I knew I was in the right place when l saw a flier taped to a streetlamp advertising the “world’s first NFT bong.”
It was 35 degrees at ETHDenver, an annual Ethereum event that started in 2017, and people were standing in line in the cold afternoon sun for COVID tests. More than 12,000 people from 100 countries came to Denver, though only about 8,500 checked into the conference.
At five years old, it’s the longest-running conference in the Ethereum world, but ETHDenver had a very homegrown, crunchy feel. It is, first of all, free. It’s also transitioning to being run by SporkDAO as a way of ensuring the community gets to put the show on. (The name is because “a Spork is the most utilitarian instrument in the known world. It can be used to eat, dig, attack, defend, and, most notably, #BUIDL.”) A mascot, the bufficorn — a combination buffalo and unicorn — was prowling the Denver Sports Castle. There’s also the related Bufficorn Ventures, which is a community venture fund that supports what gets built at the conference.
ETHDenver is a mix between developer conference and all-out party. Teams of developers were competing for more than a million dollars in prizes, people who were influential in the space were giving talks, and there was a general work-hard-play-hard ethos. I arrived on Thursday, so I missed Deadmau5, and left Sunday, missing Major Lazer.
At some point, you have to admit that $350 billion — approximately what the entire supply of Ethereum is valued at — is a lot of money, and that much money can have real-world effects. There is even more if you count the VC money sloshing around.
So as cryptocurrency and Web3 — essentially, decentralized apps based on blockchain — have grown in popularity, I’ve become very curious about the community. The online world of crypto is often dominated by influencers and investors because they have the most incentive to be loud.
But I wanted to know who was building things because the priorities of the people who build things are often reflected in the products they build. I wasn’t sure what to expect — or who. The prehistory of internet money is filled mostly with libertarians and anarchists, but as cryptocurrency has gone mainstream, more conventionally-minded people have flooded into cryptocurrency.
So I went to ETHDenver because developers are usually more interesting than investors, and also because I understood there would be parties, and I like parties.
The line for general attendance when I arrived was quite long — one attendee I spoke to said she was in line for three and a half hours before she was tested. I stood in the shorter line for press and speakers and was eventually ushered over to a table with about 10 other people. We followed the instructions to swab our own noses for an antigen test. All of us were negative. I was given a wristband and instructed not to take it off; at the door of every ETHDenver event space, there was security that asked to see the wristband.
Security was so inflexible on this point that on Saturday, a rumor went around the press room that Andrew Yang was bounced from the Denver Sports Castle, the main event space, because he did not have a wristband. Yang did not respond to a DM requesting comment; a spokesperson didn’t respond to an email requesting comment, either.
I saw him later, with an entourage that included someone in a Bored Ape Yacht Club hoodie, on his way to give a speech about his DAO, Lobby 3. A DAO — or decentralized autonomous organization — is kind of like the hacker version of a co-op, where rules are written in code, and members vote on outcomes. Lobby 3, which is also a political lobby, is supposed to allow ordinary users to push for friendlier cryptocurrency policies. (It was inspired by an Onion headline, Yang explained: “American People Hire High-Powered Lobbyist To Push Interests In Congress.”)
Masks weren’t required indoors in Denver, and few people wore them. Perhaps predictably, a lot of people came down with COVID after the conference.
A lot of this story is going to sound goofy because goofiness is an inherent part of ETHDenver. For instance, on Friday, a number of inflatable swans with QR codes popped up on the sidewalks to the conference. A surprising number of people wore onesies — several of which appeared to be unicorns, and one of which may have been a Pikachu (the wearer didn’t have his hood up, so it was hard to tell for sure). People are urged to BUIDL, pronounced “biddle,” a play on Bitcoin’s HODL meme. The conference’s sponsored booth section was called the Shill Zone. The bathrooms bore signs warning that the plumbing system was weak; toilets were frequently out of order.
On Thursday night, I ventured out to Bacon Coin’s party, which featured Tiësto. When I arrived, there was a long line, and the temperature had dropped since the relatively balmy afternoon, but the would-be partygoers seemed determined. I skipped the line — I was with two CoinDesk guys who were on the VIP list — and when I entered, a warm-up act, Dzeko, was spinning to a crowd that was barely dancing. I could feel the bass rattle my ribs. The crowd was heavily male — somewhere between five and 10 men for each woman.
