“I have a marijuana farm that I’m going to tokenize and put on the blockchain”, a middle-aged man at my table excitedly exclaimed, his eyes twinkling as he blew grape-flavoured vapour into my face, rudely clouding my view of a Balinese fire display by the beach. Then, without lowering his voice, he candidly told me that he made most of his wealth from a Ponzi scheme.
I had just landed in Bali for Coinfest Asia 2022, and was attending the first of many beach parties at 11 pm that I would soon regret signing up for. As a journalist covering the web3 space, I’ve repeatedly told myself that I would only attend “prim and proper” conferences held in 5-star hotels, which meant that techno music slightly reminiscent of Lion King’s Hakuna Matata, scantily-dressed women whispering to each other in Russian, and shitcoin project managers trying to explain the Ponzinomics of their scam protocols while piss drunk was completely out of the question.
However, the rare opportunity to shirk work on a dreamy island like Bali was too good to pass up, and a “conference” held by the beach would pique anyone’s interest – also because I wanted to take the chance to completely overhaul my wardrobe with trendy Hawaiian shirts just to look good on Instagram. Which is why when I reluctantly volunteered to go to Bali, I thought I would return with nothing more than a tan and a babi guling-filled belly, which would have undoubtedly incurred the wrath of my editors.
Coinfest Asia surprisingly exceeded my expectations, not so much because of the content that was discussed, but because of how it inadvertently showcased the people working in web3 in a completely different light, both literally and figuratively.
Blockhead readers would know my stance on web3 and its constituents – while I can confidently say that I have adequate knowledge of blockchain technology, cryptocurrencies and NFTs, the industry’s sometimes illogical aspirations and cash-grabbing nature irritates me immensely. Degens, a subculture of extreme risk-takers who invest and/or build projects purely out of their infatuation for crypto’s potentially sky-high returns, have always been perceived by me as egotistical characters on Twitter desperately trying promote crypto as the future for their own good.
But after sharing countless plates of nasi padang and “liquidity” (Coinfest Asia’s term for drinks) together on the beach and at roadside stalls, I’ve come to realise that strong bonds can be formed with these so-called “degenerates”. Everybody was keen to talk and listen, even about non-crypto topics, and nobody hesitated to extend a helping hand to one another. These experiences also forced the introvert in me to step out of my comfort zone and actually interact with these individuals who are after all, just normal human beings (maybe not the marijuana guy) admirably steadfast in their belief that web3 is going to become a reality.
Phrases like “We’re going to fuck up Binance” and “We’re going to be bigger than OpenSea” would sound laughable on Twitter, but the sheer belief and determination of these “degens” was palpable during our face-to-face interactions. Whether or not their projects end up as rugpulls is a different debate, but what’s clear is that they sincerely want to succeed, and aren’t afraid to go against the status quo. That, to me, is something rarely seen in already established industries.
Travelling overseas, especially to Indonesia, also gave me a wider perspective on why blockchain and cryptocurrencies can actually be beneficial to emerging markets, something that cannot be easily understood when working in a country like Singapore where traditional finance is ever so reliable. It’s easy to be snobbish and criticise an emerging technology from our ivory towers, but talk to people, really immerse yourself in a different culture, and you’ll start to see a different side to web3 – one that’s more inclusive, down-to-earth, and ever-ready to think out of the box.
Crypto’s degen culture is still insufferably annoying at times. But beyond the constant shilling and VC ass kissing, one can experience a refreshingly genuine sense of camaraderie and belief within this oddly welcoming community that has and will never cease to surprise. Maybe it’s just Bali and its unexplainable charm, but the “degens” that I’ve come to know as friends have ironically given the space a much-needed “human” touch that I will sorely miss.