Ron Paul takes the stage to a raucous standing ovation from the maskless Miami crowd. Outside the air conditioned Mana Wynwood Convention Center, thousands of Bitcoin worshipers still stand in line in the sweltering morning heat.
“We have a shortage of liberty,” the 85-year-old Libertarian and former Texas congressman declares, “and I do know the people here are very much in tune about the principles of liberty!”
The people here might be in tune with liberty, sure. But it’s hard to know how many of them came for the politics, and how many came to revere the newest of new money. Bitcoin in 2021 is more mainstream than it’s ever been, and its fervent fans have evolved from Paul-style Libertarians and prototypical cypherpunks to pretty much anyone who can find a moral or financial motivation to embrace non-government-backed currency. After the global pandemic prompted the Federal Reserve to pump out more U.S. dollars, and more institutional investors bought in to the narrative, and Elon Musk tweeted a bunch of memes, Bitcoin soared to all-time-highs above $63,000 in April.
Since then, Bitcoin has lost half its value. That drop might make a normie a little nervous to invest. It might, god forbid, create a little FUD (that’s fear, uncertainty, and doubt).
But not to these believers, who greet Bitcoin crashes as a welcome chance to BTFD (buy the fucking dip). More than 12,000 of them paid for tickets to the two-day conference ($1,500 for standard tickets, $19,795 for “Whale Passes” that come with an extra day of networking and a few VIP parties), and an estimated 50,000 people descended on the city for the weekend, with or without tickets to the conference. It’s the biggest in-person event Miami has hosted since before COVID-19 lockdown, and the biggest Bitcoin conference ever.
I’m here to figure out why they’re here. It’s one thing to buy and hold digital money, and praise and pump it on Twitter and Reddit; to fly to Miami amid a pandemic to spread your fervor in person is a wholly different proposition. Is it just pent-up demand to socialize with fellow HODLers? Investors hoping the event will help boost the price further? Bros looking for an excuse to party by the beach?
As I look at the faces of the Bitcoin faithful while Ron Paul rants about liberty, an answer is emerging: Bitcoin has become a sort of religion. Its followers can include anyone from your unassuming neighbor to A-list celebrities. And Bitcoiners were frantic to come pray.
While the variety of personality types in attendance this weekend is striking, so is the wealth. I’ve never shared a space with so many billionaires (from crypto or otherwise), or seen so many Lambos in hotel parking lots, or been invited to so many yacht parties.
In addition to the wealthy and wannabe-wealthy, Bitcoin 2021 has lured the rest of the crypto ecosystem too. Ethereum and DeFi developers circle the conference like planets orbiting the sun. They’re not here to attend the Bitcoin conference, but to host their own satellite parties and come together with decentralized coding comrades. And while many of the “DeFi degenerates” still frame crypto as Bitcoin vs Ethereum, the subtext is clear: It was a Bitcoin event that brought them here, and Bitcoin still sits at the center of the crypto universe.
Hoping to become “hilariously rich”
Ron Paul rambles for 40 minutes, touching on everything from marijuana (he wants to legalize it, but cautions, “I’ve never smoked the stuff”) to the Federal Reserve (“they don’t have any idea what they’re doing!”) to political correctness (“it has epidemic proportions right now”) to President Franklin Roosevelt stealing Americans’ gold back in the 1930s. Paul calls the COVID-19 pandemic “that thing they created for entertainment purposes.” The crowd roars. (Unsurprisingly, a number of people would get home after their Bitcoin bender in Miami to discover they had caught Covid.)
He hardly says anything about Bitcoin.
After his oration, Paul post-games with David Bailey, CEO of BTC Inc. (which organized the conference and owns Bitcoin Magazine), on the grounds of the convention center. The massive set-up includes several outdoor domes for smaller talks and vendors, cornhole boards, a basketball court, a skate ramp, three food truck areas, and a “Whales Only” section marked by two towering, orange octopus tentacles. (Days after the conference, TRON founder Justin Sun coughed up $450,000 in Bitcoin to buy a “Golden” NFT version of his Whale Pass.)
