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Bitcoin struggles to find its star power in Miami

Bitcoin evangelists’ utopian vision of their cryptocurrency is at odds with the celebrity-filled panels that make up the annual conference.

Bitcoin struggles to find its star power in Miami
[Source Images: Julian Popov/EyeEm; Westend61/Getty]

What happens when you’re no longer the hot young cryptocurrency? That’s the question hanging over the Bitcoin 2022 conference in Miami this week. The mega-event for the original crypto coin’s biggest true believers is lacking a bit of the buzz and excitement that the outside world has come to expect from the blockchain universe. Maybe that’s due to a real lack of actual celebrities who want to come out and endorse the technology, but it could also be that Bitcoin, beyond its admittedly large market cap, has yet to really capture the zeitgeist the way other crypto projects have.

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All over Miami Beach and the hip Wynwood neighborhood, crypto-themed pop-ups try to create some cohesive sense that the city is the home for the Bitcoin cultural movement, but it all feels a bit wonky. And that’s equally true for the conference, housed at a big convention center a few blocks from the water. There’s also a real sense of desperation for some kind of star power that can elevate Bitcoin from digital gold for the tencho-libertarian set to the true mainstream cultural movement it needs to be in order to actually catch on. The conference’s expo center features a big fake volcano and a mechanical bull (the latter of which offers a chance at winning one whole Bitcoin), but there’s not a ton to do beyond that.

Cryptocurrency exploded back into the mainstream in January 2021, hot off the heels of a similar, but different viral finance fad: meme stocks. But it wasn’t Bitcoin that was responsible for the 2021 crypto boom, it was Ethereum, the flashier alternative cryptocurrency that supports the majority of NFTs. Since then, Ethereum has continued to be the main driver of popular crypto culture. It’s what backs up the Bored Ape Yacht Club. It’s how decentralized autonomous organizations, or DAOs, organize, including the one that tried to buy a copy of the constitution late last year. When Jimmy Fallon and Paris Hilton are on TV talking about NFTs, they’re talking about Ethereum, not Bitcoin.

And so this cultural spotlight on Ethereum has left Bitcoin feeling a little stale. That’s led to a palpable void in Miami this week—one that conference organizer BTC Media and the various sponsors and vendors are hell-bent on filling with a bizarre mix of fairly prominent voices from the world of finance and random celebrities. The end result is an event that feels like a low-level comic convention that’s being held in the same event space as an economic forum. It’s confusing and disjointed: There are presentations on the Federal Reserve and economic theory, but also personal sovereignty and cancel culture.

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Bitcoin 2022’s highest-profile guests include Jordan B. Peterson, the controversial right-wing psychologist; former presidential candidate Andrew Yang; Shark Tank‘s Kevin O’Leary; Paypal and Palantir co-founder Peter Thiel; a handful of well-known athletes; and, of course, a bevy of homegrown crypto influencers like entrepreneur Anthony Pompliano. (El Salvador’s crypto-loving president Nayib Bukelele was supposed to appear, but dropped out at the last minute.) The guest with the largest selfie line in the conference’s showroom on Thursday was Barstool Sports founder, Dave Portnoy, the controversial self-described “baron of Bitcoin,” whose pandemic-era trading livestreams made him a popular figure in the crypto world.

‘What role do influencers and icons play?’

Bitcoin may be a household name, but it’s still far off from replacing other currencies—a techno-utopian outcome that’s the stuff of crypto evangelists’ fantasies. This belief, that Bitcoin will one day usurp even the dollar, has almost religious undertones within the community. Yet for that to happen, Bitcoin still has to become a lot more mainstream. And the best way for it to do that, apparently, is to connect the currency to influencers and celebrities.

In fact, the issue of what influencers or celebrities can do for the Bitcoin community came up directly on Thursday morning, during a panel featuring Odell Beckham Jr., Serena Williams, Aaron Rodgers, and Cash App’s crypto product lead, Miles Suter. Beckham and Rodgers have both made headlines recently for taking their salaries in Bitcoin; Williams is heavily involved in the Bitcoin startup world.

