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Bitcoin’s ‘New Normal’ Is Slow and Frustrating

These will be dark, deeply annoying times.
Image: Flickr/jazbeck

On Monday, bitcoin users were up in arms about their transactions taking a long time to be processed by the network, potentially foreshadowing dark, deeply annoying times for the cryptocurrency.

In the past, network slowdowns were the work of hackers or other malicious actors. But this time, the reason for the frustration appears to be much more unsettling and banal. In the absence of any obvious spam transactions or attackers claiming responsibility, some users complained that the bitcoin network is slowing down simply because people are using it the way it's meant to be used.


"I think the point is that this is not an attack," one Reddit user wrote in reply to a poster asking if a "stress test," another term for a spam attack on the bitcoin network, was behind the slowdown. "This is now normal."

Transactions are completed once they've been verified by other users and uploaded to the central ledger, or blockchain. This happens in batches of transactions, called blocks. The current bitcoin protocol says blocks must be smaller than 1 megabyte, a hard-coded restriction that was recently the topic of heated debate in the bitcoin community. The plodding pace of transactions appears to be due to blocks reaching their upper size limit of 1 megabyte with more frequency, and unconfirmed transactions clogging up the "memory pool," a distributed database that lives on every computer running bitcoin software.

Bitcoin blocks are fuller than ever.
— Antoine Le Calvez (@khannib) February 27, 2016

While the actual disruption was likely minimal—some users on Reddit reported waiting more than one hour for their transactions to be confirmed (the normal wait is 10 minutes)—the slowdown may indicate that some developers' worst fears were coming true about the virtual currency's usability. If you're trying to buy a coffee with bitcoin, after all, you can't very well stand around for an hour in the shop.

In 2015, prominent bitcoin developer Gavin Andresen proposed increasing the block size, citing large-scale slowdowns as just one of the risks if the change was not made. This kicked off one of the largest and most divisive debates in bitcoin's history, causing Andresen to withdraw his proposal and longtime developer Mike Hearn to brand the cryptocurrency a failure.

"[Slowdowns] will become the 'new normal' increasingly frequently," Andresen wrote me in an email. "A solution to the block limit problem should have been rolled out to the network last year."

At the moment, it seems like an alternate proposal to increase the block size to 2 megabytes may succeed among the bitcoin community. But Andresen's original, more radical proposal is dead as bitcoiners continue to quibble over the future of the coin.