Bailey won’t say how much revenue the conference will rack up, but between the regular tickets, Whale Passes, and sponsorships, the figure must be in the tens of millions of dollars. Brand sponsors could pay for booths, or pay to put their name on everything from signage to tents to hand sanitizer stations. (“They told me we could have our name on the urinal cakes for $100,000,” says one crypto company sales exec who did not want to be named; organizer BTC Inc. denies this.)
The conference is enormously oversubscribed, a fact that is constantly visually emphasized by the massive crowds inside the convention center, lengthy food truck wait times, and long snaking lines for the men’s bathrooms—no lines for the women’s.
That’s not to say there are no women at the conference. I eyeball it at 85% men, and still far more women than Bitcoin’s hyper-male image would have you believe.
“I started investing in Bitcoin two and a half years ago, as a mature person who didn't have a retirement in place,” says 75-year-old Hattie Parker from Florida. “I thought I was gonna have to work till I croak.” Now, Parker evangelizes Bitcoin in her own way: as a crypto astrologer. She offers Tarot-inspired card readings and says her mission is to dispel the FUD that keeps people from buying Bitcoin.
On a panel earlier in the day, Olaf Carlson-Wee, an early Coinbase employee and founder of crypto VC firm Polychain Capital, predicted the price of one Bitcoin would hit $1 million in “three to four years.” Parker heard this with delight; if Carlson-Wee’s prediction bears out, she’s set to become a millionaire.
That’s the dream for so many here: become Bitcoin rich, if they aren’t already. Bailey estimates around 50 “non-crypto” billionaires attended the conference. And if you count the crypto billionaires, “well over 100” billionaires are strolling the convention center.
“The more casual they look, the higher the likelihood is that they're balling,” Bailey says. He’s wearing a t-shirt and shorts, and says “no comment” when I ask if he’s one of the billionaires.
The well-worn crypto meme is on naked display here: “Everyone Is Getting Hilariously Rich and You’re Not.” In fact, Jeremy Gardner, the man who was featured and mocked in that infamous 2018 New York Times article, is here to interview Tony Hawk.
At the time the article ran, Gardner was lord of the Crypto Castle, a San Francisco house hosting the newly crypto-rich, and was helping companies do ICOs (initial coin offerings). The article “was one of the lowest points of my career,” Gardner, now 29, recalls. “It felt like a really gross misrepresentation of who I was.”
The story captured the first big Bitcoin frenzy and created a meme that has persisted: coin bros flaunting their hilarious wealth. Bitcoin tanked 50% in the month following the article, turning the headline from meme to punch line.
But it led Gardner to Hawk, who invested in his fund in 2018 after reading the Times article. The original San Francisco Crypto Castle is no more, and neither is the short-lived Miami incarnation. Gardner lives in L.A. and has an ownership stake in the Miami mega-club Space, which he purchased with Bitcoin. Ownership in the nightclub will give Gardner regular dividends. “That's great,” he explains, “because I have not had a reliable source of income my entire adult life. I go broke every once in a while and have to sell crypto.”
The sudden wealth of the Bitcoin crowd, and the convergence of Bitcoiners with mainstream finance, is on full display at a party hosted by brokerage app eToro at Miami Beach club Jazid. Downstairs, a neon sign outside the bathroom begs, “Please don’t do coke in the bathroom.” Upstairs, beautiful women line the bar, which sits next to a stripper pole. Fire dancers walk up and down the stairs, followed by men holding fire extinguishers. An eToro employee muses that this is his “office party.”
David Zervos, an analyst at Jefferies frequently seen on financial television, is at the bar. So is Gregory Wojciechowski, CEO of the Bermuda Stock Exchange, in a hat with a glowing green rim. He tells me he came to the Miami Bitcoin conference to see how the space has developed, and how it might “intersect with traditional capital market infrastructure.” (Jazid is surely the place to find out.)
