How Crypto Follows the Hype Cycle

Crypto and Blockchain tech have gone up and down in value as the public have reacted to both project expectations as well as price expectations.

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Between 2013 and 2021, Cryptocurrency has followed the Hype Cycle exactly as expected. Let me explain.

What is the Hype Cycle?

The Hype Cycle, coined by Gartner, is a law that describes how humans accept new and emerging technologies and adopt them into our everyday lives

Its a generalized way of estimating and predicting the rise and fall of a new technology and the way people react to it.

Figure 1: Phases of the Hype Cycle Curve. Source: Wikipedia; Olga Tarkovskiy – Own work

The curve above is a graph of TIME on the x-axis, and EXPECTATIONS on the y-axis.

In cryptocurrency, expectations is quantified by looking at the price or market cap of cryptocurrencies. For years, the price of cryptocurrency was not interesting. Price was flat.

Hype Cycle Phase: Technology Trigger Pre-R&D

Crypto wasn’t being discussed all over Twitter. It was a nerdy, boring conversation.

Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin were only being used by a few small groups of people, and was nowhere near mainstream discussion or adoption.

Just look at the market cap of Bitcoin between 2013 and 2017 below. Relative to where it is now, this is extremely insignificant

Figure 2: The market cap of bitcoin between 2013 and 2017. Source: CoinMarketCap

Bitcoin’s price and adoption wasn’t even relevant at this point. Compared to the Hype Cycle phases in Figure 1, cryptocurrency wouldn’t have even been on the charts.

But while the public vernacular and mainstream media ignored cryptocurrency, engineers and enthusiasts were quietly building. On the Figure 1 Hype Curve, at this point crypto is leading up to the R&D phase; it still early.

This is why venture capitalists like Marc Andreessen are famously interested in “what the nerds do at night“. By recognizing emerging tech trends before everyone else, you have the opportunity to invest in them at a favorable discount… when the technology principles have been proven, but the applications have not quite been built, they are not user friendly yet, and the mass majority of people aren’t even aware of the technology.

Vitalik Buterin was funded by Peter Thiel in 2015 to found Ethereum. As the potential applications of Ethereum started coming into light, a buzz started happening within tech circles.

Hype Cycle Phase: Early Adopters Investigate

People started to understand the power of this thing called blockchain, and could envision the possible smart contracts and more.

While Bitcoin was built to serve as digital gold, Ethereum was built as a platform from which blockchain applications would grow.

Coinbase.com became the de-facto place to purchase Bitcoin and Ethereum. It was easy to use and wasn’t that different from purchasing stocks at a place like Fidelity or Charles Schwab.

Working a desk job at a cubicle during this time, it felt like colleagues in the office were all starting to think about crypto and were considering buying it on Coinbase.

A few viral memes and Twitter conversations happened and before you know it, the prices of Bitcoin and Ethereum, the two big flagship cryptocurrencies, were pushing all time highs almost every day.

I hate to include a disclaimer here, but as you can tell, I’m going to be generalizing a lot in this post about the crypto community. I mean no disrespect. I love blockchain technology and the projects it has enabled… I want nothing more than what’s best for crypto as a whole. As an owner of bitcoin, ethereum, and other coins, I’ve seen the emotions of early adopters around me have experienced when the prices rise extremely fast (and inevitably fall just as quickly).

Hype Cycle Phase: Inflated Expectations

Towards the end of 2016 and into 2017, everyone started buying crypto. If you took a 10 minute uber ride across town, you would almost undoubtedly hear your driver mention something about the price of bitcoin.

Crypto millionaires were created. A friend of mine even managed to pay off his student loans from selling his stake in Ethereum, which he had acquired just months earlier.

At some point, it felt like people didn’t necessarily care about the applications of blockchain technology. Your average person was interested in trading, buying and selling, getting rich quick and only focused on the price rather than the underlying technology.

At the peak of inflated expectations, a few things can happen:

Engineering and developer teams tend to over-build. More crypto’s launched between the end of 2016 and early 2017 than anyone could keep track of. But the projects being built were not being used by anyone. The projects had no customers…

What the projects DID have, however, were investors. There was an abundance of over-eager individuals looking to throw $100 bucks into any coin with a slim chance of making it in hopes of returning 1000X on their investment.

The problem with this is that there are more people in the crypto community who are focused on making money from the technology than there are users and customers who are actually using the technology for the value it brings into their lives.

This fixation on price is a problem with the crypto community and it still exists to a large extent today.

Hype Cycle Phase: Trough of Disillusionment

As more cryptos were launched than there were users or customers, the over-inflated expectations started to become apparent.

The thing is, no one knows just how HIGH the peak of inflated expectations might go.

Peak of Inflated Expectations leads into the Trough of Disillusionment. Source: CoinMarketCap

In order to capitalize on investments in crypto, the smart ones on Twitter and Reddit communities preached the importance of holding onto the investments, not selling, and riding out the wave.

The thing is, this is a tricky thing to do. It is easy to decide to sell at the top, and even easier to decide to call it quits as an investment tanks and you lost 80-90% of your the value of your portfolio.

In some cases, those that sell at the top end up exiting while they’re ahead. In other cases, people with intentions to sell at the top end up waiting too long, and end up making an emotionally drastic decision to exit their crypto position at the worst possible time, during the trough of disillusionment.

Because the trough can last for years. In the case of Bitcoin and Ethereum, it lasted from the beginning of 2018 through late 2020.

The thing about cryptocurrency and blockchain technology (at least so far) is that the rise and fall of price of different cryptocurrencies are heavily correlated with each other.

As bitcoin rises, ethereum usually is rising also. As bitcoin enters the trough of disillusionment, ethereum was too. The same can be said for the other crypto’s that made it through the trough.

Bitcoin didn’t really start to enter the next phase until the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing mid to late 2020.

Hype Cycle Phase: Enlightenment to Productivity

Between late 2020 and today, the market cap of all cryptocurrencies has continued to push all time highs.

As of 2021, bitcoin has pushed all time highs. Source: CoinMarketCap

The reason for this may partly have been accelerated by the pandemic, but there’s more to it than that.

Within the crypto community, there is a large amount of funds going into projects that are receiving mainstream adoption.

NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are one example of an application that is seeing close to mass adoption.

Although it is still a fringe hobby, NFT collectibles have some resemblance to the enthusiasm around collectible sports cards and even Pokemon cards.

People are creating NFT masterpieces using artificial intelligence and listing them for sale as unique, one-of-a-kind tokens on websites like OpenSea.

For a fraction of an Ethereum, anyone can go on OpenSea and start collecting their own NFTs.

This is just one example. There are a number of other projects being built on top of Ethereum and discussed but we for many of these applications, it seems we still have a long way to go before mainstream adoption.

So as we’re pushing all time highs in almost every cryptocurrency, my question for the world is: are we entering another peak of inflated expectations? Or is this time for real? Are we truly in the Plateau of Productivity?

And this brings up a few follow up ideas and questions about the future… because at the end of the day, we can’t truly predict the future, we can only form hypothesis based on historic trends, proven laws, and observable principles.

Final Thoughts and Additional Questions

Could a technology go through the various phases of the Hype Cycle more than once?

Will cryptocurrency enter another trough of disillusionment?

How might other technologies follow the hype cycle?

Are there examples of technologies that do NOT follow the hype cycle?

As a technology follows the hype cycle, will the peak of inflated expectations ever over-extend the value of the technology as it reached the Plateau of Productivity?

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1 comments on “How Crypto Follows the Hype Cycle”

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