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Welcome to the Church of Bitcoin

Thousands gathered in Miami to talk about the OG cryptocurrency — but instead of your typical finance conference, it had the feeling of a fringe religious event
Ian Witlen for Rolling Stone

I t’s morning in Miami, and a restless crowd, many thousands strong, has assembled outside the gates of the Mana Wynwood conference center. It’s early June, and they’re here to attend Bitcoin 2021, a two-day conference in Miami’s swiftly gentrifying Wynwood neighborhood that’s attracted 12,000 attendees in what is being advertised as not only the largest Bitcoin conference in history, but one of the biggest public gatherings in the U.S. since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

But now, due to a comically inefficient check-in process, attendees are suspended in a mile-long line snaking through a corridor of industrial warehouses painted in brightly colored murals. Their T-shirts announce QR codes, Bitcoin catchphrases like “HODL” (“hold” — as in, “Hold on for dear life,” or “Hold onto your Bitcoin!” frantically mistyped), and, in one case, the phrase “Have fun staying poor!” wrapped around a Bitcoin symbol in fat, bubbly cursive.

Sweat congeals on sunburnt foreheads in the sticky heat. The Bitcoiners begin to grumble. The line, the heat, the wait is “bullshit,” some attendees agree. Many will wait nearly two hours to gain entry only to discover that they must also wait in line to enter the air-conditioned conference hall, which has a regrettable shortage of seats. Many will go on to demand refunds.

The crowd has provoked the curiosity of two cops, idling at a gas station nearby.

“Do you know what’s going on over at the Mana?” the stockier of the two asks as I pass by on my way to the media entrance, which, I gratefully observe, has only an abbreviated line.

“It’s a Bitcoin conference,” I tell them.

“Ok. Well, what’s to confer about?” The cop asks. He raises one skeptical brow. “I mean, you either have Bitcoin or you don’t. Right?”

As it turns out, Bitcoin provides a seemingly endless supply of material over which to confer, and a far-flung group of attendees eager to confer upon it.

Bitcoin 2021 has brought together an assembly of speakers who appear to have little in common other than the fact that they are all hardcore Bitcoin evangelists. Tony Hawk, professional skateboarder, is here. Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, is also here. So is boxer Floyd Mayweather, former congressman Ron Paul, Wyoming senator Cynthia Lummis, Youtuber Jake Paul, and an internet personality known only as Heavily Armed Clown, the co-creator of a newsletter described as “dangerous economic dogma.”

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A festival attendee poses for a photo in front of a large sculpture of the conference logo Ian Witlen for Rolling Stone

Inside the conference, there’s the sort of ansty energy you might expect from people who’ve spent the past year pent up at home, relegated to communicating from behind handles like @boner4bitcoin over Twitter DMs and in Telegram groups.

Now, we’re gathered together in three-dimensional space, surrounded by these same internet denizens, unmasked in stark physicality. To be part of a crowd is something many of us are experiencing for the first time in more than a year, and it is intoxicating.

The room is dark, except for the orange glow emanating from the video-screen backdrop of a dump-truck-size Bitcoin cropping up from a sandy beach. Behind the Bitcoin, animated palm trees sway in an animated breeze. Ron Paul, the former congressman, is onstage speaking about monetary freedom.

We love you!” someone in the audience screams.

In the hazy light, I scan the crowd. Their faces are upturned in rapt attention. I’ve seen this reverential expression in an audience before, albeit in a different context.

It reminds me, unmistakably, of church.

If you came to Bitcoin 2021 expecting the sort of straightlaced, yuppie affair typical of the modern-day tech conference, you would have either been deeply disappointed or extremely pleased, depending on your opinion of straightlaced tech conferences.

Attendees have been advised in an email to “dress casual — shorts, T-shirts, bathing suits, tanks … all acceptable.” This injunction is taken to heart by several men who, by midafternoon the first day, stroll around the conference shirtless. “This isn’t your snobby, highbrow, business professional crypto event,” the email continued.

Indeed, the crowd in attendance is, well, mostly regular people. Or for the sake of accuracy: regular men — a fact highlighted by the ever-present, 20-person deep queue leading up to the men’s restroom. Most are middle-class Americans whose economic status has only recently buoyed due to speculative investments in Bitcoin. In attendance are attorneys and department-store clerks and government contractors and salespeople and advertisers and military veterans. In Bitcoin parlance, these people are known as “plebs”: plebeians, the Everyman enthusiasts.

