In the case of Bitcoin, miners run computer programs to verify the data that creates a complete transaction history of all Bitcoin. A technology known as the blockchain, which is used to create irreversible and traceable transactions, makes the process of verification possible. Once a miner has verified the data (which comes in a block, hence, blockchain), they are rewarded with some amount of digital currency, the same currency for which they were verifying the transaction history. So mining Bitcoin, for example, would earn you Bitcoin.
Volatility is perhaps the most commonly-cited disadvantage of Bitcoin in terms of its use case as cash. Ironically, that very volatility helped grow the network, providing traders with very lucrative opportunities in short time periods. However, for those wishing to store value and transact Bitcoin as an everyday currency, the volatility is a major drawback.
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Cryptocurrencies are experiencing a moment of unprecedented attention and speculation for several reasons. 1) The value of Bitcoin has been steadily climbing through 2017, with Ether seemingly poised to overtake the cryptocurrency giant any day; 2) Blockchain technology has purposes above and beyond cryptocurrency, and has been hailed by some as the backbone of the future financial system; 3) The increasing number of people who see cryptocurrency as a form of investment similar to gold. If cryptocurrencies stabilize in value, buying Bitcoin or Ether has the potential to be a worthy venture.