Near the front was a VIP area labeled “Bacon Holders,” which seemed relatively sparse. Sitting in it was Peter Piekarczyk, 31, who told me that he was here to meet his online friends, some of whom he’d known for seven years, in person. “I love the music and the vibe, but I’m thinking about when I want to go to sleep,” he shouted over the music.
Also in the VIP lounge: Harrison Leggio, 26, who worked on Bacon and was wearing a Bacon T-shirt and a Tesla hat. “We’re celebrating crypto,” he told me as he waited at the bar for a drink. He said he’d had a lot of fun putting faces to names he knew well and was enjoying meeting many of his online friends for the first time. As for Bacon, it was a “good real-world application of the blockchain,” a mortgage-backed NFT. The name? “It’s about bringing home the Bacon.”
When Tiësto took the stage, phones immediately shot into the air, and the VIP lounge was suddenly packed. A person wearing a T-shirt that said STAFF materialized to guard the entrance. Two fog cannons shot into the crowd, which, apparently energized, finally began to dance.
Near the VIP area were Rhett Godfrey, 36, and Hana, who declined to give her last name and wanted to know why I was asking people’s ages. It is a common journalistic convention to note people’s ages, but this did not satisfy her; perhaps predictably, she told me she worked in privacy. Hana was there because a friend had a VIP ticket.
“I’m interested to know how this is different from any mortgage-backed security,” Godfrey told me. The valuation mechanism was yet to be proven, he noted. Later, another reveler would tell me he thought it was “too soon” for mortgaged-backed crypto. I laughed, thinking he was making a reference to the 2008 financial crisis, which was caused partly by mortgage-backed securities. In fact, he simply thought it was too soon to tie crypto to real-world assets.
Godfrey was primarily at ETHDenver because he was curious about social impact DAOs, especially because they are “inherently a leaderless, egalitarian model.” In his opinion, the next years of crypto were about creating strong communities. I asked how he liked the party. “Can you quote me that I thought this was someone’s bar mitzvah?” he asked.
Frankly, I did not think the crowd seemed horny enough for it to be a bar mitzvah. In fact, it was one of the least horny clubs I’ve ever set foot in. The peak of the party was when Tiësto did his own mix of Darude’s “Sandstorm,” which really set the crowd off. Fist pumps, unselfconscious dancing, cameras extending in the air for videos, all of it.
After a few more songs, I slipped off to the Degen Ball, where the smell of weed smoke — not vape pen exhaust, but actual smoke — was strong in the air. Periodically, a bouncer came through with a flashlight, but I didn’t see anyone get caught. At this party, people seemed a little frightened of talking to a reporter — one guy who called himself Loki immediately made himself scarce when I explained what I was doing. Another, Andreas, seemed visibly uncomfortable as I asked him questions.
A few people I spoke to didn’t want me to mention how many men there were relative to women, even though the Degen Ball had more women in attendance than the Bacon party did. One person told me it was too depressing. Another was afraid that it might discourage women from getting involved in the space. A third said he didn’t think the gender ratio mattered.
The next day, I would attend a Women in Blockchain event that was so full the organizers had to start turning people away for fear of violating the fire code; there were more female recruiters than there were job candidates there.
Andrew Yang wasn’t the only politician at the event. On Friday, we heard from Colorado Governor Jared Polis, who founded the Blockchain Caucus when he was serving in Congress. “It’s 4:20 somewhere,” said ETHDenver founder and executive steward John Paller, as he introduced Polis.
It was, in actual fact, around 5:30PM Mountain Standard Time, but then again, for most, 420 is more of a state of mind. Polis energetically took the stage, wearing bright blue-and-black sneakers and a blue dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up. “This is without a doubt the most fun thing I’ll do this month,” Polis said.
Polis racked up points with the crowd by making fun of cash. (Cash, unlike crypto, has no memory, which is ideal for illicit transactions.) His speech otherwise focused on promoting how friendly Colorado was to cryptocurrency. He touted the time he hired a chief blockchain architect, Thaddeus Batt, for the state. In 2019, Polis signed into law the “Colorado Digital Token Act.” This summer, Colorado will begin accepting cryptocurrency to pay for taxes and drivers’ licenses.
