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When 8,400 Bitcoiners Went to a Hilton to Talk About the Future

Remember in-person events? Consensus 2018, held at the tail-end of the last bull run, was epic. There were hiccups.

May 19, 2021
CoinDesk Insights

If you're bored of attending events like Consensus over Zoom and wish we could all meet in person, be careful what you wish for. Think back to 2018, when Consensus was held at its traditional venue at a Hilton on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. By all accounts, it was mayhem. 

That was the year Consensus had its largest attendance (a reported 8,400), when attendees struggled to get to the second-floor registration area (because of a crush at the bottom of the stairs) and Decred's giant Stakey man-puppet dominated the exhibition area. The New York Times commissioned a photo essay titled “When Thousands Filled a Hilton Ballroom to Ponder the Future of Bitcoin.”

CoinDesk is hosting the all virtual Consensus 2021 event May 24-27. Register here.

“It’s a barometer for the industry,” Jacob Donnelly, one of the organizers of Consensus 2018, said in an interview. “We were coming off the ICO (initial coin offering) boom. Bitcoin had hit $20 K. People who were obscure were suddenly in the New York Times," he said. 

Blockgrain advertised their token sale at Consensus 2018.

“When an industry is ripe like that – and to be clear, my suspicion is the industry is like that right now – there’s a certain exuberance,” he said. (Donnelly is now at the newsletter-based media startup MorningBrew.) 

History may not repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes. Three years ago, everyone had an idea for a decentralized Uber or a price target for BTC at $100k. A rally in XRP, driven by the eponymous army, briefly made Brad Garlinghouse wealthier on paper than Mark Zuckerberg.

This year, a serious market risk assessment might include Elon Musk appearing on a late-night sketch comedy show. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell fielded a question about dogecoin. Everyone from Paris Hilton to Procter & Gamble have minted non-fungible tokens (NFTs). 

Still, as exuberant as crypto can sometimes be, there is real work being done. 

Reality check

“I thought to myself, ‘what the f**k have I gotten myself into?’” Mark Yarm said, recalling his first day on the job as a reporter for BREAKER Magazine on what happened to be the first day of Consensus 2018, the largest ever in-person blockchain conference. “I come into this convention center, and it's just packed. I mean, I think there were 8,000 people. It was, like, thousands of people, thousands of tech bros. It was just overwhelming.”

Yarm, now features editor for Input, was breaking into crypto media in search of stability (shocking, right?) after years of freelancing. He had bylines at esteemed publications like Wired and The New York Times. And just enough crypto knowledge to “help get me hired.” 

The infamous lines of Consensus 2018.

“It was a really strange first day of work, for sure,” Yarm said. Although he doesn’t remember talking to anyone at the event (besides his BREAKER colleagues), Yarm will never forget the atmosphere of that Consensus. 

His head filled with stories about Crypto Castles and the nouveau riche microdosing while zipping through Miami Beach in orange Lamborghinis, he was startled by what he actually experienced. “I got the sense that this was becoming mainstream,” he said. “As somebody coming in cold, it felt like cryptocurrencies were being taken very seriously by a lot of people.”

There’s often a discrepancy between how crypto exists in the public imagination and what is actually happening on the ground. Often dismissed as a group of white, male libertarian ideologues, building energy-intensive Rube Goldberg machines designed to separate you from your cash, the crypto industry is anything but. Sure, there’s plenty of tech bros. And scams. But the reality is so much more staid. Nowhere was that more on display than at Consensus. 

Donnelly agreed. It wasn’t the Aston Martins given away on a yacht, Justin Sun’s face plastered street level on the side of The Hilton or Snoop Dogg performing at a late-night XRP event that stood out for Donnelly, but the business-mindedness of the whole affair. 

A proposed advertisement TRON’s Justin Sun wanted to post on the elevators at Consensus 2018.

He, like Yarm, remembers a bunch of impromptu meetings, bankers talking to developers wearing hoodies, people practicing their sales pitch waiting in line for their badges. (“Did people wait a long time? Absolutely. There was a long line,” Donnelly said.) It’s not that the ostentatious displays of wealth were fabricated or misremembered, but almost beside the point.

That said, not everyone had such a congenial time. Months after the event, CoinDesk columnist Jill Carlson wrote: “Consensus - where 24 year olds were literally accosting me with elevator pitches for their funds and I couldn’t move three feet without someone handing me a QR code for their ICO and afterparties involved lambo giveaways.”

Luke Powell, a developer for Decred, has an insider’s view here. Decred was one of those crypto upstarts that placed down a chunk of change to have a booth and presence at the conference. The project managers had an idea to hire someone to wear a foam costume of the blockchain’s mascot, Stakey. 

It was a way to compete for attention in a crowd of projects flush with cash from ICOs (Powell noted Decred never had a token offering) that were handing out T-shirts and other swag. “That was during the peak of when we actually were experimenting with spending money directly on marketing,” he said. “Everybody, you know, was basically still living through the peak end of the 2018 run-up.” 

Consensus 2018

Despite the lingering “good feelings” from the money high, Powell said the event was also exhausting. It didn’t feel like work, necessarily, but it was mostly a blur of manning the booth, talking up Decred, and shuffling around to interviews and media appearances. “It's one of those love, hate things,” he said, where after 10, 12 hours you’re just thankful to collapse in a hotel bed.

Swinging it back around to work, Powell said the big “value add” of the conference was being able to refine his pitch. “You're saying it so many times over a short period of time, and you're getting that in‑person interaction,” he said. It was invaluable being able to see people’s reactions, especially considering the “sheer number of people” walking around, eating pigs in a blanket.

“We knew that it was going to be bigger. But we didn't anticipate quite that scale,” Donnelly said. Still, he was surprised by how many people bothered to show up. After all, the bubble had burst. 

“I think it was a good total immersion into it,” Input’s Yarm said of his first experience with crypto through Consensus. It set him up to interview the “bona fide billionaires” he would later profile. The people who went to Consensus to build likely still are. 

DISCLOSURE

The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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