Even nearly a decade after its creation, Bitcoin’s basic technology can still be hard to understand. A new website that visualizes Bitcoin transactions as bus passengers offers some surprisingly compelling insights into how the cryptocurrency works—and it’s strangely enthralling to watch in action.
TxStreet.com translates real-time transaction data from the Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash networks into South Park-like cartoons of passengers boarding a series of buses. The site is partly intended to show contrasts between the two networks, whose supporters have been at odds since Bitcoin Cash “forked” from Bitcoin nearly a year ago. But you don’t need a dog in that fight to learn a lot from the site, about both cryptocurrency basics and the day-to-day reality of the networks.
Each cartoon character on TxStreet represents a cryptocurrency payment moving from one account to another. A character’s size corresponds to the amount of money being sent, while its walking speed reflects whether or not the sender has paid a system fee to speed the confirmation. Those characters move towards buses waiting at a pair of stations—one for Bitcoin, one for Bitcoin Cash. The buses represent “blocks” of transactions, sets of records which essentially every blockchain system collects, compiles, and confirms at more or less regular intervals. The TxStreet buses and their passengers depart whenever a block of transactions is confirmed by a network and added to its respective blockchain—the immutable record of each currency’s transaction history. It’s a simple metaphor for systems that can seem inscrutable, and there’s something simultaneously soothing and suspenseful about the ebb and flow of the crowds.
Fortune recently reached out to the site’s creator, who prefers to remain anonymous but goes by @revofever on Twitter. They told us they’ve been “obsessed” with Bitcoin since 2013, and that TxStreet gets its live data from feeds at btc.com, bitcointicker.co, blockchain.info, and coinmarketcap.com. The site, which is not affiliated with any blockchain company, was inspired in part by TxHighway.com, a similar visualizer explicitly aimed at promoting Bitcoin Cash. TxStreet’s creator claims a bit less of an agenda, saying “I was motivated to show each blockchain as accurately and fairly as possible. If the truth promotes Bitcoin Cash, then it is what it is.”
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TxStreet shows clearly that, despite some similar infrastructure, Bitcoin and Bitcoin Cash have a growing number of fundamental differences, starting with the number of “bus seats” available for transactions. The original fork that created Bitcoin Cash was driven by the desire to increase the size of transaction blocks, which advocates argued would make transactions faster. Accordingly, the Bitcoin Cash “bus station” on TxStreet has 32 buses waiting, representing the 32 megabytes of transaction data that each Bitcoin Cash block has available. Not all of those buses head to the blockchain every 10 minutes—only as many as transaction volume demands.
Bitcoin, on the other hand, still has to make do with two buses, representing the two megabytes of data its blocks can hold. There’s a catch, though—one of those buses (or one megabyte of Bitcoin block size) is a special variety known as SegWit. While the details of how SegWit works are complex, it’s effectively a way to squeeze more passengers onto the bus. Though SegWit was implemented in part to work around Bitcoin’s scaling issues, watching TxStreet makes it clear there’s more work to be done. You’ll regularly see crowds of passengers—that is, transactions—forming a scrum on the sidewalk outside of full Bitcoin buses. That’s what’s known as the Mempool—transactions that have been broadcast to the network, but haven’t been added to a block to await confirmation.
Above that sometimes-huge queue, TxStreet shows a purple building representing the Lightning Network, new technology that many advocates hope will be a true solution to Bitcoin’s overcrowding. It’s labeled “Lightning House: Bus Ticket Trading, Access by Bus Only.”
@Revofever explains the complex metaphor this way:
On the other side of the street, Bitcoin Cash has its own building, representing the blockchain-backed social network Memo. But there’s an even more notable contrast: there are plenty of seats on Bitcoin Cash buses because there are so few passengers lining up to board. Over the last 30 days, Bitcoin transaction volume was about 16 times higher than for Bitcoin Cash, according to Coinmetrics.io. So while Bitcoin Cash may offer plenty of seats on the bus, there’s not yet that much interest in taking a ride.