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What is a crypto fork?

Dive into the world of cryptocurrency forks and learn about the different types of forks, their impact, and how they work

What is a crypto fork?
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Cryptocurrency forks play a significant role in the development and evolution of blockchain technology. Crypto forks occur when a blockchain network undergoes a split, resulting in the creation of two or more distinct chains, each with its own sets of rules and often its own cryptocurrencies. This division can happen through different types of cryptocurrency forks, namely hard and soft forks.

Understanding blockchain forks is an essential element for those interested in understanding and/or trading cryptocurrencies. They represent pivotal moments in the blockchain's journey, where decisions are made, new features are introduced, and disagreements are resolved. By comprehending the concept of cryptocurrency forks, investors, users, and developers can navigate the landscape of digital currencies more effectively.

Crypto forks not only provide opportunities for innovation and technological advancements but also hold implications for the broader community. They can spark debates, divide communities, and even impact the market dynamics of cryptocurrencies. 

What is a soft fork?

A soft fork is a type of cryptocurrency fork that generally introduces backward-compatible changes to the blockchain protocol. Unlike hard forks, soft forks do not require all participants to upgrade their software to continue using the network. This means that users can choose whether or not to adopt the new features or rules implemented by the soft crypto fork.

For example, a soft fork that increases transaction speed doesn’t require everyone to upgrade their software. If you don’t upgrade your software, however, you will not be able to take part in any future transactions using the new feature (ie: faster transaction speeds). 

These types of forks are a great way for new changes to be implemented without creating an entirely new cryptocurrency. Below we review two notable soft forks.

The SegWit fork

In 2017, the Bitcoin blockchain underwent a soft cryptocurrency fork known as the Segregated Witness (SegWit) Bitcoin protocol update. It aimed to address the scalability issue of the Bitcoin network by separating transactional data from signature data, allowing for more transactions to be included in each block

Before the SegWit upgrade, Bitcoin's protocol was both more expensive and slower, with transactions costing about $30 each and taking around an hour to complete. The inventors of the SegWit change recognized that signature data accounts for 65% of a transactional block. As a result, SegWit proposed moving the effective block size from 1MB to 4MB.

The motivation for this increase was to separate or delete the signer data from the transactional data on every blockchain block, allowing for greater transaction throughput per block.

With the new fork, the old Bitcoin blockchain was able to accept both new 4MB and 1MB blocks at the same time. The soft fork enabled the existing nodes to validate the new blocks via a clever engineering approach that formatted new rules without breaking existing ones.

The Byzantium and Constantinople soft forks

These were two consecutive soft forks on the Ethereum blockchain, implemented in 2017 and 2019, respectively. These forks introduced new features to the blockchain's protocol, such as improved security and privacy, as well as changes to the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM).

Soft forks have a relatively lower impact on the blockchain and crypto community compared to hard forks. Since they are backward-compatible, users who don't upgrade their software can still participate in the network, although they may not be able to take advantage of the new rules and features introduced by the soft fork. 

Soft forks generally aim to improve the efficiency, security, or functionality of the blockchain without causing a complete split in the network.

What is a hard fork?

Hard forks are more disruptive and result in the creation of two separate blockchains, each with its own set of rules and cryptocurrencies. A hard fork occurs when there’s a fundamental change to the blockchain, such as upgrading one of its core technical components (ie: blocksize). 

This requires everyone who uses that blockchain to upgrade their software or else they will no longer be able to participate on the network. Users can also opt to be a part of both networks that result from the blockchain split. For example, Bitcoin Gold is a hard fork of Bitcoin that aims to decentralize the mining process offering two very different use cases.

Hard forks are a common occurrence in the cryptocurrency industry, with many big cryptocurrencies being the product of a successful hard fork. Below we explore two notable hard forks. 

The Bitcoin Cash fork

The Bitcoin Cash fork is a prime example of a hard fork. In 2017, following a disagreement within the Bitcoin community about the future of the original cryptocurrency, a group of developers and miners got together to form a new and improved version of the cryptocurrency's network known as Bitcoin Cash. The Bitcoin Cash hard fork was implemented with the upgraded blockchain utilizing a new version of the underlying code, and a new cryptocurrency labeled BCH.