The assembly has a ramshackle, grassroots effect. These are people who have built out extensive Bitcoin mining rigs in their basements, emptied their 401Ks directly into hardware wallets, organized local cryptochapters within their communities, and spent hours upon hours podcasting, writing, and producing Bitcoin-adjacent content.

Many people I speak to are disillusioned by the state of the world generally and the state of America specifically. Society, if you haven’t noticed, is in dismal disarray. The Federal Reserve — or “the Fed,” as it is often spat out derisively — is printing money willy-nilly. Inflation is on the rise. The dollar is backed by little more than the whims of shadowy plutocrats who’ve been sucking the value out of your bank account faster than a greedy toddler with a milkshake. Or have you not been paying attention?

Ask Bitcoiners (and I mean real, hardcore Bitcoin acolytes, not cryptotourists dabbling in dogecoin) what Bitcoin means to them and you’ll find that they grow passionate and misty-eyed. Often, becoming a Bitcoiner is not all that dissimilar from the transformative awakening of someone who’s undergone a radical spiritual conversion.

“It’s changed my life,” Dan Carman, a Lexington, Kentucky, attorney tells me. Carman is wearing a Whale Pass wristband, a pass which costs as much as $20,000 for perks including exclusive afterparties and access to a plush lounge with a well-stocked bar. “Generally, it has almost nothing to do with wealth or net worth or anything like that. It has to do with understanding how the world really works.”

Carman discovered Bitcoin in 2013. It has since led him to a series of revelations so profound that he likens it to the protagonist’s discovery in The Matrix that reality is a simulation. (Bitcoiners often describe themselves as being “orange-pilled” in reference to the 1999 film’s seminal scene in which the protagonist swallows a pill to reveal that he’s been living within a false construct; this is not to be confused with being “red-pilled,” a term which refers to being radicalized by the far right.)

“Once you see it, you can’t unsee it,” Carman says. “You realize that for years and years we’re at least implicitly lied to about money. And then you start [wondering] what else is not particularly true about the things we always believed growing up about modern society?”

Owning Bitcoin isn’t about buying Lamborghinis, I’m told. (Despite this affirmation, an omnipresent fleet of Lamborghinis line the nearby streets.) Instead, it’s about storing up wealth for generations to come.

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Festival attendees reach into a dumpster filled with Venezuelan Bolivars. Ian Witlen for Rolling Stone

“Bitcoin is the apex property of the human race,” says Michael Saylor, the billionaire founder of the company MicroStrategy, during a panel. “You can buy land somewhere, but someone can tax it and take it away from you.…  You can buy gold, but someone can take it away from you. You can buy stocks, but you can never take possession of [them.]”

Saylor’s admonition recalls a Biblical adage. It is from the Book of Matthew, Chapter Six, Verse 19: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

Because Bitcoin offers the sort of long-term security rivaled only by treasure of the metaphysical variety, you’ll find that owning it “changes your lifestyle,” says a man who asks to be identified only by his Bitcoin handle @weinicus. “You start looking at things from a long-term point of view: establishing foundations, starting families.”

Another man, who wears a yellow bandana over a head of soft, dark curls, who also asks to be identified by his Twitter handle, @boner4bitcoin, says that he was in a dark place before stumbling upon the Bitcoin community last year. Then, he was a junkie, he says.

While it was not by the saving grace of Bitcoin alone that he renounced the junkie lifestyle, it was a decisive influence in changing his life for the better. Now, he is supported by a network of people who are providing a financial education that he “couldn’t learn in college.”

Bitcoin changed @boner4bitcoin’s outlook from what he calls the “instant-gratification lifestyle” to one focused on long-term rewards.

“I jumped in thinking I was gonna ride this out in 2017 and make a couple bucks like a dogecoin boy. Now I operate in a totally different way, and it’s all for the better,” he says. “There’s nothing negative. If you ask my wife, she’ll give you a 10 out of 20.”

Bitcoin, everyone tells me emphatically, isn’t internet-money intended to get you rich. Instead, it’s a “way of life,” says Jacob, a man with dusty-blonde hair and an infectious smile who runs a Bitcoin community in Charlotte, North Carolina. To Jacob, who describes himself as a Bitcoin evangelist, telling people about Bitcoin is like “giving them the Word,” he says. “It’s like, ‘This is a good thing. Let me help you.’ ”

There is, in fact, a moral imperative for Bitcoin, the speakers on the main stage tell us, in a talk entitled “The Moral Case for Bitcoin.”