Wojciechowski says he holds “a couple” Bitcoin, but still advises extreme caution to investors. “I will say to you, and say to you”—he addresses my recorder—“that we need to be careful, really careful, and make sure the folks that want to get involved with this understand the risk.”
Then his comms guy walks over looking very concerned, and the interview comes to a halt.
“Shy ETH boys” and “a bunch of nerds” on a DeFi boat
Like at any conference, the best action often happens outside the official event, on the fringe. That’s where the Ethereum and DeFi people stay throughout the weekend, skirting around Bitcoin 2021. (Just don’t ask the Bitcoiners about DeFi; an email sent by the conference to attendees ahead of the event expressly forbade it: “Bitcoin Only! This is a Bitcoin-only conference. Please stay focused and on topic at the event. Save conversations about other protocols and cryptocurrencies for outside the conference.")
One such party, hosted on a three-story yacht by DeFi lending protocol Aave, was billed as the boat party not to miss. The AAVE token, built on the Ethereum network, rose 700% between January and May, making the people behind it very rich, and very eager to party.
Perhaps too eager. Men in their twenties wearing colorful tank tops and Hawaiian shirts jostle their way toward the gangplank, holding up their VIP wristbands. But before they can board the boat, the crew members announce that it’s too full. The handful of hopefuls still in line can’t take this lying down. They crowd onto the gangplank, despite repeated pleas from the crew to step aside for their own safety. Pushing and shoving ensues. One young man tries to bum rush his way past boat security, and a couple others attempt to scuttle onto the back of the boat, before security spots them and shouts that they won’t be responsible for the bodies. The S.S. Aave edges away from the dock, leaving some 20 people behind, wristbands be damned.
One of the men who looked most desperate to get on the boat, Alexander Choriaty, 29, can’t quite explain his motives for entry. “A bunch of nerds,” he says, watching the yacht depart. Still, he lingers by the dock for a while, looking forlorn.
The Aave boat-boarding scene is a little at odds with the image of “shy ETH boys” that Kiara Skye, Allie Eve Knox, and Belle Creed, all sex workers who accept crypto as payment, paint for me at an Airbnb they rented in South Beach. If three girls are together, shy ETH boys “won’t speak to you,” Creed explains. “When you split up, they’ll say”—she makes her voice quiet and meek—“‘Hi, what project are you working on?’”
It’s not the same with Bitcoiners, Knox says. “They’re just radicals and anarchists, and see who can scream the loudest. It’s not super welcoming.”
Knox is an advisor to the adult webcam platform SpankChain, which operates on Ethereum. At a party hosted by SpankChain CEO Ameen Soleimani at his Airbnb in Brickell, guests include a mix of Ethereum investors, token project CEOs, developers using the smart contract coding language Solidity, and at least one crypto blogger. (SpankChain had also planned a sponsored orgy during the conference, but canceled it due to lack of signups.)
In a lounge chair on AstroTurf, porn performer Brenna Sparks talks about wanting to get more into NFTs (she’s minted some tweets). A group of devs meet in real life for the first time, having worked together exclusively online. On the roof, sudden rainfall breaks up a topless hot tub session.
The Ethereum people have a different vibe from the Bitcoin crowd, and they’re proud of it. One Ethereum investor whom I meet by the kitchen says his image of a Bitcoiner is a libertarian living in a cabin in the woods with guns and prepper supplies.
With Bitcoin mainstream enough to attract 50,000 people to Miami during a global pandemic, the gun-toting Libertarian Bitcoiner is an increasingly outdated caricature. Yes, that ethos remains alive and well among those who’ve swallowed the “orange pill,” but their world is merging with the broader finance world, as Wall Street types, hedge fund founders, and publicly traded companies all pour in. Crypto is also blurring with hot emerging industries like esports, sports betting, and cannabis.
Paris Hilton and fluffypony walk into a club
The conference’s satellite events make it clear how tied Ethereum projects still are to the Bitcoin crowd, whether DeFi diehards care to admit it or not.
