After a decade conducting research on interrelated themes of citizen journalism, digital activism, and political trolling, I have embarked on a new field: an ethnography of cryptocurrency circles in Turkey. Although I was aware of cryptocurrencies, and particularly Bitcoin, I have noticed how it also became an everyday phenomenon thanks to my roommate Mesut. Mesut, a Kurdish migrant from the southeastern part of Turkey, had no official identification number due to some complicated financial issues. Thus, he could not open up a bank account, nor could he register his iPhone. In a way, he lived off the grid unintentionally. Mesut spent six months in late 2017 to early 2018 in a coffeehouse in Balat, Istanbul. Every day he left our apartment, saying he was going to his “office.” He spent most of his time trading on several cryptomarkets using his iPhone registered to someone else, and during breaks he followed crypto-related news and videos for trading tips. Until the sharp decline in Bitcoin value, this was how he earned his living. He had no intention of thinking about the new technology that supported Bitcoin. He had carefully limited his scope to one idea: how to profit. My preliminary findings suggest that by investing in bitcoins, Mesut becomes part of a complex financial and social field in which multiple actors and discourses interact and, sometimes, compete with each other in order to give meaning to this rising phenomenon.
Since 2017, which was considered the golden year of cryptocurrency, it has been regularly reported that Turkey is one of the biggest users of cryptocurrencies. This is mostly because there is a positive correlation between investing in cryptocurrencies and economic restraints. More Turkish citizens invested in cryptocurrencies in the fall of 2018 as Turkish lira radically lost its value. As an end-of-the-year compilation demonstrates, cryptocurrencies nearly became a household name; they penetrated İstanbul’s old Grand Bazaar. Markets in Turkey, along with the United States, China, Russia, and Vietnam had the most exchange amounts (BD Center Report, 2018). The interest was so considerable that Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin once asked in his Twitter account why he got so many mentions in Turkish. In the retweets, one could see Turkish interest in cryptocurrencies.
This hype also happens where cryptocurrencies are not as stigmatized as digital communications. Turkey is mostly classified as a country where the internet is not free.Wikipedia was blocked for more than three years. Conservatives propagate moral panics that include a fuzzy emphasis on social media addiction. However, blockchain technologies, cryptographic blocks of records on which most of the cryptocurrencies depend, are new, and so far they are not stigmatized. There is a negative fatwa by Turkey’s official Directorate of Religious Affairs, Diyanet, but overall, the authorities accept these technologies. From Turkey’s primary stock exchange market to several ministries and the state-run Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (TÜBİTAK) there is support for some blockchain projects. An enthusiast, Cemil Ş. Türün, even believes that Turkey’s business practices might help adopt cryptocurrencies. Small businesses have used post-dated checks for decades, and this is a special type of credit that is based on trust. Many actors in the field are already issuing this form of loans, and it would not be too hard to transform it into digital forms. Hence, different actors keep their options open for some cryptocurrency integration as Turkey goes through an economic crisis.
Miners, traders, blockchain-based project startups, financial journalists, amateur investors, financiers, official discourses, and other actors all contribute to an emerging industry of cryptocurrencies. In an ordinary day of research, one can start with a highly technical problem-solving session to a talk about possible regulatory measures to come from the authorities. From there, one ends up in a meeting with representatives from a Chinese company, which is based in Singapore to bypass national and global restrictions. From profit tips on Twitter or Telegram, one can quickly jump to a crypto-influencer’s online article about how blockchain may be relevant to Islamic finances. One can also come across a few citizens who share the early Bitcoin and blockchain utopian ideas of an anonymous decentralized economy without intermediaries. Yet most leaders believe that it is about money in the last analysis. Nothing else matters. Thus, most projects that involve these multiple actors boil down to profit-making schemes. Even if one has a motive beyond mere profit making, they need to prove how profitable it might be as investors rarely want to hear about the technology behind it.
While public attention to cryptocurrencies is increasing, the current literature is still scant in terms of ethnography. A few relatively ethnographic studies inspired me to pursue a more ethnographic approach to a social assemblage that emerges out of blockchain technologies. In the meantime, Mesut has gone back to his former textile business but he keeps checking a possible new phase in the rise of cryptocurrency valuation and functionality that may lead him to affluence. The leading cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, and many other altcoins may have lost their US dollar-based high evaluations, but they have already started a new era. There can be new actors, new regulations and innovative social and cultural usage practices that cannot be reduced to mere dollar-based evaluations.
Erkan Saka is an associate professor in the Communication, Design, and Management Department at Bilgi University.
Cite as: Saka, Erkan. 2020. “Cryptocurrency Usage in Turkey.” Anthropology News website, September 11, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1491