“Every time the U.S. dollar expands, everybody that has the dollar is being stolen from,” says Jimmy Song, the co-author of the book Thank God for Bitcoin. It’s not just central banks and governments that are victims of this egregious larceny, but people in countries like “Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Turkey, wherever,” he says.

In this corrupt system, not only are the Fed and the banks culpable, but so are you and I: the unwitting agents of a currency designed to disenfranchise the powerless.

“We are morally in a position of stealing from others when we expand the money supply ourselves,” Song continues. He is wearing an enormous beige cowboy hat, and beneath it, his face is grave. “And we’re not just stealing from other dollar holders, we’re stealing from some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”

I had come to Bitcoin 2021 expecting a tech conference. Instead, I’d found something else entirely. This wasn’t a gathering for tech leaders to speak on innovation.

These were self-appointed evangelists, and they were speaking to their flock.

This talk of self-denial, of persistent “hodling,” of building a legacy for generations to come is at express odds with the mission of the conference vendors who have come with the implicit expectation that many attendees will gladly part with their bitcoin for more earthly delights, such as a diamond-studded watch.

There are at least three booths selling six-figure watches, as well as a vendor facilitating the purchase of Miami-based luxury condominiums in bitcoin, and a table dedicated to selling precious minerals.

The most ostentatious booth belongs to Playboy, which has recently undergone a Gen-Z-friendly makeover (it is no longer a gentleman’s magazine, a woman at the booth assures me, twice). The people running the Playboy booth seem just as confused about why Playboy is at a Bitcoin conference as I am, and when I ask for clarification, they mumble something about non-fungible tokens, pour me a shot of whiskey, and point out a display of CBD-infused lubricants.

One prominent presence is E11even, a downtown-Miami nightclub which offers all-nude dances, and has hired groups of beautiful women, some dressed like Vegas showgirls, others wearing less, to roam the grounds.

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A painting of Twitter co-founder and CEO, Jack Dorsey Ian Witlen for Rolling Stone

Many of the events have little to do with Bitcoin, but are fun, nevertheless. Sumo wrestlers tackle one another in an outdoor atrium. Tony Hawk performs a series of tricks on a vert ramp. There is a basketball court, blockchain-themed musical artists, a small esports arena, and an artists gallery featuring Bitcoin-themed artwork which includes a painting of Jack Dorsey rendered in the messianic stylings generally reserved for portraits of Jesus Christ.

To better illustrate the futility of fiat currency, an enormous dumpster filled with Venezualan bolivars, the world’s weakest form of money due to hyperinflation, has been centrally placed on a patch of cracked asphalt. Because there are not enough bills to fill the dumpster in a way that would visually embody the message of “cash is trash,” the bottom is padded with actual garbage, and by midafternoon, a sickly-sour odor lingers in the air.

While this is the largest Bitcoin conference yet, it isn’t the first. In 2019, Bitcoin Media, the publication backing this year’s Bitcoin event, hosted what it described as a “peer-to-peer” conference in San Francisco.

Both Bitcoin Media and Bitcoin 2021 are extensions of Bitcoin Magazine, a publication founded in 2012 and purchased by college friends David Bailey and John Riggins in 2015. Riggins, 30, the magazine’s head of international operations, is a lean and solemn counterpart to the voluble Bailey, also 30, who is clearly relishing the media attention.

I meet them in a tiny backroom cluttered with half-eaten pastries and empty coffee cups.

Planning the conference, which has been postponed since the start of the pandemic in 2020, was a journey filled with pitfalls. Originally, they had planned to host the event in L.A., but L.A., right now, “is a shit show,” and the government was hesitant to cooperate, says Bailey. They had planned for a large international showing (mostly Chinese, a lot of Nigerians), but these expectations were also dashed.

Enter the mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez. The suave politician has spent much of the pandemic courting Silicon Valley’s tech expatriates over Twitter, and he was happy — yearning, even — for Miami to host just such an event. (In welcoming the Bitcoiners, Suarez hosted his own video conference, spoke at the event’s opening remarks, and tweeted out enthusiastic support for a city-specific cryptocurrency called MiamiCoin.)

