Sam Bankman-Fried Trial

At bitcoin’s annual convention, few feel the chill of crypto winter

Matt Levin May 31, 2023
Heard on:
The Bitcoin Bazaar at Bitcoin 2023 in Miami Beach, where true believers in the cryptocurrency and critics of "centralized anything" gathered. Matt Levin/Marketplace
Sam Bankman-Fried Trial

At bitcoin’s annual convention, few feel the chill of crypto winter

Matt Levin May 31, 2023
Heard on:
The Bitcoin Bazaar at Bitcoin 2023 in Miami Beach, where true believers in the cryptocurrency and critics of "centralized anything" gathered. Matt Levin/Marketplace

What organizers call the world’s largest bitcoin convention took place in Miami Beach this month.

For $999 — in traditional U.S. currency — you could spend a couple of days with 12,000 fellow bitcoin enthusiasts doing all manner of bitcoin things: perusing the bitcoin art gallery, testing the latest and greatest bitcoin mining rigs and attending panels with topics ranging from “Decentralizing Yourself” to “Fighting the Anti-Crypto Army.”

That 12,000 figure is less than half of last year’s attendance, which probably has something to do with bitcoin’s value dropping about 60% from its all-time high in 2021.

Bitcoin 2023 was mostly a normal business convention. Picture companies in a giant expo hall hawking their wares, small battalions of attractive young salespeople in brightly logoed T-shirts trying to lure passersby with the siren song of conference swag.

But there were eccentricities — like bitcoin-themed bathroom products.

“I’m asking everyone at the conference here if their butt’s clean, because we’re selling butt wipes,” Peter Baraniecki said while manning a table at the convention’s Bitcoin Bazaar, a mini-flea market for bitcoin merchandise.

Next to his bitcoin-themed wipes was a toilet with stickers of non-bitcoin cryptocurrencies like dogecoin adorning the inside of the bowl. Bitcoiners refer to pretty much all other cryptocurrencies as “s-coins.” You can tell from the not-so-subtle toilet context what the “s” stands for.

A disconnected white toilet with stickers bearing the logos of various cryptocurrencies sits on the floor of a convention hall. On top of the toilet's tank are four packages of wet wipes.
A toilet for “s-coins” at Bitcoin 2023. (Matt Levin/Marketplace)

So-called bitcoin maximalists, or bitcoin maxis for short, believe bitcoin is the only digital currency that can and will replace traditional money.

Although judging by Baraniecki’s sales, that might take a while.

“We had about 20 sales so far since this morning,” Baraniecki said. “I would say maybe three or four used bitcoin. The rest were either cash or credit.”

Baraniecki himself said he doesn’t own bitcoin, which was the case for a surprising number of people I talked to at the event. Tali Lindberg has a name for them.

“Precoiners,” Lindberg said. “People who maybe have heard of bitcoin, but they’re on the fence. They don’t know what it is exactly. They don’t trust it yet, they don’t understand it.”

Lindberg used to be a precoiner herself. She’s a stay-at-home mom who home-schooled four kids in Kentucky.

Her bitcoin-loving husband developed a board game so she could better understand it. They sold a deluxe edition at the Bitcoin Bazaar for $84.

“It’s called HODL Up,” Lindberg said. “The goal is for each player to HODL as many bitcoin tokens as possible.”

HODL is a bitcoiner credo, basically shorthand for “hold on for dear life.” More practically, it means never sell — which is what Lindberg did as bitcoin’s price fell from its approximately $68,000 peak to its current $27,000.

“All I can say is every dollar we have to spare we put it into bitcoin,” Lindberg said. “Some people are like, ‘You shouldn’t put all your eggs into one basket.’ This is the only basket I believe in.”

Many bitcoin maxis actually cheered the downfall of FTX and its boss, Sam Bankman Fried. They detest the idea of a centralized exchange — or centralized anything.

And they’re used to riding the wild swings of the bitcoin market.

A brown and white mechanical bull sits in the middle of a large, black inflatable landing pad on the floor of the Bitcoin 2023 convention hall.
Bitcoiners could ride a mechanical bull at Bitcoin 2023. (Matt Levin/Marketplace)

Ben Bryla climbed on to a mechanical bull in the center of the expo hall. He rode it for a minute and half before finally falling off. That tied his time from last year, which was almost enough to win the competition.

“Last year, first place was an entire bitcoin, which at the time was 40 grand. This year they’ve changed it up, and it’s a whale pass for next year,” Bryla said.

A “whale pass” is basically a VIP ticket for bitcoin high rollers.

Bryla said he takes home 10% of his salary from a global human resources company in bitcoin. Given the news about the traditional financial system lately, he’s not selling.

“Each one of these bank collapses, while the Federal Reserve sits there and tells you that the banking system is fine and there’s nothing to worry about, it’s an advertisement for an egalitarian system like bitcoin,” Bryla said.

At times, Bitcoin 2023 felt a bit like a libertarian comic-con.

There’s a reverse Plinko-style game in which you try to navigate a coin away from banks and the Fed. One of the biggest applause lines from keynote speaker Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was a knock against COVID lockdowns.

And while the bitcoiners were, for the most part, very friendly and welcoming, tens of thousands of them invading your city can be a little annoying to some locals.

On Friday night at a bar in South Beach, a group of crypto conventioneers joined a karaoke chorus belting out Neil Diamond. Iliana Cordero can spot them pretty easily.

“White socks and sneakers,” Cordero said. “Some kind of dumb hat. They don’t have a Miami vibe, like ‘Look at this.’ They look like they’re on a Carnival Cruise line.” 

Cordero is a chef and a Miami local. She said her restaurant did business with the bitcoin convention last year.

And although she said she never takes payment in bitcoin, she does own some.

“It just kind of sits there and it’ll do what it does,” Cordero said. “I don’t need that money.  So it’s there to grow or to dissipate. We’ll find out.”

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