Most of the people I talked to said that NFTs and DAOs would be the big trends for 2022. To that end, Polis hyped Colorado’s history with cooperatives to the crowd. Using Colorado law developed for cooperatives may allow DAOs to own things and take actions in the real world without having to “wrap” themselves in an existing corporate structure such as an LLC.
It’s no secret that blockchain computing requires a lot of energy, though exactly how bad it is for the environment is somewhat up for debate. Many of the speakers seemed at pains to reassure the crowd that they weren’t just out for the quick buck and that they wanted to solve the environmental concerns.
Later in the evening Kevin Owocki, founder of Gitcoin, took the stage to tell the audience to “take the green pill,” i.e., get into environmentalism. He gave an enthusiastic performance, opening with an old meme by singing “hey, hey, hey” to the crowd and getting the crowd to sing it back. “Wassa wassa wassa Gitconnect,” Owocki said, absolutely gleeful. He was hyped about public goods, he explained. Gitcoin had funded $52 million in public goods in the Ethereum ecosystem already.
“We need to collectively take the green pill to create a more solar punk world,” Owocki said, pointing anyone who might be curious to a website where they could buy his book, Greenpilled: How crypto can regenerate the world. “Software is eating the world, and crypto is eating software, and we will ride this wave to a pluralistic civilizational-scale infrastructure for funding public goods! Thank you, GM.” “GM” is cryptoworld parlance for “good morning.” Owocki’s talk began around 7:30PM.
After Owocki, Kimbal Musk and his cowboy hat took the stage to discuss Big Green DAO, Musk’s plan to create a decentralized philanthropic organization. “I am not involved in crypto,” Musk said. “Everyone thinks it’s crypto. I’m Web3. We do not touch crypto.” As he went on, the bufficorn mascot came onstage to join him.
Musk said that when he and his brother — both board members at Tesla, and Elon, its CEO — invested in Bitcoin at Tesla, they were “very ignorant” about the environmental impact, but it “didn’t take very long to get, I’m not kidding, a million messages telling us what we were doing to the environment.” (Among Musk’s worries about the future of Web3 tech? That the Ethereum transition to proof of stake from proof of work doesn’t happen “or happens in a disappointing way.”)
“I’m old,” Musk went on. “I look young, of course, but I’m old.” (Musk is 49.) Then he told a story about when he and Elon were working on Zip2, their first company, which was an internet replacement for the Yellow Pages. One guy they met with — who was about Musk’s age now — threw a phone book at him and said, “Can your tech do all this?” “In this era of Web3, I just want to be a better old person,” Musk concluded.
At the end of the night, Vitalik Buterin — who wrote the original Ethereum white paper when he was 19 and is generally referred to by his first name, like Cher — gave a keynote wearing what appeared to be orange pajama pants with a Shiba Inu pattern. The Twitch stream crashed, and people began spamming the chat with “rug,” slang in cryptocurrency for a “rug pull,” or when a project’s owners run away with investor money.
Buterin was in public intellectual mode. In Buterin’s view, the possibility of decentralization goes far beyond the cryptocurrency arena — it’s one of the most important challenges of the 21st century. He used the cryptocurrency community as an example of how people with different values can cooperate on shared projects. Then he took questions.
The very first one was whether Buterin believed in God.
Buterin looked tired. He gave a philosophy major’s answer (essentially: please define “God”), and I wondered what it must be like to have signed yourself up for being a guru while still a teenager. After Buterin’s dodge, the questioner tried to follow up to ask about how to avoid “one-world government.”
The Q&A mostly calmed down after that, though one questioner began by saying, “When I read the Ethereum white paper in ninth grade, it changed my life,” reminding me exactly how young this space was: almost exclusively Millennials and Gen Z. The children’s crusade.
An organizer stepped on stage to say that the fire marshal was concerned about how people would exit the building and provided directions to two exits.
Buterin’s very existence highlights one of the ways Ethereum is different from Bitcoin: Buterin is still present, wrote his whitepaper under his own name, and is, in many respects, a guiding force for the developers. The Satoshi Nakamoto entity, who wrote the whitepaper for Bitcoin and its original code, is anonymous and has remained silent. Buterin doesn’t exercise direct control over much, but given his celebrity, his endorsement is very important for everyone who works in Ethereum. Buterin’s presence on the judging panel for BUIDL, for instance, serves as validation for anyone creating a project, even if they don’t win.
