London held its first Satoshi Square event on Saturday 18th January – a bitcoin meetup combined with live face-to-face trading of the sort popularly imagined to dominate Wall Street.
Part networking event, part trading floor and part public outreach, the event attracted everyone from bitcoin entrepreneurs to curious members of the public.
"We want to increase awareness of bitcoin among the general public. Bitcoin is a concept that's quite difficult to get your head around, so we want to bring the public together with people who are experts in digital currency," said Tom Robinson, co-founder of Elliptic, a bitcoin insurance startup in the UK, and organiser of the Satoshi Square event.
One of those experts was Hugh Halford-Thompson, co-founder of quickbitcoin.co.uk, a UK-based bitcoin marketplace.
"London's bitcoin community is good, just look around," he said, gesturing to the crowd of roughly 100 people who had congregated at Spitalfields Market for the event. "But the biggest thing we all want to do is kick off the [bitcoin] economy."
Halford-Thompson was doing his best to grow the community on Saturday, helping people set up wallets and educating them about bitcoin. As we talked a women approached us to talk about bitcoin and he leapt into action, "Have you got an iPhone or Android, we can get you set up!"
But the bitcoin economy is a bigger challenge, he said:
"It's moving in the right direction, but I think a bigger problem than regulation is the banking issue. Irrelevant of the regulation, they don't want bitcoin companies or bitcoin services. My view on that is they probably don't want bitcoin to work."
Although there are a few bitcoin businesses in London, like The Pembury Tavern in Hackney, the city still lacks a natural home for bitcoin in the same way that Berlin has the Kreuzberg area.
"What I'd really like to do is get a group of businesses in a similar area, introduce them to bitcoin, get them set up and get an economy together," says Halford-Thompson.
Other bitcoiners at the event were mainly happy to be among like-minded people. As you would expect for a community built around a digital currency – and for any community in 2013 – much of the interaction happens online.
"It's nice to meet with people in real time. Using bitcoin in the real world, it's rare," said Mark, 59. Like many in the community, the former soldier's main interest in digital currencies was anonymity.
"Anonymity is the most important thing to me … the products I buy fall into an area that bitcoin doesn't want to be associated with."
He declined to provide more details, but noted the impressive speed with which the "criminal fraternity" had adapted to bitcoin.
Of course most of the people there didn't fit this stereotype, borne out of bitcoin's previous association with the Silk Road. The site's demise, thought to be bitcoin's death knell, arguably freed bitcoin to enter the mainstream untainted by a high-profile connection to drugs and illegality. Some residue still remains, however.
"Even techies are suspicious of it, they think it's a bubble or it's a scam," said Scott, 43, a mobile developer and creator of Bitty Bot, which trawls bitcoin marketplaces every five minutes and tweets the best prices.
Events like Satoshi Square, held out in the open (and unfortunately the cold), are an important tool in dispelling these myths and stereotypes. The answer to the question "What's bitcoin?" was on fine display on Saturday. Simply, it's the ordinary people who use it because they believe we can build a better foundation for finance in the 21st century.
Video by Roop Gill