As it turns out, executing a conference dedicated to Bitcoin is an unusually contentious undertaking because Bitcoin, by design, has no leaders. To centralize the decentralized message of Bitcoin under a selection of its core evangelists was an endeavor viewed by many Bitcoiners as perverse in the extreme. There were some, Bailey says, who suggested early on that the conference should be headed by Bitcoin plebs and speakers shrouded in anonymity.

There is a saying in the Bitcoin community, Bailey tells me, that embodies this mutineering zeitgeist: “Burn your heroes,” which means that “there are no leaders in Bitcoin,” he says. “There is no one who has special privilege or special rights or is more important than anybody else. We’re all just users of the Bitcoin network.”

In selecting which equally nonspecial bitcoin users would headline the conference, Bailey had but one criteria: that you need to have “something cool you’re doing with Bitcoin.” I pressed Bailey on how he came to decide on the speaker lineup, which, out of the nearly 200 featured, include just 26 women. Was it not, say, slightly problematic for such a notoriously male-dominated community to include so few female speakers while also prominently featuring Floyd Mayweather, a professional boxer with only very slim connections to Bitcoin who also happens to have been convicted on domestic-abuse charges three times?

“So with the Floyd situation, we were not aware of that,” says Bailey. And, yes, some people were upset after Mayweather joined the lineup. However, it was not up to Bailey to “judge people’s past or history,” he continues. “You know, we don’t know the story or the nuance or whatever. I don’t know any details whatsoever.” (Bailey notes that he does not condone this behavior, and if Mayweather “wanted to come up here and talk about, you know, beating women, we would not give him a platform for that.”)

I ask if there has been any pushback for hosting one of the largest gatherings in the United States since the beginning of the pandemic, even despite the vaccine rollout.

“I have controversial views on this,” he says and pauses. “This could get me in trouble.”

I urge him to continue.

On the couch opposite, Riggins grimaces and stiffens, as though bracing himself for what might next escape Bailey’s lips.

“We’re fighting a bigger battle,” Bailey continues. “This might sound over the top, but it’s like, ‘When the American Revolution started, yellow fever abounded. And we didn’t cancel the American Revolution over a little yellow fever.’ So we just set the tone that if you come to this conference, you might die. And that’s that.”

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David Bailey, CEO and co-founder of Bitcoin Media Ian Witlen for Rolling Stone

There is one figure at the conference whose presence, although not actually in attendance, weighs heavy on the hearts of the Bitcoiners.

It is, of course, the CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, a Judas who has lately taken to Twitter to shill alternative cryptocurrencies, or “shitcoins,” and to significantly backpedal on his previously pro-Bitcoin stance, citing environmental concerns.

Many in attendance hate Elon Musk with a passion that surpasses even the revulsion they hold toward that institutional purveyor of worldwide abuses, the Fed.

I’m told, repeatedly, that Musk is some combination of the following: “a fucking puppet,” “an idiot,” “a tool,” and “a pathetic moron.”

At one point, Max Keiser, an anchorman for Russia’s RT network and Bitcoin personality with Elton John flare, takes to the stage, and with all the venom of a Pentecostal preacher denouncing the devil, roars “Fuck Elon!” into the mic.

Later, in the media lounge, Keiser, now greatly restrained, tells me in a low voice that he thinks that Musk is “jealous of Michael Saylor,” the billionaire CEO of MicroStrategy who has lately been “getting a lot of the spotlight because of Bitcoin.”

“Ultimately, [Musk’s behavior] is meaningless in terms of Bitcoin,” he continues. “At this point, Bitcoin is more interested in nation states and less interested in childish narcissists who live on government subsidies like Elon Musk.”

The only person who I speak to at the conference who does not yet own Bitcoin is Mark, a gregarious security guard who has been hired to keep an eye on the luxury watches at a booth called “The Timepiece Gentleman.”

But he, too, may soon consider buying Bitcoin. In observing the number of six-figure watches which this booth has sold just this morning, it seems like everyone aside from him has already gotten rich off of it. Mark fears, however, that he may be late to the game.

“It seems like everybody has it,” he says. “I’m, like, the only one without it.”

The majority of people at the conference tell me they got into Bitcoin around 2018, after the price hit $20,000 and it catapulted into the mainstream consciousness. But some, like Zara, a dark-eyed, former Macy’s manager I speak to who lives in between Miami and her home country of Jamaica, have begun investing more recently.