Ethereum is also distinct from Bitcoin in that they offer different ideologies. Bitcoin is just Bitcoin; Ethereum was designed to allow apps to be built on top. This difference was underlined, subtly, throughout the conference. Take the BUIDL tagline: the HODL meme it plays on is about investment and is based on a typo made in a drunk post in 2013 on a Bitcoin forum. BUIDL is about building things.
Arguably, Ethereum is more utopian than Bitcoin, as well. Early on in its existence, price talk was banned from r/Ethereum because the community wanted to focus on more interesting topics of discussion. The idea that a different, better version of the web is possible is connected to Ethereum; true Bitcoin maxis are against “Web3.” They’re only really interested in internet money.
The people I talked to were a self-aware bunch. They know there’s a problem with how much energy the blockchain uses and care about the resulting carbon emissions. They know there are challenges in moving to proof of stake from proof of work. They know there are a lot of scams in the space, and they’re horrified — they think, rightly, that a lot of people associate cryptocurrency with scams, and they’re scared that those people will write off cryptocurrency and Web3 altogether because of it. They discussed the unfriendly UX issues for newbies on the main stages.
As if to underline the difficulties, on Saturday night, shortly after OpenSea’s CTO was onstage with a panel to discuss where NFTs were headed, about $1.7 million in NFTs were stolen from OpenSea through a phishing attack.
A party called Into the Dark Forest on Saturday had serious Burning Man vibes. When I stepped into the party, the first thing I saw was the proliferation of face paint and rhinestones; there was an artist doing the face paint in another room. A lot of people had crowns of LED lights; the music, while still loud, was at a more tolerable level than at the previous parties I’d attended — I didn’t have to scream to be heard. It also had the best ratio of men to women of all the parties; there was even a line at the women’s room.
One woman told me she’d jumped from traditional finance because it was an old boys’ club, and she felt she’d been taken more seriously in cryptocurrency. She felt less like an alien here.
Several people I spoke to didn’t want to be on the record, either because they were drunk or had privacy concerns. I don’t own cryptocurrency because of The Verge’s ethics policy; on a case-by-case basis, reporters here can get approved to buy these assets — not as investments but as required to report a story. (Any #gains are discarded or donated.) When I mentioned this, the reactions varied from disbelief (how can I evaluate UX on these products if I don’t use them? Which, fair!) to genuine concern (what will I do when the dollar goes to zero?). The concern surprised me, and after the party, I spent a bunch of time thinking about it; I don’t think the dollar will go to zero, but it’s not impossible, I suppose. If it does go to zero, well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been wrong.
There were women dressed up in ballerina costumes, with glowing LED lights along the bodice and tutu. “It’s some kind of fairy godmother shit,” S. Matthew English, 32, told me. Like a lot of people I met at the conference, he was excited to see a lot of people he only knew from online in person.
Blake Jackovitch, 29, told me that his grandfather had gotten him into cryptocurrency in 2011. (His grandfather was a “Web2 serial entrepreneur,” he said.) “It’s pretty open-minded and accepting here,” Jackovitch said. Like English and many other people I spoke to, Jackovitch praised the sense of community — the camaraderie he felt was a major draw for him.
Nearby were Griff Green, 37, and Frankie P, who told me she would be 28 the following Monday. The two go back a long way — Green once called Frankie from jail. She was the third person at MetaMask and wore an oversized T-shirt as a minidress. “I watched everything happen, and I needed a break,” Frankie said. After leaving the space, she floated around for a bit until she wound up in Hawaii, where she met locals who were interested in cryptocurrency. She said they saved her and gave her focus and a mission.
“I’m here to make my name bigger and go home and make them proud,” she said. “I’m excited to be recognized as an older person in the space, and I’m very appreciative of the people who are coming up.”
Green, who had what appeared to be a purple stuffed unicorn dangling around his neck, told me he was “a crazy anarchist” who exited banks in 2008 and kept his money in gold and silver. He heard about Coinbase in 2013 and eventually traded his gold and silver for crypto. “I used to be a chemical engineer, and I became a crazy hippie,” he said. He spent time studying Thai massage and lived an itinerant lifestyle, with stops in Ecuador and Guatemala. “I’ve been fully nomadic for a decade,” he said.
