The Bitcoin in the Beltway conference was intended to be a more “revolutionary” conference with all the big names in the Bitcoin world set to attend, including Charlie Shrem, who has been finding a great number of excuses to travel while on house arrest (not that we blame him). Shrem unfortunately, was barred from traveling to the event, which put a slight damper on the rest of the proceedings.
As this was my first Bitcoin conference, it is hard to compare it to much of anything. Bitcoin Foundation Board Director Brock Pierce stated that it was reminiscent of the Foundation's own conference in San Jose, CA in May of last year.
Compared to the few tech conferences I have covered and attended, it was a relatively small conference which was highlighted by the decision to spread the speeches out among two floors, with the bottom floor extending around a corner and out of sight. The main conference room, where the booths were set up, was mostly full, but speeches that were out of sight tended to be out of mind, and their attendance was lower than I would have expected otherwise.
Causing more problems was the hotel itself. The Wi-Fi, which hotel guests paid over a hundred dollars a day to access, was completely unusable on the show floor. That may have been for the better, considering the number of man in the middle attacks that have been taken place at Bitcoin conferences as of late, but people still rightly felt jilted.
The second official day of the conference (and the first day of speeches) the hotel had television screens placed all around the conference with schedules for speeches and performances. A few of the speeches got moved and delayed, so the schedule wasn't perfect, but it did give you a general idea of when and a specific idea of where to look first. Unfortunately, the third and final day of the conference (with roughly half of the speeches scheduled) the hotel decided to pull the schedule completely, electing instead to showcase the local weather and headlines grabbed from the Associated Press.
This made figuring out when and where a speech was taking place a pain. The conference's website had a list, but between the bad Wi-Fi and the constantly shifting schedule, it was nearly impossible to keep track of what was going on where.
The audio equipment also left a lot to be desired for members of the media, with no plug-ins for audio recording equipment, we had to depend solely on hand held recorders.
Speaking of, there was also a distinct lack of a media presence at the show. The Bitcoin media was fairly well represented. I saw Mad Bitcoins, Coinsiderthis, Bitcoin Magazine at the show, and Crypto News Network, but mainstream media outlets were nowhere to be seen. Considering the number of media outlets in the city, the explosion of interest in Bitcoin and the complete lack of knowledge on Bitcoin shown by the mainstream media, this was disappointing.
The conference was a missed opportunity for the mainstream media outlets. They could have gained a lot by attending, even if to just learn about the digital currency. As mentioned, many of the big names were there: Andreas Antanopolous, Brock Pierce, Jason King, Brian Hoffman, Cody Wilson, M.K. Lords and several others. From outside of the direct Bitcoin community (although, it might be fair to call him a part of it now, considering all he has done for Bitcoin) was Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, fresh off his fantastic speech at the Bitcoin 2014 Conference in Amsterdam.
Beyond the big names, the groups and people ushering in the much heralded “Bitcoin 2.0” features were also well represented. Including Blake Anderson, Counterparty, NXT and Blackcoin. If the mainstream media truly wanted to educate themselves on the subject they seemingly love to be wrong about, this was their chance. They were nowhere to be seen.
Beyond regulation and Shrem, the other thing everyone was talking about was the possibility of a 51 % attack by the mining pool Ghash.io. The consensus, at least among most of the experts I talked to, was that the possibility of an attack was unlikely, and if it did happen it wouldn't be a doomsday scenario for the digital currency. They didn't insist that it wasn't a concern, everyone universally agreed that it was, just that is wasn't as bad as some in the media would have you believe. Too bad the media wasn't there to hear the message.
The speeches ran the gamut from the highly technical to easy to understand. There was politically and regulation focused speeches, the kind of promotional speeches that give you a look into the near future of Bitcoin, and this reporter's personal favorite, philosophical looks into the crypto world's distant future.
The reason for Charlie Shrem's absence from the show is still something of a mystery. I asked Jason King, the founder of the event, as well as one of Shrem's replacements on the Bitcoin Foundation's board, Brock Pierce. Neither could tell me anymore than what we already knew, that it had something to do with his legal trouble.
However, despite initial headlines to the contrary, Shrem says he wasn't specifically banned from attending the conference and commented via Reddit that he “wasn’t banned from this or any conference. There’s a story behind what happened but legal has advised not to comment on the specifics.”
That remains where we stand on the reasoning for his absence, but it should be noted that Shrem has since been scheduled to speak at other events.
The event mostly went on without him and it had more than enough speakers to cover for him. As a whole, the conference was designed for the Bitcoin businesses, entrepreneurs and the hardcore faithful. Nearly everyone I met had a Bitcoin related business of some sort, with ticket prices ranging in the hundreds, the event was not for the casual onlooker.
One of those entrepreneurs, a Bitcoin angel investor visiting from a foreign country had a rude awakening to the reality of Washington D.C. Shortly after arriving, while traveling on the D.C. Metro, three or four men walked up and grabbed his suitcases off the ground. When he went to protest, one of them brandished a knife. The thieves made off with his clothes and a few valuables, but his laptop and iPad, which were held in a pouch over his shoulder and behind his back, remained untouched. It was there that he had a not-insignificant amount of Bitcoins stored (although he declined to say how much). It was a close call and a scary reminder of the poverty that continues to afflict the nation's capital.
Zhou Tonged and and YTCracker performed and those that attended were given a good show, but the crowd was small. It’s likely that most of the problems had to do with timing. For whatever reason the two acts were set to go hours after the last speech was scheduled. By the time it kicked off, most everyone had either returned to their hotels or was out enjoying the nightlife.
Despite Shrem's absence, the Hotel's incompetence, and a few missed speeches, the event had a lot to offer to the Bitcoin enthusiast and those looking to network. Some changes will likely be made for next year, hopefully including a change of venue, but this was a great start at establishing a presence in Washington D.C.
Maybe next year we can get the city's politically powerful residents to attend.