camila June 7, 2021

MIAMI (NYTIMES) – There was money in the air. Buzzwords floated around, like NFT, BTD, blockchain, token. There was a frenzied energy.

And there was heat – a humid, sticky South Florida heat; the kind all the Californians and New Yorkers who moved to Miami during the pandemic’s winter doldrums were warned about. The kind generated by thousands upon thousands of people gathering to worship at the altar of cryptocurrencies.

Such was the vibe at Bitcoin 2021, an occasional gathering of digital currency enthusiasts run by a magazine named after the cryptocurrency. Last year’s event had been postponed. But Friday and Saturday, at least 12,000 people descended on Miami to make up for lost time, flocking to the largest Bitcoin conference in the world and the first major in-person business conference since the pandemic began.

The exuberance of being in person, indoors, in a crowd for the first time in more than a year was electric. Everyone hugged, no one masked. The money zipped between digital wallets. The conference swag included neon fanny packs, festival bracelets and a Lamborghini car. The jargon – stablecoin, peer-to-peer, private key – flowed. So did the liquor.

For a few days, the city was a raging fireball of finance, technology and joyful anarchy, of unfathomable wealth and desperate striving. Bitcoin 2021 heralded the receding of the pandemic, with comfortingly familiar and mundane elements of a business conference: the branded plastic sunglasses, brightly colored sponsor booths, lanyards and panels. Some attendees wore business casual. Others looked ready for a music festival. One donned a furry rave bikini.

It was another sign that the often absurd world of digital currencies was inching its way toward mainstream acceptance, or at least mainstream curiosity. Since late last year, Bitcoin has been on a wild ride, setting price records. Even a dramatic plunge from a high of US$64,000 (S$84,700) in April to US$36,000 now did not dampen spirits. They’re BTD – buying the dip. Wall Street bankers, institutional investors all came to Miami.

‘You will be a millionaire’

There was a reason we were in Miami and not New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles. The city has gone full crypto.

Bitcoin ATMs sprinkled the Wynwood neighborhood. A cryptocurrency exchange called FTX recently bought naming rights to the Miami Heat’s arena. Miami’s mayor, Francis Suarez, announced this year that the city would accept tax payments in cryptocurrency, let its employees collect salaries with it and explore holding some on its balance sheet. (The logistics of these announcements were still being studied.)

Shortly after 9am on Friday, as the crowd streamed into the air-conditioned warehouse, a conference organiser introduced Mr Suarez as “probably the most irresponsible politician in all of America, the mayor of the mecca of freedom.”

Mr Suarez set a defiant tone. “I’m here to tell all the haters and all the doubters that this is not a moment, this is a movement,” he said. The crowd erupted in whistles and cheers.

Mr Moishe Mana, a real estate mogul who owned the venue, walked around the crowded concourse of booths and crypto art with a small entourage. After working for years to bring companies, people and innovation to the city, he was basking in Miami’s ascent.

New York and San Francisco’s appeal was waning, Mr Mana said. “Every city has its own golden age,” he added. “Nothing stays forever.”

Mr Mana was not a big crypto guy, per se, but he recognised its power, comparing the devotion of its followers to a religion. “The more you fight religion, the more holy it becomes and the stronger the movement becomes,” he said.

On stage,  Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, entrepreneurs and cryptocurrency billionaires, preached to the choir. Mr Cameron Winklevoss wore a T-shirt with a picture of the Federal Reserve building captioned “Rage Against the Machine”, a reference to how cryptocurrency was not controlled by a central government or bank.

Crypto entrepreneur Cameron Winklevoss wore a T-shirt with a picture of the Federal Reserve building captioned “Rage Against the Machine”. PHOTO: NYTIMES

“If you own a Bitcoin today, you will be a millionaire in the future. For sure. Congratulations,” he said.

Later, Mr Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and payments company Square, offered his own endorsement. “If I were not at Square or Twitter, I would be working on Bitcoin,” he said.

On Saturday, the conference played a video of Mr Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador, announcing a bill to make Bitcoin legal tender in the country. The audience leapt to a roaring standing ovation.

A day earlier and a few blocks away, in a warehouse co-working space called LAB Miami, about 50 people gathered to talk about the digital art and collectibles known as NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, which have exploded in popularity this year.

Satoshi is Black

Down the road at the historic Lyric Theatre, a crowd sipped wine at a “Wine, Women and Crypto” gathering. Ms Najah Roberts, a cryptocurrency executive, and Hill Harper, the actor who created an app called The Black Wall Street, explained that investing in cryptocurrency was a key step towards financial freedom and wealth for the Black community.

“They can’t colonise Bitcoin,” said Harper, who wore a T-shirt referencing the pseudonymous creator of Bitcoin, Satoshi Nakamoto, which said “Satoshi is Black”.

Only 14 per cent of American adults have purchased cryptocurrency, according to a survey by The Ascent, a financial services ratings site. Of those who have not, 20 per cent said they planned to this year.

One attendee, Shownda Pagan, a non-profit executive, said she bought Bitcoin and another cryptocurrency, Dogecoin, over a year ago after her nephew and son encouraged her to do so. She also bought stock in AMC, the beleaguered movie theatre chain, which has skyrocketed and become a “meme stock”, egged on by traders on social media. She said she was blown away by the fast rise of her holdings.

“Now I’m in love with this stuff,” she said.