So you want to start your own cryptocurrency. You’re fed up with the international banking system, which seems like an antidemocratic relic responsible for multiple major financial catastrophes over the past few years. You’re impressed by the Boston area’s two Bitcoin ATMs, and undeterred by the market fluctuations of the dominant cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, or the recent collapse of the major Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox. You’re a talented programmer who’s studied the open-source coding behind Bitcoin, Litecoin, and the other big players in the field. Now you just need one crucial thing: a name.
Cryptocurrencies—virtual tokens that are generated through complex mathematical computing feats and traded online—are at an inflection point. There are more than 200 currently ranked on the website Crypto-Currency Market Capitalizations, with some 10 to 20 new ones, David Yermack of NYU’s Stern School of Business said, appearing every week. But the atmosphere surrounding the currencies is still very Wild West. They’re most famous for their shadier uses, including money-laundering and selling drugs via the Internet; they’re a refuge for speculators; and most ordinary citizens are still put off by their volatility and the confusing process behind cryptocurrency mining.
Names, therefore, have become an important way for developers to separate their currencies from the growing herd. Most imitate Bitcoin, but put spins on that name that vary wildly from the practical to the cute to the political to the apparently random. The result is an array of weird, wonderful, or sometimes just plain terrible names—an explosion of homegrown branding fervor, marking this brief transitional moment before cybercurrency either goes legit or peters out.
In a recent episode of the HBO series “Silicon Valley,” the founders of a tech startup are casting around for a new name. “A name defines a company,” says one of the characters. “It has to be something primal. Something you can scream out during intercourse.” But it’s more common for young tech companies, according to Paul Parkin, the creative director of San Francisco-based Salt Branding, to go with functional, descriptive names, not investing in a primal-scream sort of name until they have a bit more to scream about.
That was the model for the simple Bitcoin, which combines a short word denoting that it’s a digital creation with another short one denoting money. Although it may seem intuitive now, the use of “coin” to describe digital currency is actually an accident of history. At the time Bitcoin was first created, according to a 2011 story by Benjamin Wallace in Wired, there were several other developers vying to make theirs the first successful virtual cash system: we could’ve had ecash, bitgold, RPOW, or b-money. Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin won out. But Parkin points out that “coin” is pretty arbitrary. “Coins are going away, and here we have digital currency referring to this old unit of money as a means to identify what it is that they do. And they’re kind of small and worthless,” he told me.
Nonetheless, the Bitcoin name has formed the mold: Most other cryptocurrency names just graft a concrete descriptive word onto “-coin.” (One reason you don’t see quite this level of copycatting with regular brand names: those are usually trademarked. Bitcoin, by contrast, is defiantly anticorporate, and the mysterious, still anonymous Nakamoto seems highly unlikely to sue.) Sometimes the point is to differentiate from Bitcoin. The foremost Bitcoin alternative, Litecoin, got its name in an attempt to sound like the “silver to Bitcoin’s gold”; as developer Charles Lee told me, “I wanted something that’s a lighter version of Bitcoin and came up with Litecoin.” There’s also Zerocoin, which sounds worthless but actually advertises its use of the “zero-knowledge proof,” a system with less tracking history that makes Zerocoin more anonymous than Bitcoin. Others describe the niche market a coin is targeting: Teacoin, a currency designed for use in tea and coffee shops, or Marscoin, a coin that’s meant to help fund “mankind’s first colony on another planet.” Some have names that feed cryptocurrencies’ under-the-table reputation, like PotCoin and Sexcoin (“the first industry specific cryptocurrency targeting the Adult Entertainment Industry”).
Other names appeal to more abstract ideals. Commonly, these are political. You would hardly start a cryptocurrency if you were very attached to the world order as it currently exists. So there are coins targeting various stripes of libertarianism and antigovernment radicalism, from RonPaulCoin to Zeitcoin (for the Zeitgeist Movement, an anarchist ecological group) to Anoncoin (the Anonymous group). Then, in seeming reaction to the angry political coins with their black-and-red websites and ferocious manifestos, there are the memecoins—currencies named for cute, fluffy memes and making a bid to succeed through viral popularity. Most famously, there is Dogecoin, named after a goofy Internet meme involving shiba inu dogs, but also Grumpycoin (after Web-famous feline Grumpy Cat), FlappyCoin (after the iPhone game Flappy Birds), and Catcoin (it’s the Internet, after all).
Some cryptocurrency names boldly reference celebrities: Murraycoin, for Bill, and Coinye, which was torpedoed by its ongoing legal battles with Kanye West. There are values coins: TAKcoin, for “Tolerance, Acceptance, Knowledge,” and ContinuumCoin, because “this is a fledgling industry and...will truly change the world forever and on continuous,” according to an e-mail from the developers. There are geeky literary references, like the H.P. Lovecraft tribute cryptocurrency Offerings to Cthulhu.
Parkin believes that cryptocurrency names will eventually stop the slavish tributes to Bitcoin and drop “coin” altogether. A truly great name, he says, would invent an entirely new way to talk about virtual currency. And at least one company is trying to do that: Ripple Labs, a cryptocurrency payment system focused on B2B customers. Though the company was originally called OpenCoin, it was changed in September 2013 to emphasize the network, not the currency itself, which is called XRP. Eli Lang, Ripple’s creative director, told me, “Other currencies have ‘coin’ in the name because...the currency’s the most important piece. [But] Ripple’s a lot more than a currency.” The company’s founders say that their name represents the system—“payments ‘ripple’ through the network”—and also references financial water-words like “liquidity” and “flow.”
If that sounds like a completely ordinary Silicon Valley approach to naming a new product, it’s no coincidence. The end of the FlappyCoin era in cryptocurrency naming may be no more than a primal scream away.
Britt Peterson is a writer in Washington, D.C.