The authors set out to determine what types of people use bitcoin and their reasons for using it. They used Google Trends data to explore reasons for interest in bitcoin. They acknowledged the search data in and of itself did not provide a definitive method for defining bitcoin use. But by building on existing research and anecdotal evidence, they created profiles for likely bitcoin users.
Prior research indicated three reasons for bitcoin use: curiosity, profit making and politics. Based on these findings, the researchers created four user groups: tech enthusiasts, investors, anti-establishment types, and criminals.
The study analyzed bitcoin-related search terms over a 31-month period.
The authors acknowledged the sensitivity of some bitcoin activity could make it hard to analyze the data, but they concluded it was not likely Google data would be subjected to major social censoring. They also noted there has been a correlation between bitcoin-related Google searches and exchange prices. This suggested that interest on Google reflected people using bitcoin or following its progress.
The authors used all search terms listed under bitcoin as a currency. These include terms such as “bitcoins,” “bitcoin mining,” “bit coin,” “bitcoin exchange,” “bitcoin price” and “bitcoin value.” The researchers combined these terms with those related to computer science as a discipline. They examined results containing terms “Silk Road,” “free market,” and “make money” to determine the level of bitcoin interest related to criminal activity, a libertarian political position and speculative investing.
"Although many commentators have speculated about motives for using Bitcoin, our study is the first to systematically analyse Bitcoin interest, including the interest of hard-to-observe clientele," the authors said. "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."
The findings drew several comments from readers who took issue with the study’s methodology.
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