Bitcoin, the decentralized digital currency dominated by white men, seemed on the verge of disappearing after every scandal, crash, or hack. But eight years later, it’s not only growing but accelerating, tripling in total value since January to over $45 billion. And it’s not the only cryptocurrency; competitors include Litecoin, Dogecoin, and Ethereum (a currency that supports “smart contracts”).

Bitcoin’s high volatility makes it terrible by traditional currency standards, fantastic as a risky investment vehicle, and fascinating as a cultural experiment. It’s a dramatic rethinking of how currency can work, and it’s very complicated and unfamiliar to the common person. Over the years, hundreds of news outlets have tried to explain it, which is lucky because it often takes several explanations to grasp. Here are some of the best, starting with the three most essential guides.

Illustration by Jason Benjamin

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