What is a Blockchain? Is It Hype?

A technology based on a decentralized network may offer more control over what people do online.

By Shira Ovide

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Maybe you’ve read about the blockchain and don’t get the fuss. (I am sheepishly raising my hand.) Maybe you’ve never heard of it.

My colleague Nathaniel Popper will explain what you need to know and separate the blockchain hope from the hype.

Nathaniel spoke to me about why some technologists can’t shut up about the blockchain and, in researching his latest article, what he found about how it might — or might not! — help people remodel the internet with less control by giants like Google and Facebook.

Shira: I need this explained to me repeatedly. What is the blockchain? And how is it different from Bitcoin?

Nathaniel: The blockchain in the simplest terms is a ledger — a method of record keeping — that was invented for Bitcoin, which is a cryptocurrency. Unlike conventional records kept by one bank or accountant, the blockchain ledger uses a bunch of computers that each add new entries visible to everyone.

The blockchain design that Bitcoin inspired has been adapted for other kinds of records. The underlying principle is there is no central authority controlling a single ledger. Everyone who is part of the system controls a decentralized and shared record.

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