PARIS—The newly minted DeFi millionaire at the big rooftop party was wondering whether he was going to jail. I didn't get his name—it was one of those heavily branded all-expenses-paid afterparties typical of crypto conferences, and we were both very drunk on the free booze—but I remember he had a sort of dark mullet, and was about 5'7”, and he had with him a mute dev type, some sort of manservant yield farmer.
“I want to play with all of these new toys but the SEC just keeps coming up with new and contradictory regulations," he said, laughing but in some obvious discomfort. He was especially nervous about the utterly confusing tax requirements imposed on crypto investments. “I want to pay taxes, believe me, but I have no idea how!” he said. He went on to reflect that maybe prison would be fun, that it would make a man out of him, then breezed back off into the crowd.
This was typical of Paris's fourth EthCC conference, which was markedly different from the appalling, cult-like scenes of the Bitcoin Miami event in June. It is true that ETH followers, like their Bitcoin counterparts, have become hugely wealthy recently, and the community is readying itself for several serious upgrades to the network, among them Optimism, the London hard fork and EIP 1559, and maybe finally—one hears breathlessly—proof of stake.
We're not in Miami
And yet, the tone of the Ethereum community’s first large-scale, in person event since before the pandemic was not one of nauseating religious fervor but was rather more involved and academic—more about poring over recondite technical details than about preaching any particular evangel (beyond “financial freedom”).
Bitcoin Miami was fire and brimstone, ostentatious displays of newfound wealth, a gilded Trump rally; EthCC was more like an annual gathering of Talmudic scholars or the Royal Entomological Society.
People were generally friendly and modest. Talks were not of the “fuck Elon” variety but instead focused on sensible things such as “Painless Gas Cost Optimizations,” “Relayers as an Ultimate UX Solution that Connects Fragmented Ecosystems in a Multi-Chain World,” and “Up Only: How DAOs and NFTs Can Expand Personhood For Trees.” And, thank Christ, there was not a Lambo in sight.
The understated tone was also fueled by fear around regulations, which castrated the Ethereum platform in the aftermath of the 2017 ICO boom, far more than it did Bitcoin. European attendees muttered darkly about proposed EU regulations on DEXes, my friend on the roof fretted about getting done for inadvertent tax avoidance, and the unveiling of new AMMs and DAOs seemed to always bring with it murmured concerns around securities laws.
I suppose it’s unfair to compare this crowd, which was predominantly developers and people who were actually trying to build something, to the chads and chadettes in Miami, who had convened mainly to wag their arses to celebrate (or at least pretend) that they are rich and you are not. In Paris last week, there was no flash, none of the usual disgraced hedge fund managers looking for a scammy comeback, no models hired to "enjoy" the company of software engineers, no sweaty, red-faced bankers here to scout out the competition and maybe absorb some of it into their employers’ fledgling Distributed Ledger Development Units… There was just a friendly atmosphere, and a lot of clever, often very young people, some of whom were not quite sure what to make of the millions they had recently amassed.
The second-biggest trader on Uniswap
Take the modest, curly-haired kid who kindly spoke to me as I was tending a cigarette, alone, outside the conference center on Tuesday. The fellow, wearing a patterned tee, shabby trainers and long socks with shorts, looked like he had been dressed by his mother. Yet during our little chat, this kid, no older than 22, quietly claimed that he was likely the second-most successful arbitrage trader on the decentralized exchange Uniswap. He said he had made several million dollars in the last six months alone via a trading bot he'd built.
At the height of the DeFi craze, he figured he was netting up to $100,000 a day.
Note that our hero was not in the least bit boastful of his newfound wealth—he gave the impression of being embarrassed. He asked, indeed, to withhold his name, fearing not only the consequences of being known as a Uniswap arbitrage trader but also of simply being outed among his friends. “I have friends here who I speak with online but don’t even know I’m here,” he said. “I want to keep living a normal life.”
What—no Lambo? No summer home on the Caspian?
“I did buy a $100-a-month subscription to Athletic Green, this nutritional supplement,” he wanly admitted.
And then, of course, there was Vitalik Buterin himself, who started this whole thing. He is said to be at least a centimillionaire, but you wouldn’t know it. When he gave his talk—a headline event, standing room only—he was humble and drily funny. He wore baggy clothes and didn’t once incite the crowd into a frenzy.
When I saw Buterin by chance in the press room, giving an interview to a local podcast (his French was impeccable, obviously), I tried to get my own interview with him. “I was just wondering if you’d be able to speak for, like, half an hour,” I weedled.
“I don’t know,” he demurred. “I’m fully booked for the next few days. Sorry.”
A Max Keiser type would have jumped at the chance to scream wild eyed into a journalist’s face. But Buterin just politely declined, donned his black cap and mask for maximum anonymity, and slipped out the door—not to a fleet of Lambos, but likely to a place where he could sit quietly at his computer, and code.