It all started with a keynote conversation with Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss in 2016.
South by Southwest (SXSW) organizers say that was the first inkling that cryptocurrency could play a leading role in the annual innovation conference in Austin, Texas.
The Gemini co-founders returned in 2017 and are back again this year, too, speaking Friday evening in a featured session. (The Winklevoss talk takes place well ahead of the official crypto track due to scheduling issues, according to a festival spokesperson.)
SXSW is all about being on top of the zeitgeist, Todd Hansen, SXSW's head of conference programming, told CoinDesk. "It finally, really in a mainstream way, broke through, because everyone was talking about it," he said, explaining cryptocurrency's prominent place in this year's conference.
Hansen told CoinDesk that blockchain programming at the 2018 event saw a strong response from festival crowds. Of course, that was just months after BTC had touched $20,000 and initial coin offerings had reached a fever pitch.
In that spirit, one company ran a tongue-in-cheek side event on March 11, 2018 called the Initial Taco Offering. For those unfamiliar: SXSW has gotten so big that there's a whole separate level of programming in off-agenda events that occur across downtown Austin. They range from super exclusive parties to open-to-all workshops.
Despite layoffs late last year, the crypto firm with the biggest presence at SXSW 2019 appears to be Brooklyn-based ConsenSys. The ethereum-focused venture studio made its first foray to Austin as a company in 2018.
"When we saw Joe Lubin and Laura Shin fill the same 2,000-person auditorium as Elon Musk a few days later, it was a signal that blockchain and Ethereum were transcending tech and finance circles," ConsenSys spokesperson Kara Miley told CoinDesk in an email.
SXSW saw the signal too.
This year, the blockchain track starts as the rest of the tech-industry programming tapers off. The organizers are hoping that by running blockchain programming concurrently with the start of the music event it can bring in a second wave of professionals to Austin, effectively extending the innovation summit.
With SXSW undertaking its first official foray into crypto, CoinDesk wanted to flag a few highlights.
People who come mainly for the tech conference but want to dabble in blockchain can stop by the ConsenSys blockchain house, which will run from March 10–14. For a more casual introduction to the topic, ConsenSys will show a short documentary Monday night about using ethereum to clean trash out of Manila Bay.
Attendees can also go deeper and experience the blockchain as an extended game. PricewaterhouseCoopers is running a three-hour demonstration that will get participants to play-act as nodes on a ledger. Sadly, it's already maxed out for RSVPs.
As a mainstream tech festival, guests at SXSW care about UX. Getting crypto's usability up to a level that's actually attractive to non-techies is a recurring theme in the space. There are two notable design events taking place: consulting firm IDEO will run a workshop on Thursday, March 14, and ConsenSys is organizing a design workshop on Wednesday, March 13 featuring uPort and Coinbase.
With SXSW's music programming taking place nearby, there are also sessions exploring mashups of music and blockchain technology. A cross-industry panel featuring IBM and MIT will dig into progress on the topic. Additionally, a freelance blockchain developer working on Imogen Heap's long-awaited Mycelia project will give a demo of progress so far.
The pressure is on for crypto companies in Austin.
Miley, the ConsenSys spokesperson, noted that SXSW is a key chance to reach influential users of the old internet:
But it's not only crypto-native companies telling their story. Established brands have been working with the technology, too. For example, tech giant IBM will have a large presence in Austin.
"A real shift we're seeing this year is the move beyond the crypto-craze to more enterprise applications of blockchain capability and blockchain business networks," Jason Kelley, of IBM's blockchain division, told CoinDesk. "We're also seeing more evidence of the unlimited potential to tokenize all kinds of assets on the blockchain."
This will be the first SXSW event for Dapper Labs, the company behind CryptoKitties. Dieter Shirley, who invented the ERC-721 non-fungible token standard that made the cats possible, told CoinDesk that he's up to the challenge of winning over a public that's interested in these topics but not quite sold yet.
"We should focus on getting people excited about the real benefits of this technology, on making this technology more accessible, and ultimately, giving people a reason to care beyond promises of incredible wealth," he told CoinDesk. "Like every product we create, we want to communicate this in a way that's fun, interesting and accessible."
Updated with additional comment from IBM.
Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, interviewed by TechCrunch's John Biggs, at SXSW 2016. (Photo by Brady Dale)