On Saturday night, Miami’s Story nightclub hosts Questlove as DJ for a party sponsored by Grow.House, which describes itself as “a decentralized cannabis NFT game that educates users about cannabis and cryptocurrencies.” (NFTs are the digital ownership deeds that became red hot earlier this year, and most NFTs are built on Ethereum.) The other sponsors are Maxim and Yat, a company that lets you choose a unique “universal emoji username.” (To what end, I can’t imagine.)
A woman in a cannabis leaf bikini sits on the bar offering, “Joint or blunt?” I ask her if this is “real” weed or CBD weed, considering recreational marijuana still isn’t legal in Florida. She just nods and smiles, and hands me a shiny purple Ziploc of green bud.
Fetty Wap, who’s working with Grow.House, joins Questlove in the DJ booth. High stakes poker player Tom Dwan, who holds some crypto, parties next to the booth occupied by Paris Hilton, who’s wearing a dress covered in emojis, a nod to Yat.
The heiress, who has minted multiple NFTs, looks happy and somehow even approachable behind her large bodyguard, who isn’t letting anyone into the booth with her except VIPs. She happily dances, chats, and poses for photos with Yat cofounder Naveen Jain, long-time Monero maintainer Riccardo Spagni (aka “fluffypony” online), and Bitcoin Twitter influencer Dan Held. She keeps her sunglasses on the whole time.
More than anything else I witness in my three-day crypto sojourn, the Christian Bitcoin Prayer Breakfast on the first morning of the conference, just before Ron Paul’s talk, is the best paean to the intersection of faith and Bitcoin. The breakfast is hosted by Jimmy Song, clad in his signature wide-brimmed cowboy hat and boots.
Nick Smith, a 24-year-old attendee from Nashville, tells me it was Song’s book “Thank God for Bitcoin” that taught him about the “corrupt nature of central banking.” Bitcoin, it turns out, offers a Christianity-compatible solution to the world’s money problems.
Song is the ultimate Bitcoin maximalist—he believes there is only one crypto god, and that god is Bitcoin. But for Song and the others at the prayer breakfast, there’s also Jesus. Song calls Christians an “emerging subgroup” in their ecosystem.
It’s one of many emerging subgroups, and all of them present and accounted for at Bitcoin 2021. There are pro athletes, like skater Tony Hawk, NFL player Russell Okung, boxer Floyd Mayweather (speaking at the conference two days before his fight against YouTuber Logan Paul) and NBA player Kevin Love (he declines an interview but says he holds Bitcoin—and only Bitcoin). There are Black Bitcoiners, like Lamar Wilson, cofounder of the Black Bitcoin Billionaires group on Clubhouse, who tweeted that Bitcoin 2021 boasted “the most Black folk I’ve seen at a Bitcoin conf outside of The Black Blockchain Summit!!” There are families visiting from middle-America, celebrities and their stans, crypto-friendly politicians, and even aspiring politicians. At the Christian Bitcoin Prayer Breakfast, I meet a man who plans to run for governor of Illinois and aims to turn Chicago into the next “Bitcoin city,” inspired by Miami. Song proudly informs his guests that Cynthia Lummis, the U.S. Senator from Wyoming, might show up. (If she does, she’ll be only the third woman in the room, including me.)
Song, holding court and making enthusiastic hand gestures throughout the breakfast, is Bitcoin incarnate, a shepherd for fellow believers who couch their Bitcoin-pumping in moral terms. He reminds me why he’s come to Miami: “Fiat is immoral, evil money.”
I had hoped to start my Bitcoin weekend with prayer and end it with guns, but on Sunday morning I find out “Bitcoin 2021 Range Day,” an event for Bitcoiners who like guns (3D-printed guns welcome!), is canceled. “I was not able to get the ammo ordered in time,” the organizer tells me. He promises to get everything planned earlier next year.
The conference organizers are already selling early-bird tickets to Bitcoin 2022, so the faithful can make a return pilgrimage to the temple of BTC. Dates TBA, location TBA. Next year's gathering couldn’t possibly be bigger and crazier than this one… right?