 21 million BTC by its protocol. Hard caps combined with predictable issuance models enforces digital scarcity.

Cryptocurrency Transactions

Transactions allow users to transfer value and interact with applications on a blockchain. The steps in a typical user transaction flow are:

  1. Wallet initiates transaction - The user's cryptocurrency wallet submits the transaction to the network with details like recipient, amount and digital signature.
  2. Broadcast to network - Nodes relay the transaction to propagate it across the peer-to-peer network so all participants can process it.
  3. Validation checks - Miner nodes verify the transaction is valid including checking the user has sufficient funds and digital signature is correct.
  4. Confirmation - The transaction is permanently written into a block of transactions that is recorded on the immutable blockchain through the consensus process.
  5. Update balances - Once confirmed, balances are updated reflecting the transfer of funds stated in the transaction. The recipient can now spend the received funds.

This process allows value to move securely between users without centralized intermediaries through decentralized consensus.

Cryptocurrency Wallets

Cryptocurrency wallets are software programs that store users' private keys which allow them to access their coins and authorize transactions. Wallets come in different forms:

  • Desktop - Wallets installed on laptop or PC such as Exodus, Atomic and Electrum.
  • Mobile - Phone apps that allow mobile cryptocurrency use like Trust Wallet and Coinbase Wallet.
  • Web - Wallets accessible through web browsers like Metamask and MyEtherWallet. Requires browser extensions to use.
  • Hardware - Physical devices like Ledger and Trezor that store keys offline for enhanced security.
  • Paper - Keys printed or written on paper for cold storage.

Wallets don't actually store cryptocurrency which only resides on the blockchain. They just manage users' private keys which act like the password to their cryptocurrency holdings.

Cryptocurrency Privacy

Though assumed anonymous, cryptocurrency transactions are only pseudonymous. Bitcoin addresses aren't directly connected to real world identities but analysis can reveal user identities in some cases.

Analyzing the transaction graph in the public blockchain ledger makes it possible to cluster addresses likely owned by the same user. Some ways users can be deanonymized include:

  • IP Tracking - Connect an address to an IP address that identifies a user.
  • Transactions - Link addresses through change outputs or spending habits.
  • Exchanges - Track withdrawals from exchanges to user accounts.

More advanced privacy-focused cryptocurrencies use cryptographic techniques like zero-knowledge proofs and ring signatures to offer stronger anonymity guarantees. Examples include Monero, Zcash and Secret. However, most cryptocurrency transactions still leak metadata.

Cryptocurrency Security

Cryptocurrency empowers users to be their own bank which also means they must secure their own funds. Key aspects of cryptocurrency security for users are:

  • Private keys - These must be kept private as they authorize access to cryptocurrency. Never share private keys.
  • Wallets - Use reputable well-audited wallets. Don't use web wallets for large holdings. Store large amounts in offline hardware or paper wallets.
  • Seed Phrases - Safely back up the 12 or 24-word mnemonic recovery phrase for wallets to allow restoration of keys if you lose access.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) - Use MFA options like email and SMS notifications to protect against unauthorized transfers by enhancing security.
  • Updated Software - Always keep software updated including wallets, apps and device operating systems to benefit from the latest security fixes.
  • Avoid Scams - Don't trust offers that seem too good to be true. Scammers use phishing links, fake celebrity endorsements and fraudulent exchanges to trick novices.

Following basic security precautions makes it unlikely for funds to be compromised. The irreversible nature of blockchain transactions however means extra care must be taken.

Cryptocurrency Public Perception

Public perception of cryptocurrency varies significantly depending on familiarity and understanding. Some common views are:

Innovative Technology - Many see cryptocurrency as an exciting new technology paradigm that has the potential to fundamentally disrupt many industries.
Speculative Mania - Bouts of extreme price volatility and bubbles reinforce the perception of cryptocurrency as a purely speculative asset class with no intrinsic value.
Shady Reputation - Associations with criminal usage, hacks, fraud and scams taint the reputation of cryptocurrencies in the minds of the general public.
Fringe Movement - Mainstream finance has often dismissed cryptocurrency as a niche experiment or temporary fad that will fade away over time.
Political Controversy - Cryptocurrency has become a politically polarizing issue. Supporters advocate for financial freedom while critics see instability risks.
Climate Concerns - The energy usage of proof-of-work mining has led some to shun Bitcoin and cryptocurrency over perceived environmental impacts.

Despite increasing adoption, cryptocurrency still suffers an image problem in the eyes of many. Better education on the technology and its applications in decentralized finance may improve mainstream understanding over time.

