It’s like the early days of bitcoin all over again.
Comprised of invite-only chat channels, alien terminology and warning signs at every turn, the nascent ecosystem springing up around Lightning Network, the scaling technology that could end up having the greatest impact yet on bitcoin’s capacity, is to date, hopelessly difficult to operate.
“Going to be blunt,” one developer wrote, “if you don’t know how to compile something, you probably will have a lot more struggles and a lot less coins.”
Simply put, Lightning in its current state is dangerous to interact with today. But given the network’s big promises – instant transactions and fees that are next to nothing – risk isn’t diminishing the appeal.
Companies like Blockstream are already launching Lightning-powered stores that send stickers to bitcoin users who successfully pass funds across the network, while so-called “early Lightning adopters” are being celebrated online for their “bravery” on the blockchain.
“Show the world that you were one the first people to use Lightning on mainnet for a legitimate purchase, if it works,” Blockstream’s website reads.
It’s a sentiment that, given the risks, has garnered criticism by some who feel it mistakenly encourages users to risk real money. That said, there are ways to contribute to the early network without putting your own funds at risk.
This includes hanging out in the testing environment (where the majority of Lightning developers are today) or venturing onto the mainnet (where there’s a budding set of best practices, even if pitfalls remain).
Below, we offer our guide for early adopters who want to get their hands on the bleeding-edge tech before it’s recommended.
Of the available options, connecting to the testnet isn’t exactly intuitive, but it’s easier to access than the alternative, with clients that are built to run on most operating systems.
It also has the added benefit of not requiring the use of real bitcoin. Instead, you’ll be using test bitcoin, which you can find for free at an online faucet and send to your Lightning wallet.
In total, using the testnet takes about five or so steps to navigate:
Using the above process, CoinDesk was able to send a transaction, only running into trouble at times when a majority of test nodes were offline.
Risking it on the mainnet
To restate, this is ill-advised – if you try to send bitcoin, you can lose it.
Not only will this hurt your wallet, but it will upset Lightning’s developers, because the more people active on the mainnet the more complicated it becomes to administer updates.
While a bit more complicated (the process described below can take a few days), the seven steps below approximate a rough guide to getting started:
If the laundry list of actions above shocks you, that’s okay, developers are working on methods to make the network easier to interact with. Remember, Lightning is still in alpha phase, and as development progresses, a wide variety of simplified interfaces are expected to be released.
Easy to use wallets are also likely to be released for mainnet access, so there will be less of a requirement for lightning users to be familiar with the command line. Similarly, other interfaces that make the micropayments easier to integrate by providing a third-party processing service.
Eclair have released an early version of their lightning API. Rather than businesses opening their own channels, Eclair will handle the back-end, process payments and send on-chain bitcoin.
Developers such as Alex Bosworth are also working on ways for users to send Lightning payments without setting up a channel at al, by creating methods for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to interact with the Lightning network.
Ultimately, while the network is now difficult and dangerous for the average user, ongoing development work hints that soon, Lightning could be as simple to use as existing payment interfaces.
Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Blockstream and Lightning Labs.
Welding sparks via Shutterstock