Decrypt’s Art, Fashion, and Entertainment Hub.
Not too long ago, I found a relic in an old notebook. I jotted this down some time before February 2018, just as the crypto bubble was popping:
Your politics do not make you a good person.
Your religion does not make you a good person.
Your crypto holdings do not make you a good person.
After recently re-reading this, my mind flooded with memories of 2017: the adrenaline buzz and dopamine hits, the smugly victorious highs, and the weary existential questioning.
Do you remember the insanity of 2017? I do. And I’ve begun to wonder: have we slayed that dragon and returned home victorious, or are we still out there struggling with the beast?
The run up
I got into Bitcoin in late 2014, and it felt like there were 20 of us—total—in the space. In New York City, the hottest gathering was the monthly Bitdevs meetup; usually about five Reddit forum-dwelling nerds, huddled over an overhead projector in someone’s donated office space, gently arguing about Bitcoin Improvement Proposals.
The year 2015 was the era of the fanatical nerd. At first, it seemed like the most impact we could make was preaching the good word of Satoshi. At parties, when I told friends what I did, they would just nod with a sweaty, panicked look on their faces, like I had 5 heads that were rapidly ballooning in size. When I told my parents about my jump to work full time in the industry, as Director of Operations at ConsenSys in early 2015, my mother cautiously asked about my mental health.
The hot new thing that year was a project called Ethereum—a Bitcoin 2.0, like colored coins but better. It would turn the blockchain from a prosaic, calculator-like ledger to a decentralized “world-computer,” with smart contracts and a virtual machine.
As we marched into 2016, the larger tech and finance world started to notice. ConsenSys, kicked off the year with one of the first, huge industry partnerships: Microsoft. Then came big banks and multinational corporations—including JP Morgan, BP, Accenture, IBM— taking on blockchain pilots. The mainstream tech and finance press began to cover crypto.
But blockchain was still searching for an organic use case. Payments were obvious, but how else could we use these smart contracts? By the end of the year, we had some possible answers: crowdfunding, and governance. Teams started to experiment with pre-selling tokens as a way to fund new protocol development. And we started to see a few token sales that were successful. Surprisingly successful.
A quiet start to 2017
In retrospect, though 2017 seemed to start with the same air of hopeful nerd-naivete as three years leading up to it, it should have been obvious that the year would be anything but “normal.” It was Initial Coin Offerings that launched us into 2017 and Peak Bubble. But if anyone had an inkling we were about to be taken on a nauseating roller coaster ride through the highest and darkest places of human ambition, emotion and greed, it wasn’t me.
Still, the signs were there. We weren’t just a ragtag band of nerds anymore. Professionals from the corporate and finance world, management consultants, bankers—many of them left their comfortable corporate and finance jobs to join the revolution.
Crypto day traders became a common sight. There was an encampment of them at the ConsenSys office in Brooklyn. Always checking their phones (some had involuntarily trained themselves to jolt up in bed at night, every few hours between REM cycles.) They’d check Polo and Kraken a half dozen times an hour at work. Wired from dopamine and caffeine, taking breaks to shitpost in Polo’s trollbox, sprinting to the bodega for nutrients and those yellow yerba mate energy drinks...
In early 2017, we started to see cults of different ideologies arise, along with a new platform of choice to host their holy wars: crypto Twitter. In one corner were Bitcoin purists like Jimmy Song and Jameson Lopp—strict, conservative, almost Calvanistic, preaching prudence, restraint, large families, and a rifle in every Bitcoiner’s homestead. They believed Satoshi had blessed us with sound money deployed as unstoppable code, a perfect manifestation of Austrian economic libertarian ideals.
In the other corner, Etherians such as Joe Lubin, had a belief set that embodied a more eastern philosophy. Ethereians believed that its blockchain could help fix the modern world, if people just let go of their fiat-world beliefs. The world computer could solve greed, hunger, and nation-state violence.This cohort saw the future of a blockchain-powered singularity, vibrating out of the collective unconscious, manifesting as collaborative networks of souls and value. This was possible if we could push beyond the known bounds of game theory, and sharded, distributed systems.
Obviously, this would take some time.
The wild flowers of crypto spring
But for now? The opposite of that utopian future was occurring, with signs of the Lambo decadence to come. The year 2017 arrived with whispers of “private wellness retreats,” featuring ayahuasca and kundalini yoga. There were secluded week-long parties thrown in castles in central Europe (“Don’t you know? You can take an old castle off the market for $50,000 these days.”) Crypto-exces flew to invite-only getaways for Silicon Valley elite at private ski resorts. Or they jetted off to Tulum, where ICO founders sat barefoot and cross-legged on bamboo mats under woven palm cabanas and pitched their shitcoins to new, post-acquisition founders. Peak bubble stories spread of ICO teams taking all-hands retreats of hundreds of people to Bali or the Canary Islands...
