Less than a week before New York City’s biggest cryptocurrency meetup, the price of bitcoin dropped sharply.
“Can you make tickets free? BTC down 50% and stock market blew up Monday,” one guest wrote in the Facebook group for the event. Other attendees liked the status.
“It’s $10 for an open bar and the money goes to charity,” David Park, the organizer of the event, replied.
“I’m in need of charity too right now,” replied the guest.
Whether or not he ever made it, hundreds of cryptocurrency enthusiasts did gather last Thursday at a massive sports bar in Manhattan for what has become the city’s largest and most prominent crypto meetup.
Like many at the event, organizer David Park became interested in cryptocurrency last year.
He searched for New York City-based crypto meetups but the ones he found kept getting booked up. After several disappointing months of trying to network, Park decided that rather than languishing on the waitlist for other people’s events, he’d start his own.
The event became a monthly occurrence beginning last August and slowly ballooned from only about 30 attendees to over 2,000 RSVPs.
“At the time, my friends were getting really annoyed at me talking about crypto,” Park said. “It would be a Wednesday night out, but all I would want to talk about was crypto. I thought, if I start my own meetup I could have people to talk to about crypto.”
In 2018 it feels like everyone knows at least one bitcoin evangelist. Nearly every type of believer was in the crowd on Thursday night.
Sammy, who described himself as a “45-year-old millennial trapped in the body of a former Samsung executive” and asked me to refer to him as “The Korean Rainmaker,” said that he got involved in the crypto world a year and a half ago and hasn’t looked back.
“Crypto is millennial gold,” he said. “To baby boomers, gold was gold. That was the thing to go to. Now crypto is the new gold and it’s going to be the same way. History has a tendency to repeat itself. From gold to virtual gold.”
Crypto, and bitcoin in particular, has been on a wild ride over the past year. After being largely ignored by the general public for most of its existence, bitcoin’s value shot to over $16,000 per coin in December, minting a new breed of overnight millionaires.
Regular people with no background in finance or technology began to jump on the bandwagon in increasing numbers last fall, around the time Coinbase, a digital currency exchange and crypto wallet, shot to the top of the app store.
Since then, cryptocurrency has become a cultural phenomenon. Blue collar workers in rural Kentucky have even begun buying in, hoping that the digital currency will provide financial security the way their pensions once did.
According those at Thursday’s event, the boom is just getting started, but that doesn’t mean they don’t expect major volatility.
Despite the ups and downs, true believers operate under one philosophy: Don’t sell, no matter what.
“I’ve seen this dance before. It’s just like the internet in 1986 before the web came out,” explained Dave, a man in an oversized black and gold bitcoin tee shirt. “This is just the beginning. The volatility is like little bumps in the road. Five years from now, every small change will hardly be visible.”
If you lose money in the crypto market, attendees largely believed, it’s because you sold too fast or didn’t believe.
“The tech is all still in infancy,” said Ian, another guest. “It’s like a little toddler walking around. All the analysts I’ve been speaking to are saying we are good. I invest in a number of coins and I’m very happy. The correction was great because I just bought a lot more.”
Free grey beanies were distributed at the entrance to the event with the letters HODL embroidered in giant letters.
The word has become a meme in the crypto community. It stems from an old "bitcointalk" forum post where a drunk crypto enthusiast attempted to say “hold” on to your coins, no matter what. He misspelled the word hold, and the community never let it go.
More recently, “HODL” has transformed into an acronym for “hold on for dear life.” In other words, never sell.
While some attendees whipped out their crypto wallets to compare coins, others said they don’t even monitor their daily investments and have deleted their price tracking apps. They “know” their investments will only go up over time, so why get distracted when the price goes down?
“I’m disciplined enough not to open my apps,” said Mike. “If I open my [price tracker] app and it’s red, I close it. What’s the point? I’m not going to sell.”
A woman named Tina said she started trading bitcoin five years ago after hearing about it on a podcast and never thought it would blow up. Now she thinks it’s the “wave of the future.”
“I’m holding until they start trading it on the New York Stock Exchange,” she said.
She may not have long to wait. The New York Stock Exchange actually filed to list two funds tracking bitcoin futures in December.
“I used to be very nervous at the beginning,” said a man named Antoine. “But so far I’ve seen like six or seven crashes, and we always recover.”
Although Park explicitly bills the meetup as a networking event, not an informational session, some attendees seemed to have missed the memo.
“I’m interested in investing, but I thought it would be more of a presentation,” said one woman named Fanny. “The event is great, but not exactly what I thought it was gonna be.”
Three college students hung around one area of the bar, looking skeptically at the rest of the crowd.
“Half of the people here don’t what they’re talking about and they’re talking out of their ass,” said Naiem, a 20-year-old NYU sophomore.
Peppered in amongst the bitcoin believers were several people who seemed lost and confused.
“Yeah, you can tell when people don’t know what they’re talking about when they start stuttering or they divert,” added Naiem’s friend Elail, a 23-year-old grad student at Columbia.
“There’s people talking about mining ripple. You can’t mine ripple!” their friend Imran, a 22-year-old senior Fairleigh Dickinson University, said about a bitcoin rival.
The trio said that they were all frat brothers and came to the event mainly to network, of which they did little. They said that lots of their friends owned various cryptocurrencies and that other members of their frat had bought into the fad at varying levels.
“Are you invested?” people kept asking me as I made my way around the room.
After explaining several times that I was not invested and had no plans to get involved, I eventually divulged that I did have a few friends who had gotten into it, including the man I’ve been seeing, who owns a small amount of ethereum.
“You better stick with him!” a man in a pink shirt implored me, explaining that my boyfriend was probably extremely smart and “a keeper.”
I rolled my eyes hard back into my head and walked away as he chided me, “You laugh now, but he’s going to buy you a house. He’ll buy you a house!”
The value of ethereum has dropped over 30 percent so far this month.
As the open bar closed down and attendees began to shuffle back into the cold, I overheard one group talking about using blockchain for the social good.
Even those who aren’t personally invested in cryptocurrency all seem to agree that “blockchain is the future of the internet.”
Some at the party suggested that blockchain technology could put an end to poverty, hunger, global warming, and provide financial freedom to millions of impoverished people around the globe.
“The blockchain is a brand new type of technology that no one has ever seen before,” said an entrepreneur named Kevin.
“Traditional financial structures don’t have reach in places like India and Africa. This tech will have real social impact. Right now those people can’t participate in the global economy. That will all change.”
A man named Carl explained how he was going to put VR “on the blockchain.”
“We need to understand each other’s problems,” said Tyler, another entrepreneur. “Blockchain can solve a lot of issues in different businesses. There are a lot of people in crypto who don’t realize they can apply this tech to daily life. How people like us who are entrepreneurs can solve these problems.”
Right before I left, I spoke to a man named Serg. Unlike others, he seemed to be wary. He said he owns about 10 types of cryptocurrencies, including a large portion of bitcoin and ether.
“I’m nervous. Honestly it’s hard to tell the future given the recent downturn. There is potential, and we have seen it go up, but it’s lost 70 percent of its value recently,” he said referring to one coin.
“This week I wasn’t feeling so good. At one point I really thought it was going to crash. But every time it goes up I feel optimistic.”