Cryptocurrency Regulation & Legal Status

Government regulation is still playing catch-up when it comes to providing clear legal frameworks for cryptocurrency. Most jurisdictions fall into three camps:

Illegal - A small minority of countries like Algeria and Egypt have outright banned cryptocurrency usage through the banking system and as legal tender.
Unregulated - Many regions like Venezuela and Zimbabwe have undefined legal status for cryptocurrency with no clear regulations in place. Usage is neither forbidden nor encouraged.
Regulated - Developed countries are bringing in bespoke regulations for cryptocurrency relating to taxation, financial reporting rules, consumer protection and anti-money laundering laws.

Regulatory direction overall seems to be moving towards greater oversight rather than bans. The decentralized and borderless nature of cryptocurrency makes enforcing prohibitions very difficult in practice.

Major Cryptocurrencies

Now that we've covered the technology, applications and issues surrounding cryptocurrency at a high level, let's overview some of the most prominent and highly valued cryptocurrency networks as of 2023.


  • Launched January 2009
  • Proof-of-work consensus
  • 1BTC block reward
  • 21 million BTC supply cap
  • Most liquid cryptocurrency
  • Primary use - digital gold

The first and most well-known cryptocurrency based on a proposal in the 2008 whitepaper by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto. It pioneered proof-of-work mining and Bitcoin remains the top valuation project by market capitalization.

Some limitations include slow transaction times of 10 minutes and high fees during periods of peak demand on the network. This has led to debates around using Bitcoin more as a store of value than medium of exchange. Development remains contentious due to disagreements between factions.


  • Launched July 2015
  • Proof-of-work moving to proof-of-stake
  • 2 ETH block reward
  • No supply cap
  • Smart contracts and dApps
  • ERC-20 token standard

Created by Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum extended blockchain beyond just payments to allow smart contracts and complex decentralized applications (dApps) to be built on its platform. Instead of monetary policy, Ethereum focuses on being a world computer for Web3 development.

Ethereum pioneered the ERC-20 token standard which powered the 2017 ICO boom. It now dominates decentralized finance (DeFi) and NFT applications. The network is transitioning to proof-of-stake for energy efficiency reasons through a series of upgrades.


  • Launched September 2017
  • Pure proof-of-stake consensus
  • Fixed 0.3 ADA reward
  • 45 billion ADA supply cap
  • Focus on research and governance
  • Prominent in developing countries

Designed by Ethereum co-founder Charles Hoskinson, Cardano emphasizes rigorous academic research and formal verification for its codebase. It uses the Haskell programming language known for safety and correctness.

Cardano operates a federated governance model aimed at balancing decentralization with practical coordination between stakeholders. Development is funded through a treasury system rather than mining rewards or fees.


  • Launched October 2011
  • Bitcoin code fork
  • Scrypt mining algorithm
  • 84 million LTC supply cap
  • Faster/cheaper than Bitcoin
  • Primary use - payments

One of the earliest Bitcoin code forks, Litecoin aims to improve on Bitcoin's use as peer-to-peer digital cash. Key changes include a faster 2.5 minute block time and use of Scrypt mining instead of Bitcoin's SHA-256.

While Litecoin beats Bitcoin in speed and fees, it has failed to gain substantial traction in usage. However, Litecoin remains one of the top valued cryptocurrencies and is often used as a testbed for potential Bitcoin upgrades like SegWit and Lightning Network.


  • Launched June 2017
  • ERC-20 token on Ethereum
  • 1 billion LINK fixed supply
  • Decentralized oracles
  • Provides real-world data to blockchains

Chainlink solves a key limitation of smart contracts - how to connect them to real world data. It uses a decentralized oracle network of nodes that validate and deliver data to blockchains from off-chain sources.

This allows development of DeFi applications that can utilize real-world information like asset prices, weather data, random numbers and more in their logic while retaining end-to-end decentralization. LINK is used to pay node operators.


In just over a decade since Bitcoin's creation, cryptocurrency has grown into a sweeping movement touching everything from finance and technology to politics and culture. The decentralized architecture of cryptocurrencies presents both opportunities to empower users and disruptive challenges to legacy systems.

Like major paradigm shifts of the past such as the emergence of the internet, cryptocurrency's profound implications will likely only fully play out over years and decades. But the potential to revolutionize money, finance, economics and other domains is undeniable.

There are still many open questions, uncertainties and cautions that surround cryptocurrency's evolution and mainstream adoption. But as understanding and technological foundations improve, it is clear cryptographic digital currencies will continue playing an increasingly prominent role in the future of money and value exchange globally.

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