This weekend marks the culmination of ETHDenver, probably the most important annual gathering for smart contract and decentralized finance (DeFi) developers right now, on Ethereum and beyond. I wish I could be there this year, but I’m still recovering from a pretty intense four months of making cool things and exposing bad guys.
Fortunately, plenty of people are sharing clips from the event, so I can enjoy it vicariously. Unfortunately, many of these posts express something between innocent confusion and sneering takedowns of the supposedly lame ETHDenver goings-on.
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But that attitude, to paraphrase the fugitive philosopher-thief Do Kwon, is a great formula for getting rekt. It may look like silliness and disorganization to you, but ETHDenver’s rough edges are actually strong signals that a real community has been drawn together by shared interests to build something together from the ground up. That’s the kind of community that has and will weather slow periods of crypto growth like what we’re going through right now.
Low key, it’s also a signal that a lot of these people are far too rich to give a damn what you think.
It’s hip to be cringe
It’s true that compared to a lot of crypto conferences ETHDenver and certain related events can seem just the slightest bit slapdash, and more than the slightest bit bizarre. Take, for instance, the annual contributions from Jonathan Mann, aka “The Song a Day Guy.” He has created and performed goofy, slightly amateurish tunes for the event for a while now – and every year people on Twitter take the opportunity to dunk on him.
But let me tell you, a goofy song is barely the only thing at ETHDenver that might make you uncomfortable!
When I attended last year, ETHDenver was held in a refurbished parking garage, where the bathrooms were partly or entirely broken for much of the event. You couldn’t see the main stage from roughly a third of the ground floor seating, and people talking at the back of the room halfway drowned out the speakers. Every once in a while, someone would drop 500 pizzas on an upstairs table, resulting in massive queues that made it nearly impossible to move.
And you know what? It was awesome.
ETHDenver, unlike almost any crypto event that’s sort of in the public eye, has the edge and energy of a great punk rock or hip hop show. It still manages to feel “do-it-yourself” in an era when marketing firms and huge budgets have come to dominate crypto events. It’s driven by an actual ethos instead of an ROI (return on investment) formula. The cracks and rough edges are a feature, not a bug.
(Though for the record, the event is in a different venue this year, so I hope the bathrooms are working.)
Rough edges, improvisation and scrappiness are certainly a turnoff for some sets of people – above all, financiers and those who aspire to that dubious designation. So-called institutional investors may not gain much reassurance about the seriousness of the Ethereum ecosystem from watching co-founder Vitalik Buterin do the badger dance.
But that’s more or less the point. The Ethereans sure aren’t crying about it. Like any good punk show, bits like Jonathan Mann’s opening ceremony are supposed to scare away normies, to leave them and their lives of quiet, hustling desperation just outside the circle of belonging.
And all the better: These are the vultures and vampires who spent 2021 making embarrassingly awful bets on frauds and charlatans. If you don’t understand the culture, the implicit logic goes, you probably don’t understand anything else happening here, either.
See also: Ethereum's Political Philosophy Explained | Opinion
At the same time, a willingness to not sweat appearances in an industry with absolute boatloads of money at stake may be the most alpha move on the board.
As crypto satirist Gabriel Haines puts it: “You think I give a f**k if you think I’m cringe? … I am a chad! I am the ballsiest man alive, to go on stage and sing a Disney song with my wife!”
You know what’s cool? A billion dollars
That indifference signals another important fact – a lot of the people attending ETHDenver have little or no need to be approachable, much less appealing, to the masses. That’s largely because it’s a thriving community of people who know each other and are already working together effectively.
But it’s also because a critical mass of the kind of people who go to ETHDenver have been involved in crypto, and Ethereum specifically, long enough that they’re sitting on pretty serious eff-you money, whether as individuals or organizations. When your treasury has an ETH cost basis of $2, even wild bubbles and crashes like 2021 and 2022 are essentially sideshows, and telling venture capitalists to take a long walk off a short pier is just another Friday.
By contrast, the slick, overproduced events that have come to dominate crypto in the last three years are far more focused on the appearance of achievement to drive short-term hype. When Arthur Hayes parked three rented lambos outside of CoinDesk's Consensus conference in New York in 2018, it was in its own way a sneering, punk-rock gesture. But it seems like nobody got the joke, and low-IQ grindset signaling is now an unfortunate norm at too many of crypto’s biggest events.
See also: Now I Know the Cryptocurrency Industry Is Here to Stay | Opinion
This makes many crypto conferences feel uncomfortably close to the exploitative grifts of genuinely bad weirdos like Tai Lopez – people who have magicked their own success out of thin air by selling pipe dreams of “making it” to others at an infinite markup. The kind of slick production that’s now standard at crypto events is, too often, a simulation of excitement and success, underwritten by forward-looking venture capital instead of any actual present achievement. More effort often goes into ginning up superficial hype than into actually building stuff people need. Such efforts may be aimed at generating real partnerships and growth – or they may simply be aimed at turning you into exit liquidity.
There’s nothing more cringey than having to beg for money – not just once but at every moment of your buttoned-up, angle-working, public-relations-orchestrated existence. ETHDenver seems remarkably free of that self-debasing imperative, and that makes it very cool indeed.