If you give an 11-year-old some Ether, she'll be curious. If you (try) to give a 16-year-old some ETH, she'll be hesitant.
These two insights lie at the core of a recent experiment conducted by Mechanism Labs' Alexis Gauba. Curious about what the crypto landscape looked like for younger generations, Gauba set out to give both an 11-year-old and a 16-year-old free ETH to learn about their onboarding experience. Were they willing to use it? If so, what would they spend it on?
The 16-year-old "was not down" with receiving free ETH. Gauba said the effort the 16-year-old would have needed to expend to obtain the ETH and then convert it into US dollars "wasn't worth it for her." In fact, the first question the 16-year-old asked when Gauba approached her was "Is [the money] in US dollars?" It seemed to Gauba that the teenager "just didn't really care" about engaging with crypto.
The 11-year-old, though, was interested in playing. "It being her [the 11-year-old's] first time interacting with cryptocurrencies or blockchain, it was great to see that she was pretty open-minded to the experience," Gauba told ETHNews.
That said, the 11-year-old had several questions as she began to engage with the crypto ecosystem. She first questioned the stability of ETH, wondering if it would increase or decrease in her possession. As a follow-up, she asked, "How do I make sure it's stable?"
Gauba said these initial thoughts were intuitive of the 11-year-old. "Some of the questions she had kind of just reinforced the need or necessity for things like Dai where that's such an intuitive thing that people look toward, like a source of stability," Gauba said, referring to Dai's peg to the US dollar.
Moving past these questions, the 11-year-old encountered various sources of friction when trying to interact with blockchain and cryptocurrency technology. For instance, she asked Gauba for recommendations on how to use her ETH, but Gauba was only able to point her to a limited number of products.
Moreover, the 11-year-old was surprised to learn that money (like in the form of gas) was required to play games, such as CryptoKitties and Etheremon. She told Gauba, "[I]t's kind of weird they are making these games where you have to pay for stuff."
Gauba compared this friction to its absence in Web 2.0. On most other parts of the internet, content and games are free. Coming from a free web environment, the 11-year-old would understandably question a system where users must "pay to play," for lack of a better term. In other words, the preconditions to participate within the world of crypto are inherently different than those on the "normal" internet.
Despite these hindrances, the 11-year-old expressed interest in using ETH again, maybe in a few months or a year. Gauba likened this sentiment to her own experience with technology, noting that any onscreen difficulties she might encounter are more palatable than, say, having to renew a passport in person. "For younger generations, even if there are frictions, if they're behind a screen, I've found that we're [young people] a little more accustomed to them or used to them," Gauba elaborated.
Gauba's experiment is also insightful when paired with its converse – onboarding those older than your typical 20- to 30-something crypto enthusiast. She sent ETH to somebody in their mid-forties and observed a much different outcome. Unlike the 11-year-old, the older individual did not move beyond creating a MetaMask account, citing a distrust in "weird internet websites or platforms."
Whereas somebody older might be more comfortable engaging in a process that is institutionally supported, like through a physical bank, a younger person – especially one who is internet native – would not necessarily need the reassurance of such an institution to trust an online website or platform. This difference in how an 11-year-old versus a middle-aged individual might interact with crypto "was definitely very interesting" for Gauba to observe.
Gauba hopes others in the cryptospace conduct similar experiments. She believes there has not been enough research regarding how users interact with blockchain and cryptocurrency technology. Of course, she understands that other considerations – like scalability, incentivization, and governance – are important to address, but she thinks it's important to consider user experience and onboarding as well when building out the crypto ecosystem.
"All of [these perspectives] coming together, that will allow this technology to succeed," Gauba continued.
Indeed, Gauba has encouraged folks on Twitter to follow her lead and "send some ETH to some non crypto people" in their lives. One individual said he made his children paper bitcoin wallets so that he could pay their allowance in BTC, but they were "not down" like the 16-year-old. Another person, Emmanuel Amberber, indicated that he regularly sends ETH to non-crypto users, which has been a "delightful" experience for him.
Beyond these two anecdotes, Gauba said Mechanism Labs was also interested in usability research. Gauba asserts that the key reason Mechanism Labs is interested in another area, scalability, is because scalability is necessary to make blockchain and cryptocurrency platforms usable to the general public. The two issues, scalability and usability, are interconnected.
Speaking of further research, one question that could be explored is why an age gap of five years might yield a drastically different result when attempting to onboard the youth. Gauba observed that the 16-year-old was acting "very much [like] a classic teenager," which may be reason enough to explain why she did not want to accept free ETH. However, in terms of technological exposure, both the 11-year-old and the 16-year-old would be, one would expect, comfortable navigating technological difficulties.
Despite the roadblocks she experienced, the 11-year-old said she was willing to experiment with crypto again in the future. Why would somebody five years older be much more hesitant? Also, what could organizations in the cryptospace do to better onboard teenagers around the age of 16? These are the types of questions researchers could attempt to answer.
Thinking of the Children
Although Gauba believes there should be more research in general regarding how users interact with the technology, she maintains that "the youth are going to be crucial to crypto adoption and moving this space forward." She explained:
"For a lot of the younger generation, this is going to be so much more normal to them; even personally, I feel more comfortable purchasing bitcoin than buying a bond. It's a much more familiar process. I definitely think that because all of this is so based in technology, and that's so much of what the younger generations are going to grow up with, if these products are usable and understandable and are things that they can resonate with, then that's really powerful."
If crypto is the key to our future, then that future may as well be kid stuff. Blockchain and cryptocurrency, in the grand scheme of technological innovation, exist for more than adult users. It only makes sense, then, to investigate how younger generations perceive and interact with this burgeoning field of technology.