This is a weird year for everyone and everything, but it's a particularly weird year for Ethereum.
Why? The second-largest blockchain by market cap and the largest by contributing developers has always been known for having lots of events. COVID-19 has put the kibosh on that.
"These folks are in a state of constant BUIDLing" Amanda Cassatt, a ConsenSys alum who launched its Ethereal event series, told CoinDesk in an email. "Ethereum is also, by design, a uniquely collaborative community. These factors contribute to the prevalence of and enthusiasm for in-person events."
In normal times, there's roughly one fairly big Ethereum conference somewhere in the world every month, but that has all come to a halt in 2020. The community's tentpole event, October's Devcon, announced its next gathering will be in 2021. Similarly, the Community Ethereum Development Conference, or EDCON, has taken 2020 off.
"I guess normally the number of international events feels a little excessive, but EDCON and Devcon are mainstays and it does feel like a loss not to be able to have them," Jinglan Wang, leader of the Optimism scaling project, told CoinDesk.
Ethereum during coronavirus
This reticence to meet up makes sense due to safety concerns around COVID-19.
After all, one of the last big Ethereum events, EthCC, turned out to be the source of a COVID-19 cluster. Still, it makes for a very different time in the community, particularly if this dearth of gatherings drags on into next year.
Lane Rettig, an Ethereum core contributor and former Ethereum Foundation employee (now at SpaceMesh), told CoinDesk this time at home has made him realize how much he wasn't getting done.
"I think I had convinced myself I was operating at 60%-70% productivity. I was probably more at 20% productivity," Rettig said.
While he's enjoying this greater sense of accomplishment, Rettig also believes there's more to Ethereum's tendency to gather than just having the largest community of devs.
The enjoyment of being together is part of the stickiness of Ethereum's underlying technology.
"I do think the in-person events are part of the DNA of the community and part of what binds us all together. And some of the affinity we share could hypothetically begin to dissipate," Rettig said of the current situation. "If this was to go on some indefinite period, I would really be worried."
But token investor William Mougayar was eager to downplay any risk. "The Ethereum community has been used to working virtually anyway," Mougayar told CoinDesk.
Rettig, however, cited a comment from a friend to express what he's worried about if folks go too long without hanging out and having spontaneous encounters at events. "The reason I'm here and the reason we're all here is because we want to work on cool shit with people we like and do it in a sustainable way," Rettig said, paraphrasing the comment from his Ethereum colleague.
It's that "with people we like" part that gets harder and harder to replicate virtually.
No one knows quite when to look for the next big Ethereum gatherings to take place.
"Given our community's interest in events, I could see larger in-person gatherings resuming in 2021," Cassatt predicted, but she also expects hybrid on- and off-line gatherings will be the norm from here on out. The virtual experience will vastly improve during COVID-19, she added, even for events that go back to an in-person focus.
"There's been a lot of snarky discussion around people saying we're glad in-person conferences aren't happening because now we are building more, which I think is a little shortsighted," ConsenSys developer relations staffer Coogan Brennan told CoinDesk.
Optimism's Wang agreed on the value of in-person events: "They’re great opportunities to meet projects that you've been chatting online with, or random crypto people whose tweets you enjoy."
Rettig shared a particularly concrete example of how events can be helpful for distributed teams. When he was working for the Ethereum Foundation's eWASM team (which is porting the popular WebAssembly framework, in part, over to Ethereum), he said they tended to gather a few times each year, anchored to some Ethereum event, be it Devcon, ETHDenver or some hackathon. They'd rent a whole-house Airbnb and live together and work side-by-side for a week. A physical hangout that was otherwise unheard of.
"It would be very intense. Professionally as well as socially," Rettig said.
Jared Wasinger, still of the eWASM team at the Ethereum Foundation, confirmed that these side gatherings have been key.
"I would say that the in-person events are definitely important from a morale point of view," he said.
Similarly, ConsenSys's Brennan said events served as a kind of punctuation in the year that Ethereum teams could organize their work around. A lot of product launches and debuts where driven by reveals at events. That was a way of driving excitement.
"Ethereum conferences are very very known for dogfooding," the Ethereum Foundation's Hudson Jameson said. "It inspires a lot of confidence in the community. People are using the things they are building and that brings people a lot of joy."
The online events themselves have been more beta tests than real products as of yet, though, as Cassatt noted.
"I haven't seen any event completely crack the code on virtual networking, virtual sponsorships, or ticket sales," she said. "Virtual events may be a tougher sell to sponsors, but I'm looking forward to seeing creative solutions emerge for virtual events to offer sponsors value in new ways."
"Maybe there were too many events. This kind of break, if anything, it's positive. It's a benefit because there's been more productivity," Mougayar said.
"Most events felt like a distraction to me, if I'm being honest," Spencer Noon, of DTC Capital, told CoinDesk. "I'm actually pretty bullish on people in the community organizing some awesome virtual events, though."
Noon may have been the only person CoinDesk spoke with that had real excitement about the potential of virtual gatherings. In fact, Rettig in particular noted how virtual events do a bad job of replicating the hallway (or lobby) conference, which is what people really go for. Still, many are looking forward to saving money on travel now and seeing more conference content delivered electronically.
For Jameson, there is an advantage in making the discussion around Ethereum more accessible.
"It is a privilege to be able to travel the world," Jameson said. "That intrinsically creates this different class system."
Moving these things online has a leveling effect that brings more people into discussions in real time, which is when people want to participate in them.
Brennan took this a step further, saying that with online events "you really have to engage people in a way about tangible technologies."
He said his team has found a need to actually give people a way to work on their code rather than just wowing folks with a charismatic on-stage presentation. "One of the things we have been trying to do with our ConsenSys Live series is to actually have code on screen," he said.
Mougayar also spoke about having done a long workshop with on-screen code and feeling that by doing it from home he could really focus in on it more.
The Ethereum Foundation's Jameson concurred. "I think this creates a whole new paradigm of having to keep people's attention rather than waiting for the next big event to hear the next big announcement," he said.
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