The most significant change to the Bitcoin Cash network was the block size increase to 8MB, allowing for faster transaction speeds, more transactions to get verified at once, and lower transaction fees. The new version of the network also increased the difficulty to ensure the security of the network would not be compromised. In March 2022, the block size limit was increased to 32MB.

There have been many Bitcoin forks over the years, with Bitcoin Cash and Litecoin being the two most well-known.

The Ethereum Classic fork

Ethereum Classic originated from a hard fork of the Ethereum blockchain in 2016. The fork occurred due to a disagreement over how to handle a security breach in the DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization). Ethereum Classic maintained the original blockchain, while Ethereum (ETH) continued on the new forked chain.

A hard fork can have significant implications for the blockchain and its community. They often result from divided opinions or visions within the community, leading to the creation of new cryptocurrencies. A hard fork can bring about new features, address scalability concerns, or resolve contentious issues, but it can also cause community divisions and introduce volatility into the market.

Market effects and price volatility

Crypto forks can have a significant impact on the cryptocurrency market, often leading to price volatility and market reactions. The effects are driven by a combination of factors, including investor sentiment, community support, and the perceived value of the newly forked cryptocurrencies.

  1. Forks can impact cryptocurrency prices by creating uncertainty and divergent market expectations. Prior to a fork, investors may exhibit cautious behavior, leading to increased selling pressure as they seek to secure their holdings or reallocate their assets. This uncertainty stems from concerns about the viability and market reception of the forked cryptocurrencies.
  2. Market reactions to major forks have been observed in various instances. For example, during the Bitcoin Cash crypto fork in 2017, the anticipation and subsequent launch of the new cryptocurrency caused a surge in trading volumes and price volatility. Similarly, when Bitcoin Cash itself underwent a contentious hard fork in 2018, resulting in the creation of Bitcoin SV, the market witnessed significant price fluctuations and increased trading activity.

These reactions reflect the market's response to the perceived value and potential utility of the forked cryptocurrencies. Investors and traders assess factors such as community support, technological enhancements, and the ability to solve existing challenges. Depending on the market's reception, prices can experience both short-term spikes and long-term shifts as market participants adjust their positions and reassess their expectations.

It's important to note that the impact of crypto forks on prices and market dynamics can vary. While some forks generate significant market buzz and trading activity, others may have a more muted effect. Factors such as the size and influence of the community, the level of support from industry players, and broader market conditions all contribute to the overall impact of a fork on cryptocurrency prices.

Navigating the market effects of crypto forks requires vigilance and a deep understanding of the underlying factors at play. Investors and traders should carefully assess the potential risks and rewards associated with forked cryptocurrencies, keeping in mind the volatility and market reactions that can accompany these transformative events.

What to do when a fork is announced

When a cryptocurrency announces an upcoming fork, a rule of thumb in the crypto space is to wait for the dust to settle before making any big decisions. Keep in mind that sometimes forks can be contentious and not everyone will agree on the path forward, meaning that there may be a lot of confusion and volatility in the coming days as people react.

 In conclusion

A hard fork is when a blockchain network is split into two resulting in two unique blockchains with their own cryptocurrencies. A soft fork is when a blockchain simply upgrades or incorporates new features and allows users to decide whether they would like to continue using the old version or upgrade their software protocol to make use of the new features.

Either way, cryptocurrency forks are a common occurrence in the blockchain space and have been the start of many different networks. The most iconic hard forks include the likes of Litecoin, a hard fork from the Bitcoin network, Ethereum Classic, a hard fork from the Ethereum network, and Bitcoin Cash, a hard fork of the Bitcoin network.

Both soft and hard forks allow innovation within the blockchain space to evolve, making space for new features, more efficient means of executing an action, and other chain improvements. A hard fork in particular can shed light on new innovations without creating a blockchain network from scratch.

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