New York City blockchain week in May, 2017 marked the start of the real bacchanal. The ICO craze was in full swing. Gnosis had raised $12 million in 12 minutes; a month later Brave raised $30 million in less than 30 seconds. ETH, after spending the year around $10, hit $100—and would shoot up to $500 by summer’s end.
Ethereal Summit that week was the first event of the season.“Spiritual Experience: Hot, Wild Ethereal is sign of the Times,” read Coindesk’s headline. Conferences shifted into week-long retreats, and the parties started and never seemed to stop. Jovial crypto-celebrities became a frequent sight: one crypto celebrity would pop up out of the middle of nowhere, usually at an after party, offering designer drugs newly invented by his personal lab staff. Then he’d disapear, with a sequined cape flip, as quickly as he came.
By the end of the summer of 2017, the surrealism set in. You could see John McAfee in a Bucharest nightclub partying with Brock Pierce and crew, shoulder to shoulder with young Republicans in wrinkled Goodwill suits, who proudly claimed to be the anarcho-capitalist masterminds behind the '”deplorable” Pepe the Frog meme.
The bubble goes to Burning Man
Over Labor Day at Burning Man, there were several official blockchain talks, and if you listened closely you could hear “congrats on the ICO raise!” on top of the Robot Heart bus at sunrise set. At one of the crypto camp, the CEO of a major exchange passed a DMT pen around with rising star protocol developers, reclining in hammocks filled with neon stuffed animals. At least four crypto themed, industry- populated Burning Man camps still exist as of this writing.
But that was just the start of the Big Crazy. By the fall, Bitcoin had crested $10,000, and Ethereum and other coins were following in its wake. “Everyone is getting rich and you’re not!”—those articles were flowing fast. Main Street got nervous and downloaded Coinbase to get in on the bubble. My Facebook messenger teemed with people who haven’t spoken to me since high school or college, opening with a warm “hey hey it’s been a while, pretty cool you got in on this crypto stuff early. what’re the good tokens these days? 🙂 :)”
San Francisco Blockchain Week, in late October, felt like a tipping point. I started to realize that we had an existential problem on our hands. Twenty-four year olds were turning into millionaires practically overnight. These young people were technically sharp, usually from engineering or economics backgrounds—but still underdeveloped in the social, moral, and emotional intelligence sphere, like anyone at that age.
The crypteau riche
More than once during that week, I remember standing on balconies at private parties overlooking the rolling hills of the Bay with an introspective, newly minted millionaire ICO founder. These young men confessed their fear, numbness, emptiness, and shock that the money didn’t seem to help ease their family issues, relationship woes, and stress levels; in fact the wealth might be making it worse. And the less introspective folks? … they just downed another tequila shot and repeatedly checked their Telegram groups, bitterly scrolling through the “wen moons?” and Russian ‘bots to kill time before the after-after party, where we would chase away the gnawing dread with ith DJs straight from the playa, CBD cocktails flowing, and outrageous names from Silicon Valley and the new crypteau-riche mafia maniacally letting loose on the dance floor....
When we went home for the holidays at the end of 2017, it was Peak Bubble. By Christmas, Bitcoin hit its high of $19,000, and we had the surreal experience of our families plying us for more information and Coinbase tutorials.
The end of the party
In early 2018, we were still buzzing. It felt like that 4 a.m. moment where the party is juuust still going, and you want to deny that the sun will be up soon, revealing cracked-out faces and ugliness instead of shimmer and sexiness. Bitcion started its decline in January, Ethereum didn’t hit it’s high until later in February and by spring, 2018, the entire market had begun it’s decline into crypto winter.
So why tell this story now? It’s the end of the decade, and Bitcoin and this entire industry have only been in existence for about 10 years. We’re extremely young, and despite the accelerated aging we experienced and feel, we’ve got a long journey ahead of us before mainstream adoption.
Although the decade is full of foundational crypto mythology—Satoshi Nakamoto, Vitalik Buterin, Mt. Gox, the DAO—2017 was the pinnacle, and the stuff of legends. It was the first time crypto broke into mainstream consciousness. We were tested with unimaginable wealth, and were forced to define what we stand for.
Yes, this is how we all behaved. It was the rush of the decade; fun, wildly embarrassing, intoxicating and bleakly sobering. Did we do enough to educate good faith newcomers? Did we do enough to draw attention to and cast out scammers? Did we use our 10 minutes of fame wisely? Of course not.
Yet, despite our differences, we’re one in the same community; indeed, Bitcoiners and Etherians look identical to the outside world. We survived the insanity of 2017 together and made it to the end of the decade. We’re still here. Bring it on, 2020.