ETHDenver Shows Not All Crypto Communities Are the Same

In a day focused on reforming economics and society, ETHheads discussed "public goods," Schelling Points and how DAOs can return power to the people.

By David Z. MorrisLayer 2
AccessTimeIconFeb 18, 2022 at 6:19 p.m. UTCUpdated Feb 28, 2022 at 3:18 p.m. UTC
By David Z. MorrisLayer 2
AccessTimeIconFeb 18, 2022 at 6:19 p.m. UTCUpdated Feb 28, 2022 at 3:18 p.m. UTC

David Z. Morris is CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.

Thursday was the first day of the “official” ETHDenver conference, complete with an opening ceremony. That doesn’t feel terribly meaningful because the pre-conference #BUIDLweek has been going full steam ahead for days, and there will be post-conference stuff going on for days after (Breckenridge Ski Resort, brace yourself). It did bring a huge influx of general-public attendees, though. More on them in a moment.

I spent the day at Schelling Point, a one-day miniconference within the conference, held at the same huge six-floor “Crypto Castle” as the bulk of the main conference (confused yet?). The Crypto Castle is pitch-perfect ETHWorld, featuring an NFT (non-fungible token) gallery decorated with e-waste and vacuum cleaner parts, attendees dressed like space fairies dancing through the halls, and tables and tables of free T-shirts, most of them bright purple and featuring some kind of cartoon animal.

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Schelling Point was focused on, for my money, the most interesting intellectual stream in cryptocurrency: incentive design for social good. A “Schelling Point” is very broadly a thing that brings people together organically to interact or collaborate, without communication or planning. Schelling Points can be actual places or social nexuses like a campfire, or more abstract convergence points like price in a free market. Naval Ravikant likely introduced the game theory concept to many crypto types.

Most Schelling Point speakers discussed the broad question of how to use distributed systems to organize people to improve the world. DAOs, or decentralized autonomous organizations, were frequently brought up as voluntary gathering places for people to take collective action. That’s a really exciting concept because unlike the social media platforms or forums where many socially-concerned people spend time now, DAOs have actual power (and money) directly attached. Belonging to a DAO can feel like a meaningful choice. And as the history of online forums shows, it’s clear we need a richer alternative to collaboration online and take real-world action.

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Niran Babalola, Founder of Austin-based community-building platform Panvala, presents on the use of DAOs for supporting public-goods projects and activism. ((David Z. Morris/CoinDesk))

It’s also clear that crypto has become a Schelling Point, or a series of Schelling Points, for politics. Bitcoin has been a massive conceptual magnet for libertarian thought and activism. And the Schelling Point event was a window into the much-less-widely understood politics of the Ethereum community. The distinction is almost always lost in loose criticisms of “crypto” as fundamentally regressive or antisocial.

Ethereum politics is still essentially a capitalist framework, as speaker Abbey Titcomb of Radicle emphasized. But what separates Ethereum politics from the type of hyper-capitalist libertarianism often advocated by bitcoiners is a clear-eyed acceptance that markets as currently structured fail, again and again, in predictable and well-understood ways and need both restructuring and supplementing. ​​If you strapped “Bitcoin Standard” author Saifedean Ammous into a “Clockwork Orange”-style viewing chair in front of a talk titled “Morality and Market Failure,” I suspect he would burst into flames.

At Schelling Point, there was a particular focus on environmental externalities and underfunded public goods, topics on which ideological bitcoiners often seem not just indifferent but even hostile. Several speakers discussed “regenerative economics,” a framework that aims to restructure markets to incentivize maintenance of natural resources and the “commons.” There were also frequent and trenchant critiques of contemporary democratic processes, particularly the slow feedback loop between elections and legislative action. A broad consensus emerged on the crucial importance of giving people more frequent and varied ways to signal their desires and have those signals actually have an impact on the way the world is run.

The event was backed by Gitcoin, a fundraising platform oriented towards social change initiatives. Gitcoin co-founder Vivek Muthra captured both the vibe and the challenge of the conference’s premise when he declared that “we owe something to people who are not in this room today, and that’s something those of us fortunate to be here should think about.” Can we remember “people who are not yet part of the game,” and can we “welcome them quickly and meaningfully?” he asked.

Admirable though it was, this call to action would prove a bit ironic: Not everyone would be quickly and meaningfully welcomed into the game of ETHDenver. As I mentioned, a lot of new attendees showed up on Thursday, and I mean a lot. According to an organizer, there were roughly 20,000 applications for about 7,000 available free tickets to the conference. Lines to register and get into events were long all day – I heard of waits up to three hours to get into the Crypto Castle.

I wouldn’t know anything about that, though, because I have a glorious badge, better than the general public’s wristbands. Having a badge means breezing right past those long lines. This isn’t uncommon at conferences, but it’s uniquely structured at ETHDenver. For most conferences, you pay a lot more money to get a higher-access badge. While there are "VIP" style passes available, the vast majority of badgeholders at ETHDenver seem to be presenters, organizers, and volunteers.

See also: Are DAOs Socialist? | Paul Dylan-Ennis

In short, status, influence, and involvement are more powerful currencies here than mere cash (though some of the badged probably have plenty of that, too). That's part of how ETHDenver has accomplished a minor miracle: It's a crypto conference that doesn't feel like it's primarily about money. Whether that’s an improvement is a judgment call, but it does seem to have had the glorious side effect of keeping Wall Street vampires far away – the only blazer I saw all day was on a fellow journalist.

The ticketing design, along with the openness to economic reform, may also have contributed to the clearly more inclusive atmosphere. I’ve been to every kind of crypto conference under the sun, and while they’re still overwhelmingly white and male, Ethereum events consistently have far more women and Black and Latino folks in attendance and on stage than others. To be mercenary about it, this is a huge long-term competitive advantage for the Ethereum ecosystem, and for the goal of making all communities more powerful.

UPDATE (Feb. 19, 15:18 UTC): This story has been updated with more accurate application and attendance data.

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David Z. Morris is CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.

David Z. Morris is CoinDesk's Chief Insights Columnist. He holds Bitcoin, Ethereum, and small amounts of other crypto assets.