"This is the sketchiest thing I've ever been a part of," said YouTuber Siraj Raval, midway through the Crypto Influencer Awards Summit in New York.
- Last week, an influencer analytics company threw an award ceremony honoring the top influencers in the cryptocurrency community as a part of New York's blockchain week.
- The event's disorganization led some in attendance to wonder whether it was all a scam, or just a way for the organizing company to promote itself.
"This is the sketchiest thing I've ever been a part of," says YouTuber Siraj Raval, midway through an awards ceremony billed as an event to honor both himself and other online influencers in the cryptocurrency space.
We're at the Crypto Influencer Awards Summit, which is taking place as a part of New York's blockchain week in lower Manhattan. Some of the most influential cryptocurrency evangelists on the internet have flown in to the city to receive awards in categories like "Best Crypto Musician," "Most Relatable," "Best Video Production," and "Most Funny."
Influencers like writer and producer Taryn Southern, crypto rappers TeamHODL and Coin Daddy, and YouTubers like Crypto Blood, Crypto Bobby, Cryptonauts, and I Love Crypto are all being honored for their efforts in spreading the gospel of the blockchain online.
Everyone is kinda famous — even the people who aren't famous are treated like they might be. One man, who volunteered to help set up the event so that he wouldn't have to pay $600 for a ticket, is handed a medal honoring him for his work in "Best Miscellaneous Category." (Later, he said that the event's host asked him to return the medal because they needed it back.)
When a guest asks me to take his photo with Siraj Raval, I ask if he likes Raval's YouTube videos.
"I've never seen them," the man admits. He then explains that he wants a photo because Raval seems like he might be famous.
I am also momentarily mistaken for an internet celebrity. At one point, a would-be fan approaches me, seemingly star struck: "I absolutely love your channel," he says.
When I tell him that I've never posted a video to YouTube in my life, he shrugs.
"Hm," he says. "I could have sworn it was you."
In the lobby, a crowd of mostly men wearing t-shirts adorned with blockchain start-up logos are chatting excitedly about the technology. Everyone seems to know each other or have heard of each other from the internet. ("This is like a chatroom, but IRL," one influencer observes.)
A beautiful woman shyly approaches a crypto rap artist called Coin Daddy.
"Coin Daddy, I need to talk to you," she says, softly. "I need you to help me make money."
In the cryptocurrency community, online influencers are a sought-after commodity.
During one panel that takes place early on, Siraj Raval, whose channel has close to 400,000 subscribers, says that he's repeatedly dogged with emails requesting him to feature tokens for upcoming initial coin offerings, or ICOs. Taryn Southern also says that she's constantly asked to promote tokens on her channel.
For influencers, endorsing ICOs is a lucrative but dicey market. Raval says that he charges around $50,000 to post a 20-minute explainer video on his channel discussing a company's token offering. While marketing ICOs is a profitable business, Raval says he seldom endorses companies that approach him with unsolicited requests.
"There's a lot of fishy ICOs out there," one influencer says. "And if they're not outright scams, then at the very least they're sketchy."
An entire panel at the conference is dedicated to determining whether or not a token offering is a potential scam.
"If Vitalik [Buterin, the founder of ethereum] is listed as an advisor, that's a white flag," one speaker advises.
Fraud is so endemic within the cryptocurrency community that counterfeit coin offerings have garnered their own name: They're called "pump and dump schemes," and often involve a few ringleaders who generate interest in a token. Once enough people have bought in, the organizers rapidly sell off their investment and evaporate from the internet with their newfound profits.
For anyone hosting an ICO — legitimate or otherwise — elevating public awareness is crucial. In the past few months, efforts to crowdsource cryptocurrency capital have ranged from ingenious to bizarre: Some companies have paid people to write token names on their bodies and share the photos online while others have seemingly absconded with their investors' cash, all in the name of raising awareness.
One of the most popular ways to attract public interest in an ICO is through online influencers. In the cryptocurrency community, influencers are regarded by many as having some of the most important opinions in the industry. As public figures, their leverage is considered so invaluable that several of the event's attendees told Business Insider that they paid $5,000 to pitch their company's token in front of the crowd for a few short minutes. (For comparison, a startup employee said that their company paid $10,000 to rent a booth for a full three days at New York's blockchain conference Consensus.)
Endorsement from an influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers can elevate a token's public profile, even if that endorsement is only tacitly implied.
At the Crypto Influencer Awards Summit, one influencer told Business Insider that a fan asked to take her photo. When she agreed, she said that he positioned her in front of his company's logo so that it would appear as though she was a supporter of his product.
Antics like this are fairly common, another influencer said.
The influencer said that he's heard of people putting mining rigs with their company's logos in busy neighborhoods and asking bypassers to pick up the rig so they can guess how much it weighs. When the person complies, they snap a photo of them holding the rig, and use the photo to showcase outside interest in the company.
Midway through the Crypto Influencer Awards Summit, a strain of skepticism surrounding the event's legitimacy begins to emerge.
So far, the proceedings have been so disorganized that one of the influencers in attendance posted a video of the event entitled "Most Awkward Conference Start Ever" to YouTube.