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“What role do influencers and icons play in [the ascent of Bitcoin]?” Suter asked the group onstage. 

All three guests all agreed that Bitcoin was the future, talking about how they thought it was a good long-term investment and how it gave them more financial freedom, but that’s about as deep as the conversation really got. 

“You might not be able to afford $40,000, but you can stack some sats,” Rodgers said. (“Sats” is short for “Satoshis,” a unit of Bitcoin equivalent to one 100 millionth, the name derived from the crypto coin’s still-unknown inventor, who went by Satoshi Nakamoto online.) “If the Fed keeps printing trillions of dollars, the best defense against inflation is Bitcoin.”

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It was pretty far away from the high energy radiating from the world of NFTs, and it was clear that the event’s bigger names aren’t sure what else to do other than just tell the audience to buy Bitcoin over and over again. A lot of people make fun of NFTs, but they’re an easier cultural product to point to and talk about than trying to have a fun conversation about lightning networks.

In fact, Cash App’s Suter said one of the company’s major initiatives this year is to try and make Bitcoin more relatable, which includes easier payment processes and a more intuitive QR code system. He also showed off a Spotify playlist of songs titled, “Cash App.” Though, cutting into some of the hype was the fact that Cash App suffered a major data breach the night before the conference.

‘This year, I’m going to start investing a lot more’

One startup with a decent-sized presence at the convention, a company called TradeZing, is trying to figure out how to grow major influencers and connect them with existing mainstream celebrities. “The word ‘NFT’ has now become mainstream. It’s made its way into SNL skits,” TradeZing founder Jordan Edelson told Fast Company. “There’s a hunger now, you know, for that type of information and content, but there’s no great source for [crypto investing influencers].”

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Edelson has experience in growing celebrities out of nothing. One of his first companies, started at the age of 17 was an eSports broadcasting service, decades before that industry even existed. TradeZing, the platform he’s currently developing, is trying to target fin-fluencers, the online celebrities slowly becoming minor household names for their investing analysis. Edelson admits that TradeZing is a livestreaming platform that’s fairly close to how Twitch works, but he hopes it can capitalize on the trading livestreams that made people like Portnoy a hit in the Bitcoin community.

And TradeZing brought their own celebrity to Miami this week: Foodgod, the Kardashian-linked food influencer formerly known as Jonathan Cheban. (He legally changed his name to his Instagram handle in 2019.)

Foodgod is attending a bunch of Bitcoin parties this week in Miami and will be advising TradeZing on how to help influencers on the platform grow. “I’m not the biggest [crypto] investor,” Foodgod said. “I’m just a careful investor, but I definitely invest. And hopefully this year, I’m going to start investing a lot more.”

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Foodgod is now posting glamorous Instagram stories from Miami and tagging the company’s account in them.

Bitcoin’s attempts at going mainstream feel like a real two-steps-forward-one-step-back situation. Its most vocal supporters see it as a war-ending miracle technology. Alex Gladstein, the Human Rights Foundation’s chief strategy officer led a panel on Thursday that argued it could lead to peace on Earth. It’s not uncommon to hear presenters at Bitcoin 2022 argue that Bitcoin could end all wars forever. But that flies in the face of the conference’s wilder, bawdier attractions—the big robot bull statue, the wild after-parties, the endless panels about cancel culture and Twitter drama.

And these competing attitudes within the world of Bitcoin came to a head on Thursday afternoon, when chaos briefly erupted in the conference’s main stage when it was announced that Barstool founder Portnoy had dropped out of his much talked-about panel, titled “Bitcoin Is Fuck You Money”. Portnoy has not issued any explanation for why he dropped out, but he did spend the rest of the afternoon live tweeting the PGA Masters Tournament. For someone who claims to be all in on the technology, the so-called  “baron of Bitcoin” didn’t even stay for his panel.

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 “Fuck you, Dave,” the emcee gleefully told the crowd as they cheered and booed in response.

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