He was one of the people who was involved in cleanup after a hacker stole $50 million from Ethereum’s premier DAO (named “The DAO”) in 2016. Even after the hack, Green remained enthusiastic about the possibility for decentralized public goods. “We’re good at business models but bad at coordinating around things that don’t have a price,” Green told me. He’s confident that the cryptocurrency space will create competing alternatives for what governments and non-profit organizations do now to provide public goods. “If you can create a regenerative economy, then the question is: would you rather donate or invest?” he said. “Clearly, if you invest, there’s upside.”
How does he feel about the growth in the cryptocurrency space? Well, ETHDenver is “11,500 people bigger than it used to be,” Green said. “But the vibes are the same. The parties are the same.” He paused, then smiled. “I love the vibes.” Though, he admitted, he doesn’t often talk to people in DeFi (decentralized finance, an alternative to the existing financial system) or anyone else who’s there for the money.
At that last party, I, too, loved the vibes; it was full of a bunch of weirdos, in a way that reminded me of a time when the web was also full of weirdos. These days, it often feels like algorithms have ironed out large parts of society into being exactly the same — and it’s tasteful or whatever, but it’s also so boring.
The new internet also sucks for creators, pointed out Pete Mathias, 35, who got into cryptocurrency in 2013. (He’d been clued in by a friend on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.) He’s in a band called Filligar. Because Apple Music and Spotify were lousy for musicians, he put up a website where people could buy his band’s album with Bitcoin. “That despair of 2008 was also a despair in the creator economy,” he said. Artists have a long history of patrons — see: the Medicis — and right now, many use Patreon and Kickstarter to make ends meet.
“We have a scar in the history of music,” said Mathias. When music went online to MP3s, it was no longer scarce, and it became harder for artists to make a living. That’s what makes NFTs cool, he said. “We’ve talked about how to survive, and in this economy, you need scarcity for value.”
Some of what Mathias had to say resonated with me — one thing NFTs purport to solve is how hard it’s been for creators to get paid. But much like Mathias’ Bitcoin album sales, a lot of these products are just a different way of doing the same thing. Mathias could have sold his album using PayPal, for dollars, for instance. The dollar hasn’t had the same kind of run-up in value as Bitcoin, though. That’s one reason that Bitcoin isn’t used as internet money much anymore — why not just use a dollar? Or, if you’re committed to cryptocurrency, a stablecoin?
But a lot of the small blogs I used to read and love have died because of the way the web currently makes money. Google and Facebook have driven down ad rates so that scale becomes important for survival. It’s also why many sites, including this one, are clogged with ads and trackers. It’s why you can see YouTubers chasing the algorithm. Cryptocurrency is fueled by dissatisfaction with the existing financial system; Web3 is fueled by dissatisfaction with Big Tech.
I’m a skeptic about cryptocurrency and Web3, but I came to ETHDenver because I wanted to understand why it’s compelling for so many people. I think I get it now — mostly because I think the community’s diagnosis of what’s wrong with the web is right. I’m just not convinced by their solutions.
Robert Ross, 53, agreed with me about the way the internet deviated from what many of us had hoped for. Ross started his career when the internet was young and watched the rise of Big Tech and revenue models that monetized personal data. Web3 could be something different.
“The most exciting part for me is providing a mechanism for tech to empower individuals versus offering a technology that, for all the good it can do, feeds into the economic order we’ve always had, with the haves and the have nots,” he said. The economy in personal data could be subverted, he seemed to think. “With Web3, we have the tech to maintain full control of our identities,” he told me. I was excited to hear more but was interrupted — there was a show out back, fire twirlers.
The fire twirlers — three of them, all women — were performing enthusiastically in costumes that did little to shield them from the cold. When their performance ended, one of them, no longer holding the fire batons, passed by me to get to her heavy winter coat. Back inside, people were dancing. A neon sign that said “Fuck yeah” in cursive was behind the DJ. I almost got out of the party without having a single alcoholic drink until one of the people I was talking to ordered tequila shots for five of us at the bar. Like most of the revelers, he was in a generous mood, and he just wanted the community to have a good time.
Correction 11:43AM ET: ETHDenver is the longest-running conference in the Ethereum world, not in cryptocurrency.