Researchers at the University of Kentucky have taken a look at the demographics associated with bitcoin use. Dr. Aaron Yelowitz and Matthew Wilson attempted to construct a demographic profile for bitcoin enthusiasts using associations between Google trends. The researchers highlighted the difficulty of understanding the make up of bitcoin users due to the anonymity protections associated with the digital currency. In other words, there’s truly little for researchers to go on other than conjecture based on Google search activity.
In this study, the research pair asserted that there is a correlation between bitcoin enthusiasts and searches related to illicit activity. Bitcoin enthusiasts were more likely to search for the Silk Road, which could suggest curiosity or a propensity toward illegal internet activity. Drawing the latter conclusion, however, would be like suggesting that university students who study human rights have a propensity toward child pornography, because they are more likely to search those terms than other students, regardless of the academic intent behind their queries. Despite claiming a correlation between bitcoin and illicit activity queries, Yelowitz states,
With any search query, it is not possible to conclusively figure out the underlying motivations of the audience, or the exact composition of the audience.”
A geographic distribution of bitcoin enthusiasts was also observed, with higher levels of bitcoin interest in California, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Vermont, and New Hampshire. The researchers also assert a correlation between libertarian political views and interest in bitcoin can also be identified, though the correlation is limited.
Yelowitz and Wilson state, “We find robust evidence that computer programming enthusiasts and illegal activity drive interest in bitcoin, and find limited or no support for political and investment motives;” however, their research is inherently flawed. Firstly, the research conducted by the University of Kentucky team took place between January 2011 and July 2013. Interest in and use of bitcoin has skyrockets in 2014 and the demographics of current bitcoin enthusiasts likely look very different from those of 2011 (before the Silk Road crumbled). Furthermore, the first thing people hear about bitcoin tends to be the negative things it is associated with, such as the Silk Road, Mt. Gox, and its purported enabling of various illicit activities. Of course Google search queries of bitcoin will result in a correlation to these things. If that is all people know when they are first learning about bitcoin, that is what they will search first. Plus, those topics are what get news coverage, so they will continue to be searched by bitcoin enthusiasts and anyone else curious about bitcoin.
Even Yelowitz’s concedes these flaws, stating,
Nonetheless, a variety of users – such as law enforcement, journalists, and even academics like me – also type in such terms as Silk Road or bitcoin with no intent of illegal activity.”
Previous studies identified the driving forces in bitcoin to be curiosity, political ideology and the potential for profit. Dr. Yelowitz and Wilson found claim there is little to no correlation between interest in finance and bitcoin, but they also weren’t looking in the right places, as they only studies the effect of price swings on search volumes and not, say, increases searches for coin wallets.
However, later research done by ETH Zurich highlights the effect of Bitcoin search traffic on its price, noting that there is more general public interest than simply those who wish to use Bitcoin for illicit activity.
Read More – Google Search Study Hints at “Shady Truth” of Bitcoin Users (Coindesk, Nermin Hajdarbegovic)