Where the Bufficorns Roam: ETHDenver Reviewed
The world's premier Web3 conference took place against a backdrop of precarious world events.
- Last week, thousands of industry leaders, founders, VCs, developers, hobbyists, hackers, and the general public descended on Denver for one of the world’s most notable Web3 events.
- Founders were optimistic about the quality of developer talent flowing into Web3, if concerned over regulatory developments.
- The price of ETH and other cryptocurrencies plummeted over the course of the event, likely in connection with the ongoing buildup of Russian forces along the Ukrainian border, which culminated in a full-scale invasion of Ukraine this morning.
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ETHDenver, one of the world’s most celebrated Web3 conferences, took place from Feb. 11 through Feb 20 this year. Crypto Briefing was there to meet with founders, explore new projects, and assess the state of Web3.
A Return to Gathering
ETHDenver is one of the biggest events in crypto, and was attended by almost 12,000 people this year by one estimate. Far from a simple Ethereum-exclusive event, this year’s boasted participation from a number of Ethereum-friendly protocols, including Harmony, NEAR, Polygon, and Arbitrum, among others, and featured several notable speakers. Colorado Governor Jared Polis spoke on the potential for blockchain to change government structure for the better; former Democratic Presidential candidate Andrew Yang made a surprise visit to argue that Web3 could eradicate poverty; and Vitalik Buterin himself made an appearance to deliver the keynote address sporting an extremely casual pair of shiba inu pajama pants.
This was the first ETHDenver to take place in person since the pandemic uprooted most aspects of our ordinary lives in early 2020. In those dark days the event took place virtually, but 2022 marks the year that at least this aspect of our social lives went back to normal, mandatory COVID testing at the gate notwithstanding.
Compared to conferences such as DCentral Miami or Solana Breakpoint, ETHDenver is more organically community-driven and is a relatively serious affair (though the ubiquitous presence of the bufficorn might suggest otherwise). Teams come from all over the world to compete in hackathons; founders scope out talent and poach promising people left and right; and lucky projects even find some backers here and there.
As with so many other blockchain events, I went in with an open mind and healthy dose of journalistic skepticism—it is part of my job, after all, not to take everything I hear at face value. The conference shills were out in full force, of course, and everyone is working an angle, but some of those angles turned out to be somewhat solid ones, or at least demonstrated that someone had tried to think them through. For example, we met with Karl Jacob, CEO of BaconCoin, whose idea for a blockchain-based platform for borrowing and lending against the value of home mortgages actually makes sense if you’re willing to make a few concessions to legacy systems such as banks and loan originators. Yanni Giannaros, CEO of fiat onramp Wyre, had had ample experience dealing with regulators and their particularities—he’d lost count of the number of subpoenas his company had received, but they’d complied with every one of them, because that’s simply what one does if they want to keep playing the game. Yubo Ruan, CEO and founder of Parallel Finance, has been a serious thinker since he was six years old, beginning as an inventor in elementary school and recently leading Parallel toward winning Polkadot’s fourth parachain auction.
And like any good blockchain conference, ETHDenver is also a semi-religious affair, to the extent that one of the many afterparties took place in a gutted church whose interior had been retrofitted with a stack of club speakers. From the street at night, its stained glass windows seethed with bass and lasers, pulsing green, purple, yellow, red from within its stony façade, leading the unfamiliar out-of-towner to wonder what the Holy Ghost was on tonight. And this was fitting, in some circuitous way, as crypto people are often true believers in the prospect of an infinitely-verifiable computerized future that eliminates the need to trust one another. It seemed only right to co-opt the traditional home of our oldest blind faith—religion—and of all the pious men and women who told us to keep our confidence therein.
But besides being both a pious and serious affair, ETHDenver is also profoundly silly, and it is certain that its most ardent adherents wouldn’t have it any other way. Vitalik Buterin disguised himself as the bufficorn to circulate anonymously in the crowd for an unknown number of days before revealing his identity at Sunday’s closing ceremonies. There were wizards. Food trucks accepted airdropped buffigwei tokens (BGT) in lieu of fiat money, which were somehow valued at $10 each at the time (as of yet there is no secondary market for the tokens to my knowledge, but wonders never cease). Even pedicab drivers were taking crypto—though one admitted to me privately that no one was paying with it.
