Lured by the promise of insane profits, some 5,000 people came to Miami for the 2018 event, more than ten times the attendance just a couple of years ago, according to 29-year-old conference founder Moe Levin.
"It was a lot more people that were chasing the hype," he says. "We sold 350 tickets in 2016. We were really begging people to come."
As crypto reaches peak fervor, there’s a palpable energy about Bitcoin and its underlying technology, the blockchain. In barely a decade, a movement that began with utopian dreams of restoring power to the people is seeing real returns. Governments such as Canada are using the blockchain to add transparency to public funding, while retailers like Walmart have used the tech to help customers trace their food from farms to shelves. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is even testing blockchain technology to keep records safe from hackers.
Thanks to lax state oversight and an influx of foreign cash, Miami has quickly become one of the hottest American cities for crypto — for better or worse. In South Florida, real-estate agents are listing million-dollar condos in Bitcoin, lawyers are establishing new case law, and business owners are installing special ATMs that turn cash into cryptocurrency.
But a growing number of critics argue that crypto’s flashy new culture of Lambos and "shitcoins" — imitators that are either worthless or scams — is stalling the future of that progressive movement. Last year’s price surge has brought in billions from venture capitalists and speculators interested in little more than expanding their net worth. Worse, there’s a new crop of swindlers and con men looking to take advantage, and many have set up shop in South Florida, giving a whole new relevance to long-earned local nicknames like "Scam-iami" and "Fort Fraud-erdale."
Nowhere was the tension over the future of cryptocurrency more apparent than the final day of the Miami conference. After a presenter named Joel Dietz deployed two flashing robots and a dry-ice machine for a five-minute speech "from the future," 25-year-old Bitcoin millionaire Jeremy Gardner took the stage and subtly eviscerated such theatrics. The Lamborghinis parked out front, the trash-talking on Reddit — it was all just noise, he said.
"The development of the past year has really appalled me," Gardner told the audience. "It’s looking a lot more like Wall Street than any sort of social movement, any sort of radical revolutionary change that can make the world better…. What I worry is that we’re beginning to resemble — and I’m sorry for the Baby Boomers out there, but — our parents’ generation, who traded in their tie-dye shirts and peace signs for corporate suits and pension plans. What could be worse than that?"
One floor below the main stage, Chris DeRose made his way through a maze of booths where promoters hawked new coins and handed out free swag. With a cameraman following, DeRose — the host of a YouTube channel and podcast called Bitcoin Uncensored — approached conference attendees one-by-one, starting with a guy inexplicably holding a teddy bear.
"Sir, can I ask you a quick question?" DeRose inquired. "Lemme ask you: What is a blockchain?"
"No idea," the man said. "I am here to be educated."
DeRose tapped a second guy on the shoulder and got the same response.
"I have no idea," a man in a leather jacket answered.
A third person described blockchain as "an Excel file with the ID and some volume." Another answered that blockchain is "opportunity." A Kardashian-looking "booth babe" — one of the beautiful women used to sell coins at conferences — laughed nervously and began blushing when DeRose posed the question.
"Why are you doing this to us?" she whined. She couldn’t answer either.
The stunt was both low-hanging fruit and quintessential content for DeRose, a South Florida software developer who found his niche trolling crypto scammers, idealists, and hype men. But his video speaks to a larger point about Bitcoin in 2018: Almost no one knows what they’re talking about.
"The truth is everybody there is too ashamed to tell you what they think blockchain is," DeRose says. "In my mind, that is a mania."
Eryka (left) and Jake the Crypto King are two members of a secret Wynwood group where members trade thousands of dollars in crypto.
podcast host Chris DeRose helped expose OneCoin, which Indian and Italian authorities now call a Ponzi scheme.
As the price of Bitcoin exploded last year, investors made serious money.