MIAMI – There was money in the air. Buzzwords have floated, like NFT, BTD, blockchain, token. There was crazy energy.
And there was heat – a sticky, humid South Florida heat; the kind all Californians and New Yorkers who moved to Miami during the winter doldrums of the pandemic have been warned about. The genre generated by thousands upon thousands of people coming together to worship at the altar of cryptocurrencies.
That was the vibe at Bitcoin 2021, an occasional gathering of digital currency enthusiasts led by a magazine named after the cryptocurrency. Last year’s event had been postponed. But on Friday and Saturday, at least 12,000 people descended on Miami to make up for lost time, flocking to the world’s largest Bitcoin conference and the first major in-person trade conference since the start of the pandemic.
The exuberance of being in person, indoors, in a crowd for the first time in over a year was electric. Everyone kissed, no one is masked. Money has slipped between digital wallets. Loot from the conference included neon fanny packs, festival bracelets and a Lamborghini car. The jargon – stablecoin, peer-to-peer, private key – has leaked. Alcohol too.
For a few days the city was a raging fireball of finance, technology and gleeful lawlessness, unfathomable wealth and desperate endeavor. Bitcoin 2021 heralded the decline of the pandemic, with heartwarming and mundane elements of a business conference: branded plastic sunglasses, brightly colored sponsor stands, lanyards and signs. Some participants wore business casual attire. Others seemed ready for a music festival. One put on a furry rave bikini.
It was another sign that the often absurd world of digital currencies was gradually moving towards mainstream acceptance, or at least mainstream curiosity. Since the end of last year, Bitcoin has been on a wild ride, setting price records. Even a dramatic drop from a high of $ 64,000 in April to $ 36,000 now has not cooled the spirits. They are BTD – buying the dip. Wall Street bankers, institutional investors and Senator Cynthia Lummis, a Republican from Wyoming, all came to Miami.
Was everyone there to chat, to revolutionize the global financial system or just to get rich?
Several attendees told me that the event offered catharsis, a signal that the pandemic was really coming to an end. As of Friday morning, the queue to enter the site, a warehouse and an outdoor site called Mana Wynwood, stretched for more than a mile. It was the biggest crowd I had seen in a year.
Others were just there to party. The bar opened right away and had as many takers as the coffee station.
“You will be a millionaire”
There was a reason we were in Miami and not New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. The city has gone completely crypto.
Bitcoin ATMs have dotted the Wynwood neighborhood. A cryptocurrency exchange called FTX recently purchased the naming rights to the arena from the Miami Heat. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez announced this year that the city will accept cryptocurrency tax payments, let its employees collect salaries with it, and consider keeping some of it on its balance sheet. (The logistics of these announcements were still under study.)
Shortly after 9 a.m. on Friday, as crowds poured into the air-conditioned warehouse, a conference organizer introduced Mr. Suarez as “arguably the most irresponsible politician in all of America, the mayor of the Mecca of the freedom”.
Mr. Suarez set a tone of challenge. “I am here to tell all the enemies and all the skeptics that it is not a moment, it is a movement,” he said. The crowd erupted into whistles and cheers.
Moishe Mana, the real estate mogul who owned the place, strolled through the hall crowded with stalls and crypto art with a small entourage. After years of working to bring business, people and innovation to the city, he was basking in the rise of Miami.
The appeal from New York and San Francisco was waning, Mr. Mana said. “Each city has its own golden age,” he added. “Nothing stays forever.”
Mr. Mana was not a big crypto guy, per se, but he recognized his power, comparing the devotion of his followers to a religion. “The more you fight religion, the more holy it becomes and the stronger the movement becomes,” he said.
On stage, cryptocurrency entrepreneurs and billionaires Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss preached to the choir. Cameron Winklevoss wore a t-shirt with a photo of the Federal Reserve building captioned “Rage Against the Machine,” a reference to how cryptocurrency was not controlled by a central government or a bank.
“If you own Bitcoin today, you will be a millionaire in the future. For sure. Congratulations, ”he said.
Later, Jack Dorsey, chief executive of Twitter and payment firm Square, offered his own endorsement. “If I wasn’t on Square or Twitter, I would be working on Bitcoin,” he said.
“Horses never die”
A few blocks away, in a warehouse co-working space called LAB Miami, around 50 people gathered to talk about digital art and collectibles known as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which have exploded in popularity this year.
About half of the group were Miami residents like Stephanie Davis, who quit her job at Google in Silicon Valley and moved in with her husband, Eric Kami, last year. Mr. Kami, who also worked at Google, has a sock start-up called Tribe Socks.
In Silicon Valley, letting Google work on socks would cause people to ask if they were okay, Ms Davis said. But in Miami, she said, “Everyone says, ‘well done!
Addressing the room, Drew Austin, an entrepreneur and investor, described his success on NBA Top Shot, a site for buying and selling digital basketball clips. Another panelist, Alex Taub, stepped in to clarify, “He’s basically spent $ 30,000 to $ 50,000 and it’s worth over $ 2 million.”
Mr Austin credited NBA Top Shot with making cryptocurrency accessible to mainstream users. “I’ve been preaching crypto to my friends since 2013 and the first time any of them have done anything with crypto is NBA Top Shot,” he said.
The conversation focused on the recent downturn in the NFT market. NFT’s weekly sales value has fallen 90% from its euphoric peak in early May, according to a analysis by Protos, a crypto-focused media company.
“90% of NFTs will be worthless,” Taub warned.
The conversation continued on Zed Run, a digital horse buying, racing and breeding site. Ali spagnola, a popular YouTuber who started selling her paintings as NFT, asked Roman Tirone, head of business partnerships at Zed Run, how long have digital horses lived.
“Horses never die,” he said.
Satoshi is black
Down the road at the historic Lyric Theater, a crowd sipped wine at a “Wine, Women and Crypto” gathering. Najah Roberts, a cryptocurrency executive, and Hill Harper, the actor who created an app called Black Wall Street, explained that investing in cryptocurrency was a key step towards financial freedom and wealth for the black community.
“They can’t colonize Bitcoin,” said Mr. Hill, who wore a t-shirt referencing the pseudonymous Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto, who said “Satoshi is black”.
Only 14% of American adults have bought cryptocurrency, according to one investigation by The Ascent, a financial services rating site. Of those who didn’t, 20 percent said they planned to do so this year.
One participant, Shownda Pagan, a nonprofit executive, said she bought Bitcoin and another cryptocurrency, Dogecoin, more than a year ago after her nephew and son encouraged her to do it. She also bought shares in AMC, the besieged movie theater chain, which has skyrocketed to “meme action,” being promoted by traders on social media. She said she was blown away by the rapid increase in her holdings.
“Now I’m in love with this stuff,” she said.
Under the fairy lights
As the sky turned pink then dark, Bitcoin 2021 split into hours of cocktails, rooftop dinners, boat parties and clubs.
I saw colleagues who had worked together through Slack and Zoom for a year meet in person for the first time, kissing. Under string lights eating sushi at the buffet, a young man talked about something called DeFi staking. EDM knocked softly.
Some chatted about the previous night’s ‘Whale’ party, hosted for attendees who bought a special $ 19,795 ticket to the conference, and speculated on who would win a Sunday boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr., the former boxer and current crypto peddler, and Logan Paul, the YouTuber. (Mr Mayweather had spoken at Bitcoin 2021.) Elon Musk, who can make cryptocurrencies fluctuate with just one tweet, has been praised and ridiculed.
After a year of isolation, it was as if Twitter had come to life. But we were all there together, and the view was lovely.