Crypto Was Afraid to Show Its Face at SXSW 2023


In 2022, I attended my first SXSW, and I couldn’t escape the suffocating atmosphere of crypto evangelism. A convention that touts itself as the nexus of art and technology, it seemed fertile ground for the seemingly growing NFT community. This year? I could barely find a mention of crypto. And the few who did bring it up seemed embarrassed to do so.

That strategy of non-acknowledgment might just be the future of crypto.

For the uninitiated, SXSW is an event that takes over nearly the whole city of Austin. There’s the main convention center, panels at different hotels, and concerts at the biggest stadiums. But almost every bar, club, and venue also has some tie-in party or concert. And those that don’t host official SXSW events hold unofficial ones to at least catch some of the hype.

All of that is to say, if you want to set up shop during SXSW, you can probably find a place to do so. This is what made it so bizarre that I was able to go most of the week with scarcely a hint of words like crypto, blockchain, or NFT.

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In 2022, crypto blew the doors off the entire city. An outdoor venue with giant domes housed bombastic raves celebrating some little-known bunny NFTs called Flufs. (Incidentally, I attended the event last year, and the 3D images of crudely rendered rotting rabbits still occasionally haunt me.)

Blockchain Creative Labs—a division of Fox Entertainment—was a key sponsor of SXSW 2022. In 2023, BCL was nowhere to be found. Last year, there were dozens of panels advocating crypto’s benefits. This year, the word “crypto” only appears a dozen times in the SXSW event schedule. (Both “AI” and “metaverse” clocked at least 30 mentions.) Four of those were showings of a documentary about (among other things) “WallStreetBets and crypto fanatics,” and one was a panel with prominent crypto skeptic Molly White.

The minimal crypto presence at SXSW isn’t terribly surprising. Despite claims to the contrary, NFTs don’t actually work the way a lot of their advocates say they do. Many artists have rejected NFTs entirely and find them to be an external headache, rather than a useful business tool.

It’s not the first time tech has promised to revolutionize an industry only to fundamentally misunderstand the field it’s entering. (Just ask Stadia how easy it is to build a gaming platform.) But what’s notable is that crypto didn’t abandon SXSW entirely. 

Instead, it simply came in disguise.

On the expo floor, I saw a few companies that were still proud to admit they used crypto tech to insert a financial layer into an otherwise existing product. I saw a blockchain-based camera and a crypto streaming platform—both with names I’d never heard of—in tiny booths. The largest booth that prominently announced its crypto affiliation was Polkadot, a startup that “unites and secures a growing ecosystem of specialized blockchains called parachains.”

For every one of these companies, however, I saw just as many (if not more) that employed crypto while trying very hard to avoid mentioning that fact. Two companies claimed to be building the future of social media. Dig deep enough into their websites and they both offered users crypto-based incentives, but neither chose to feature crypto or blockchain tech as a selling point.

One of them, Ascend, had flyers all over the city. These made lofty—arguably impossible—promises, such as “no misinformation” (who defines what counts as misinformation?). Some of these promises were fundamentally contradictory, such as “no toxicity” and “no hate speech” but also “no centralized censorship.” It’s unclear how the company expects to reconcile many of these competing priorities, but according to its site the solution somehow involves earning “Ascend credits,” which are only described as crypto in a chart.

Another company, Arkive, launched a DAO in 2022 aimed at creating a community of members that would use NFTs and the blockchain to form a museum curated by the internet, rather than a central organization. The group met at SXSW 2023 and even put on a panel about the decentralization of art, but they downplayed the DAO and the crypto angle. Even Arkive’s own coverage of its SXSW 2023 presence barely mentions crypto.

In some cases, it’s unclear whether companies have abandoned their crypto plans or would simply prefer not to highlight them. Even expo booths for companies that are widely known for their work in crypto seemed hesitant to use any of the keywords closely associated with it. A display for The Sandbox—sharing a small booth with some other developers in the space—proudly touted the “metaverse” game and occasionally mentioned being a “Web3” platform. But the fact that much of the game is built around NFTs on the blockchain was somewhat obscured. 

It’s a dynamic I started to internally refer to as crypto-obfuscation. It’s not that any of these companies would refuse to acknowledge crypto, per se. When asked, many were all too happy to discuss their vision of a blockchain-based future. But they seemed to operate as though calling attention to it unprovoked was, at best, a little uncouth. At worst? An active deterrent.

Crypto has often been compared to the early internet, where the tech is exciting but not ready for normies yet. Still, no matter how cringey the internet was in its youth, there was never a time when companies avoided saying they were building a product on “the web” or “online.”

I’ll openly admit that I was deeply skeptical of crypto, even in 2022. There was already enough evidence of scams, rugpulls, disinformation, and fraud to make anyone wary of the blockchain for the next decade at least. But I felt compelled to keep my opinions a little quiet. At one crypto-themed party that year, a friend shouted quite loudly, “NFTs SUCK!!” And while I aspire to her energy, I also lightly shushed her for fear someone would take offense. 

This year, I felt like my skepticism had become the norm, or at least mainstream enough to express openly. Out of nearly everyone I spoke to, the few with any opinions about crypto seemed eager to share their doubts. Most simply hadn’t thought about the technology. And besides, generative AI was much more interesting to discuss.

I doubt any of this means crypto is dead or dying. The tech has been around in some form or another for over a decade, and public interest in it comes in waves. However, its subdued presence at SXSW suggests its advocates had learned a powerful lesson from the previous year: The best way to evangelize crypto outside the tech bubble is to hope you can convince people to pay no attention to the blockchain behind the curtain.


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