A 25 Bitcoin token. There are growing calls for regulation of the cryptocurrency market. Picture: AP
JOHANNESBURG - After researching digital currencies for work last year, personal finance writer JR Duren hopped on his own crypto-roller-coaster.

Duren bought $5 (R57.54) worth of litecoin in November, and eventually purchased $400 more, mostly with his credit card. In just a few months, he experienced a rally, a crash and a recovery, with the adrenaline highs and lows that come along.

“At first, I was freaking out,” Duren said about watching his portfolio plunge 40percent at one point. “The precipitous drop came as a shock.”

The 39-year-old Floridian is part of the new class of crypto-investors who do not necessarily think bitcoin will replace the US dollar, or that blockchain will revolutionise modern finance or that dentists should have their own currency.

Dubbed by long-time crypto-investors as “the noobs” - online lingo for “newbies” - they are ordinary investors hopping on to the latest trend, often with little understanding of how cryptocurrencies work or why they exist.

“There has been a big shift in the type of investors we have seen in crypto over the past year,” said Angela Walch, a fellow at the UCL Centre for Blockchain Technologies.

“It’s shifted from a small group of techies to average Joes.

“I overhear conversations about crypto-currencies everywhere, in coffee shops, supermarkets and airports.”

Walch and other experts cited parallels to the late 1990s, when retail investors jumped into stocks like Pets.com, a short-lived online seller of pet supplies, only to watch their wealth evaporate when the dot-com bubble burst.

Bitcoin is the best-known virtual currency, but there are now more than 1500 to choose from, according to market data website CoinMarketCap, ranging from popular coins like ether and ripple to obscure coins like dentacoin, the one intended for dentists.

Exactly how many “noobs” bought into the craze last year is unclear, because each transaction is pseudonymous, meaning it is linked to a unique digital address, and few exchanges collect or share detailed information about their users.