When she saw her 401K dwindle at the pandemic’s outset in 2020, Zara took out the bulk of her savings and invested it directly in Bitcoin. It was an easy decision: She was already skeptical of fiat currency from her experiences with the Jamaican dollar, which has rapidly depreciated in value in recent years. For her, the promise of Bitcoin is simple: access to a potential store of wealth that has otherwise been unattainable.

For many, getting into Bitcoin is a research-intensive endeavor that is “almost like an addiction,” Tobias Barbir, a veteran who has nicknamed himself “The Coin Dad” and owns a small Bitcoin mining operation, tells me. “I’m literally scanning through things on my phone while I’m on the toilet, you know? We’re stuck in traffic and people are honking at me because the lights are green but I’m looking at something about Bitcoin.”

A 14-year-old named Aiden, whom I meet in the makeshift arcade where he’s hunched over an especially intent game of Pac-Man, says that he struggled to concentrate on anything other than Bitcoin when he first invested several months ago. Then, Bitcoin’s price hovered around $14,000.

I ask Aiden if he thinks Bitcoin will make him rich.

“I mean, it already has,” he says, throwing up his arms in exhilaration.

MicroStrategy founder Michael Saylor, in his onstage talk, describes Bitcoin as having life-affirming sentience: “A crypto is a living creature,” he says. “We’ve released life in cyberspace. [You can think of] Bitcoin as a plant life or a plankton. It’s a base-level life. It’s not the most complicated creature.… Bitcoin wants to be greenery and cover the entire Earth. Once you’ve released the DNA of the Bitcoin, you just have to let it fester everywhere in the world and let it be it.”

Whereas many religions, especially those of the Western variety, teach the same time-worn doctrines of quiet self-denial in order to earn a reward in the afterlife, the promise of Bitcoin is far more seductive: invest in Bitcoin now, guard it jealously, and in the (hopefully not very far off) future, the Bitcoin you hodled today will be worth millions more tomorrow.

The world that the Bitcoiners have constructed is one of virtuous clarity, a convenient and innocuous world in which doing the right thing means buying in, literally, to a technology that has the power to unseat the ruling class of billionaires and millionaires and make everyone wealthy and prosperous for years to come.

Or, as Saylor puts it, “What’s wrong with being rich forever?”

One group that has recently accepted the gospel of Bitcoin, seemingly wholesale, is the government of El Salvador, which, in a capstone speech by Jack Mallers, the founder of the payment-processing company Strike, is announced to be the first country to pass legislation recognizing Bitcoin as a legal tender.

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Jack Mallers, founder of the digital wallet company Strike, wipes away tears during his speech. Ian Witlen for Rolling Stone

With the evangelistic gravitas of a youth pastor recently returned from a mission, Mallers chokes back tears as he describes the three months he spent in El Salvador, a country littered with broken ATMs and dirt roads. Mallers does not mention the country’s spotty internet network, which might inhibit the seamless exchange of digital money. Behind him, a slideshow displays photos of Mallers with his arms wrapped around the shoulders of brown-skinned children.

“It was sad,” he says. “There just wasn’t a lot of hope. I gave talks, I talked to kids. I told them, ‘Man, we’ve got this. Bitcoin’s here, we’ve got this.’ ”

When the president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, appears in a prerecorded message to say that he’s passing a bill to recognize Bitcoin as legal tender, the crowd roars in approval, and I see the man behind me wipe tears from his eyes with the sleeve of his hoodie.

On Saturday night, as I’m dipping out early on the decidedly tame afterparty for the conference’s Whale Pass holders, I pass one of the models hired by E11even, the Miami nightclub. She’s kneeling near the curb fixing her shoes, a tortuous-looking pair of thigh-high stiletto boots.

She is nearly naked, her body painted money green with the word “E11even” written across her chest. The Bitcoin symbol is stamped all over her body.

“What do you think about Bitcoin?” I ask her.

She looks up at me from the sidewalk, eyebrows raised in annoyance. In the yellow streetlight, her beautiful face, heavy with makeup, looks tired.

“What do I think about Bitcoin?” She pauses, then sighs. “I think it’s taking over.”


Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Cynthia Lummis is the senator from Wisconsin; she is from Wyoming. It also previously stated that Riggins and Bailey founded the magazine in 2012; they purchased it in 2015.