Mapping the Universe of 460 Million Bitcoin Addresses

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The Bitcoin blockchain is vast and complex, forming a network of over 460 million addresses. Yet only 37% of these are economically relevant. At Chainalysis, we have identified that 86% of these belong to a named service. The remaining addresses are largely used to facilitate payments, meaning that just 20% of transaction value on the Bitcoin network is an economic transfer, moving bitcoin between two different parties.

By undertaking this research, we hope to help organizations navigate the complexity of the bitcoin network. Specifically, this research maps out different types of addresses and identifies the 172 million that matter most from an economic standpoint.  

Understanding different kinds of bitcoin addresses

A bitcoin address is like an email address that can send and receive bitcoin. Like email addresses, they are free and easy to set up, and there is no limit on how many an individual or company can have. As a result, there are a lot of them — about 460 million as of December 2018.

Still, only some addresses are relevant. In bitcoin, 172 million are economically relevant — they are controlled by people or services who currently own bitcoin. Of these, only 27 million actually hold bitcoin. Out of the 172 million economically relevant addresses, Chainalysis has identified 147 million, or 86%, as belonging to named services, such as an exchange or a darknet market.

What about the non-economically relevant bitcoin addresses? They are typically single-use, holding bitcoin for only a short time. For instance, three-quarters of bitcoin addresses have held bitcoin for less than a day. The majority of these addresses are either change addresses or ‘connective tissue’, meaning they hold bitcoin for a short time to facilitate payments between people and services.

To understand change, consider a person who has ten bitcoins and wants to sell one. Because of the way the technology works, the seller has to empty his or her address of all ten bitcoins but will receive nine back in change. Even though he or she only sold one bitcoin, the blockchain reports a total transaction value of ten bitcoins.

‘Connective tissue’ addresses play a role in getting bitcoin from one person or service to another. We will dive deeper into what these addresses look like in a later post.

Understanding bitcoin addresses helps zero in on economic activity

If so many addresses are created just to pass bitcoin between people and services, how much of the transaction value on the blockchain is actually moving between economically relevant bitcoin addresses? We estimate that on average only 20% of bitcoin transaction value is relevant, in that it is a final transfer between multiple people. The remaining 80% is returned as change. As you can see in the chart below, between August and October 2018, some $41 billion of transactions were executed — and only $9 billion had real economic value.

A better way to view bitcoin activity

While publicly available metrics like the number of addresses and transaction volume provide some information about the bitcoin network, they don’t go far enough to capture the complexity of a network in which only a fraction of addresses hold bitcoin and only a small proportion of transactions have economic value.

By looking beyond top-line indicators and linking activity to specific bitcoin addresses, we’re able to offer a more granular, in-depth look at bitcoin network activity. Our deep knowledge of cryptocurrency helps organizations understand the space and make more informed decisions about their own offerings. And by sorting through the different layers, we can help organizations focus on regulatory compliance and combat fraud, money laundering, and other illicit activities.

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