An Uncertain Future
Beyond the specific lines of questioning tailored to each of the many founders, marketers, and brand ambassadors, I had some consistent questions I wanted to ask of as many conference participants as I could. The first was a predictable one: What are you optimistic about in this space? The second, which elicited a number of nervous laughs, was: What about this space keeps you up at night?
To the first point, most movers and shakers I met at ETHDenver this year were extremely optimistic about the talent crypto continues to draw, and many of them specifically came to Denver to poach talent wherever it could be found. And it was not only developers being sought—writers, marketers, artists, business development professionals, lawyers, tax professionals, and all other kinds of career professionals are needed in the field.
More telling, however, were the types of fears that blockchain players cope with every day, which typically came down to uncertainties regarding regulations and the fear that an overly heavy hand from the U.S. government could push innovation elsewhere. Most notable, perhaps, was the answer I received from Maple Finance CEO Sid Powell, who worried that too many projects were too worried about such obstacles, his big fear being that the space might move too slowly (or not at all) if founders and developers were overly fretful about what might go wrong.
Nobody mentioned war.
ETHDenver is a long conference, and by the time of Sunday’s closing ceremonies most attendants were noticeably exhausted. Many VIPs admitted to flying out Saturday night or Sunday morning, and while there was certainly energy enough for a decent afterparty or two, much of the gusto of the early days had fizzled. The closing ceremonies were somewhat confused and difficult to hear over the crowd, and the NFT auction which took place immediately after was something of a bust, with many lots remaining unsold and the auctioneer opting to call the whole thing off after a particularly long silence devoid of any bidding.
Notably, markets tumbled over the course of ETHDenver, with ETH plunging from $3,127 on Feb. 11 (the first day of the conference) to as low as $2,599 on Sunday Feb. 20, the day of the closing ceremonies. No one I spoke with even seemed to bat an eye, however, and Vitalik himself told Bloomberg that he and much of the community welcomed the bear market, arguing that upward markets give a positive impression, but that there was palpable danger of “a lot of very short-term speculative attention.”
Meanwhile, we all mostly tried to ignore what was happening on the Ukrainian border, although the subject would surface in hushed voices at the occasional dinner or after one too many drinks. But the troops kept amassing, the markets kept sliding, and we mostly kept quiet.
A Changed Landscape
The day after the conference wrapped, Russian President Vladimir Putin formally recognized the independence of two pro-Moscow separatist regions of Ukraine and immediately moved in troops for “peacekeeping” purposes. Early this morning, the Russian military initiated an outright invasion of Ukraine. The global cryptocurrency market has plummeted in response.
Vitalik Buterin condemned Putin for his decision to initiate hostilities against Ukraine. In Russian, he tweeted:
“Very upset by Putin’s decision to abandon the possibility of a peaceful solution to the dispute with Ukraine and go to war instead. This is a crime against the Ukrainian and Russian people.
I want to wish everyone security, although I know that there will be no security.
Glory to Ukraine.”
He followed with a second tweet reading, “Reminder: Ethereum is neutral, but I am not.”
Ethereum represents a turning point in the history of technology, and it will likely take its place within the larger history of the world as a milestone in democratic governance. However, its rise to prominence has occurred right alongside a global shift toward autocratic authoritarianism in certain countries around the world, and the contrast could not be more stark.
Web3 is about as optimistic a space as there is, envisioning a more meaningfully democratic society with fewer ways to arbitrarily wield power over each other. There are, however, still those people who would arbitrarily wield power over as many as they can, and they are prepared to take the steps necessary to secure that power—even if that means starting a war.
There is no way of knowing today what the future holds, and perhaps the bright future envisioned at ETHDevnver is still in the cards. However, as I report on it today, it would appear that the next stages of the project could take place against a background of extremely volatile world events. How that will shape the direction of crypto’s development remains to be seen, but it is apparent by now that if we have not given thought to what cryptocurrency use and adoption looks like in a world at war, it is perhaps time that we start to do so.
Disclosure: At the time of writing, the author of this feature owned ETH, BTC, SOL, and several other cryptocurrencies. Crypto Briefing is a media sponsor of ETHDenver.