Bubble. Tulip. Luck.

Blockchain and cryptocurrency currently occupy the roll the dice slot in the popular mind, as evidenced by a recent Scientific American headline that used bitcoin (BTC) as a shorthand for risk for a story about what parts of the human brain assess chance. Last December, a CNN Money story used the crypto trend as the hook for a roundup of famous market crashes, predictably aligning crypto with the 17th century tulip mania, the stock market crash of 1929 and the 2001 dot-com bust.

At what point does a new industry transition in the national conversation from the language of Las Vegas to the language of Wall Street?

Risk to Reality 

The tipping point comes when early adopters start to reap measurable, verifiable results, say academics who actually think about these kinds of things. The early chaos of a new industry tangles conversation as early players sort out the very first industry standard: the language they will use to discuss the technical underpinnings, applications, success metrics and corresponding financial results. Confusion reigns, say academics, when early participants try to discuss new concepts with new, made-up terminology.

“One of the challenges for crypto is that people don’t have a basis for comparing it to other things. The fact that companies are putting blockchain in their names doesn’t mean that the public understands what blockchain is, says Schwantes.

Common understanding crystallizes when current language is used to describe new concepts. That is when early adopters understand what is going on sufficiently to become early adopters, and only then can they start using new terms to describe processes that are becoming familiar.

This is why email is called email and not something else, explains author and business historian Benjamin Schwantes. Back in the 1970s, when MCI Communications was developing practical uses for its far-flung data networks, it hit on the idea of sending messages that would appear on subscribers’ computer screens.

What to call this new service, which MCI believed would be invaluable to businesses and, perhaps, to consumers? “They modeled it after the post office and the telegram,” says Schwantes, explaining that the service was introduced as a way to get a printed document on the same day, once it was transmitted, printed and hand-delivered to recipients.

Though MCI’s business model of subscriptions within a walled system was not adopted as widely as it had hoped, its legacy is the term “email. “To develop a new product and concept, you have to ground it in ideas from the past” as a bridge, says Schwantes. He adds:

“One of the challenges for crypto is that people don’t have a basis for comparing it to other things. The fact that companies are putting blockchain in their names doesn’t mean that the public understands what blockchain is. You have to use an analogy. You have to say, ‘It’s like this other product, except with these new capabilities.’ That is what helps it appeal to a broad audience.”

Where’s the Messiah?

The message of any new industry must be conveyed by an oracle figure who comes to symbolize the vision of how the world could be better thanks to the new concept, says Tomoko Hamada Connolly, an anthropology professor at William & Mary College who concentrates on tribal dynamics of business. Marc Andreessen became the “magician,” to use Connolly’s term, of the internet when he championed Mosaic, the first internet browser that could be used by people who were not engineers. Steve Jobs did the same for consumer-friendly technology and mobile technology, through his innovations and advocacy at Apple.

Such a magnetic figure does not seem to have emerged yet for the cryptocurrency and blockchain industry, says Connolly, but when the messiah does materialize, evangelists and disciples will soon follow. This band of early adopters must demonstrate to the public the verifiable benefits of the technology as promised by the oracle. When early results match prophecy, the risk of the new technology becomes normalized. People start to compare it to established businesses they understand, and the automatic comparisons to tulips, bubbles and gambling fades away, Connolly explains.

“You need a ‘conversion,’ she says, “but in this case it is not a baptism but a conference.”

Ringing the Bell Curve

The classic risk-to-real life transition is based on sociologist Everett Rogers’diffusion of innovationsresearch, adds Connolly.

Rogers’ theory outlines a bell curve of social change, anchored on the left with the 2.5 percent of the public who areinnovators, or evangelists, flanked by the 13.5 percent who are early adopters, or disciples. Once the concept is worked out, the early majority of 34 percent get on board. The curve is anchored on the left by the 16 percent of the public who are laggards, who might never buy into the concept.

Innovators and early adopters can win the trust of the early majority by being open about the development of the process and about early results. The early majority gets on the bandwagon only when they perceive they can afford the by-then-tamed risks. “Catchy analogies and stories that resonate will speed understanding, says Connolly. Early adoptors count on the oracle and innovators to interpret the inevitable bumps along the way. “When news like (security) breaches happens, it’s the interpretation of opinion leaders, and the stories that result, that shape public trust in an emerging industry.”

Joanne Cleaver
Joanne Cleaver is a Chicago-based freelance, business and lifestyles journalist based. Her work has appeared in a number of national and regional publications. Earlier in her career, she was the deputy business editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.