ETHDenver showed good vibes are back in crypto, but questions remain

The bull-market conference was filled with good feelings but little clarity on where the crypto industry is headed next

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Photo by Jack Kubinec

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ETHDenver’s culmination was an interview with third-party presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 

Despite flexing his crypto bona fides, RFK Jr. — interviewed by Custodia Bank CEO Caitlin Long — was stopped multiple times by hecklers. One stood on a chair and yelled “Kennedy is the establishment!” while another repeated the refrain “the Earth is being genocided.” 

Amid the commotion, a woman handed out flyers for a Kennedy Jr.-themed token that wasn’t actually affiliated with the campaign itself. 

At the edge of the room, Chris Dixon, general partner of the venture capital behemoth Andreessen Horowitz, stoically signed copies of his recent book about blockchain tech and the internet. 

Read more: The internet is broken. What if we can fix it?: On Chris Dixon’s ‘Read Write Own’

The scene was, perhaps, an apt end to the yearly Ethereum/Web3 summit, which felt somewhat chaotic in its own right. As the crypto space advances in multiple directions at once, a central narrative of the conference didn’t seem to materialize. 

Source: EthDenver

But that doesn’t mean that the mood wasn’t decidedly upbeat among the crypto faithful milling around Denver’s National Western Complex. 

Presenters on the event’s stages competed with the din of conference goers who networked nearby. A giant squid roamed the premises. Representatives for the “cloudless” computing protocol Fluence handed out cotton candy. 

John Deaton, the pro-crypto lawyer who just launched a campaign to unseat Massachusetts senator and crypto skeptic Elizabeth Warren, had a booth at the event. Deaton said he wished he could send a video of the conference floor to Warren and JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon. 

“I don’t see criminals. I see regular people,” Deaton said. 

The crypto space certainly has reasons to feel upbeat. As spot bitcoin ETF inflows accelerated, the price of bitcoin (BTC) ballooned to near all-time highs during the conference. Venture funding has shown seeds of a turnaround. Coinbase posted an earnings beat

When I asked Base founder Jesse Pollak for one reason why he’s optimistic about Coinbase, he responded: “Only one?” 

Finding a narrative

But good feelings aside, no one at ETHDenver seemed to agree on what exactly ETHDenver was all about. 

One exchange executive told me it felt like Bitcoin’s DeFi use cases were the spotlight. A founder said this was the year of consumer crypto. Elsewhere, I heard decentralized AI was getting the most attention. 

I brought up this lack of consensus in a conversation with Doug Petkanics, the co-founder of decentralized streaming platform Livepeer. It was Petkanics’ fifth ETHDenver, he told me, and he wondered aloud whether crypto hadn’t outgrown these sorts of industry-wide events. In the late 2000s, New York City began hosting “Internet Week,” Petkanics recalled, though that would seem far too broad a category for a conference today. 

Different sectors of the internet now hold their own conferences, and perhaps Web3 is headed for the same fate. 

Read more: Istanbul at center of Cosmos for three days

Multiple people I spoke to expressed a desire for crypto to focus less on building technical infrastructure and more on creating apps and use cases for the real world. 

Through its emphasis on infrastructure, crypto has been “building for ourselves,” Andy Bromberg, CEO of the company behind payments app Beam, told me. Now it’s time to “build for others.”

This news apparently didn’t make it to the developer-focused event next door, where coders were hunched over keyboards on the floor of an arena typically used for rodeos. 

Source: EthDenver

A couple devs napped on beanbags. “FRONT END NEEDED,” read a sign propped up on one project’s table. 

I spoke to a duo who was working on a decentralized AI audio transcription project. They said they expected more teams to be working on AI, but of the other projects submitted alongside theirs, the majority appeared to be infrastructure. 

I trekked to Denver’s art district one morning to see Edge City, the soft launch of an organization hoping to become a “society incubator” aimed at human flourishing. Edge City is a spinoff of Zuzalu, an exclusive retreat Ethereum co-founder Vitalik Buterin helped host in Montenegro last year. 

As attendees did yoga or took advantage of the ice baths and sauna outside the venue, I sat inside with Edge City co-founder Gary Sheng. Sheng called ETHDenver the “biggest family reunion” for “soulful technologists,” but said side events like his are helpful for separating signal from noise. 

“A lot of people, they feel really overwhelmed by ETHDenver. The quality of the average interaction is not very good. A lot of VCs, a lot of shilling,” Sheng said. “It’s like, overwhelming, a sea of information. You’re not sure what’s high quality. And so I think curators are really valuable today.”

The couple of Edge City attendees I spoke to generally echoed this sentiment. One joked that just like layer-2s arose to solve congestion on the Ethereum blockchain, side events are a solution for congestion at ETHDenver. 

Of course, conference goers also escaped the crush of the main venue with the evening happy hours that various projects threw. At an event for the oracle platform Pyth, I chatted with a DeFi fanatic who said he’d be taking it easier by only going to four crypto conferences this year. 

“I love talking crypto,” he said. “If only it was all hot girls here,” he added, gesturing at the majority-male group around us. 

On top of being largely male, the ETHDenver attendees also skewed younger. Despite spot bitcoin ETF approval and the slow march of institutions into crypto, the conference made it seem like crypto’s crop of quirky outsiders were still at the space’s forefront. I saw zero people in suits at ETHDenver. I spotted someone in a collared shirt, but its wearer made up for the formality with pajama pants and sequined shoes. 

Somewhat rudely during an interview, I remarked to Coinbase vice president of engineering Will Robinson that he might feel like he’s surrounded by kids. Robinson, who has worked in engineering for two decades, shrugged in response. 

“I’m surrounded by people who see the future,” he told me. “Kids often see the future.”


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