For an event where the cheapest tickets cost as much as Hamilton seats, I'm not sure what I expected from the awards ceremony, but this certainly isn't it.
Admittedly, everyone still seems to be having a good time, mostly because no one is really paying attention to the panels taking place at the front of the room. The YouTube stars in attendance have expansive and charismatic personalities, and the expectation that they sit quietly and listen is equal parts ridiculous and impossible.
People are milling about and talking loudly. The host, wearing a foam Statue of Liberty crown, interrupts the panelists again and again to remind people, in increasingly strenuous tones, to please sit down and be quiet. For the most part, her pleas are ignored.
But despite the amount of fun everyone seems to be having, people are beginning to remark that the event is, to say the least, very weird.
Small, strange incongruities are adding up: A few of the celebrated guests who haven't been alerted to a last-minute change in venue show up nearly an hour late. Even though the event cost hundreds of dollars to attend, no one seems to be checking tickets. (No one checked whether or not I had a press pass, and I simply walked in.)
Miscellaneous suitcases are scattered haphazardly throughout the venue's back rooms, where private meetings are taking place. A guest says that the event's organizer has spent the better part of the evening outside, arguing with the police. Drinks are covertly poured into red plastic SOLO cups from behind a fold-up table throughout most of the night. A hallway bathroom has no mirror, no toilet paper, no paper towels, and somewhat mysteriously, no toilet seat.
Adam Charles, the marketing manager of the host company Boosto, later said that the NYPD made four separate visits to the venue, the Hudson Club, due to issues with entertainment and alcohol permits. He said he wasn't aware that the venue may not have had the appropriate licenses to host an event with alcohol and music.
When a man wearing a gold plastic crown takes to the stage midway through the proceedings, and shouts that everyone should buy bitcoin, and only bitcoin, he is roundly heckled by the crowd.
"If you don't have bitcoin, you should go," he shouts into the mic. "You should leave here."
He continues: "We organize everyone here, for what? Just so they can buy your coin."
"Who is that guy?" I ask one heckler in the audience.
"Some Chinese bitcoin whale," he replies. (Later, the event's host, Heidi Yu, identified the man as the prolific Chinese bitcoin miner Chandler Guo, and said that his appearance on the stage was intended to be a joke. She also said that she regretted allowing him to speak. Guo himself did not respond to a request for comment.)
Some of the influencers wonder aloud whether or not the event has been thrown for the express purpose of raising awareness for the host company's forthcoming ICO.
YouTuber Omar Bham tells me that skepticism surrounding the event began even before the evening's official proceedings kicked off. He points out a tweet posted by the influential entrepreneur and bitcoin advocate Andreas Antonopoulos who, weeks earlier, wrote that people should boycott the event because of its misleading advertising.
The Crypto Influencer Awards prominently displayed the logos of several top influencers on its site, even though they hadn't confirmed their attendance. Boosto also advertised media partnerships with various publications, including Business Insider, on the page's event invitation, even though such a partnership didn't exist. When asked why Boosto advertised Business Insider's logo on its site as a media partnership, the company's marketing manager, Adam Charles, said he thought that anyone attending the event would like what he called "free promotion."
"If we give out media passes, we put a media partnership on the site," said Charles. "I guess we should maybe ask for clarification in writing in the future. We're still learning."
Online, other cryptocurrency thought leaders decried the event as "despicable and deceitful."
At one point in the evening, the host, Heidi Yu, took to the stage to address the murmurs within the crowd. With the microphone in hand, Yu announced that the event was not a scam.
"Let me tell you guys, this is legitimate," she said.
Phu Styles, founder of the Women in Blockchain Foundation and an active figure in the cryptocurrency community, said that it's not unusual for last-minute changes to take place at cryptocurrency conferences because the industry tends to be incredibly fast-paced. Bigger than expected crowds and changes in the lineup are all par for the course.
Another influencer who received an award said that the event was weird, but that its strangeness was only to be expected.
"This is the blockchain," he said. "This is why it's called the Wild West, right?"
The frontman behind the crypto rap group TeamHODL, who performed at the event and goes by the nickname "Hashbrown," said he was pleased that Boosto had paid for his hotel room and plane ticket to New York. Many of the other crypto influencers who attended the event also said that Boosto compensated them for their airfare and lodging costs.
"They could have planned it better," said Hashbrown. "But I think they're genuine. At the heart of it, they're doing right by crypto."
A few days later, I called up Siraj Raval and asked him what he thought about the Crypto Influencer Awards Summit in retrospect.
"Yeah, I think they might have hosted the event just to promote their brand," he said. "If that's what they were doing, then it's a pretty smart idea. It worked, right? I came. You came. At the very least, we all showed up for it."
Omar Bham posted a video to his channel Cyrpt0 a few days later, saying that he thought the event was misleading.
"[A lot of people] were saying that this whole conference was a scam," Bham says in the video. "I would argue, you know, you might be right. Some people paid $500 just so they could get into this room…It was an odd event."
He goes on: "It's the question of what do you get out of it? I think that's a lot of what could be a scam, which is something that's misleading in my opinion: Someone promising you something and then giving you something else. I think that's what you can call a scam."
When I asked Adam Charles what he thought about the fact that some at the event suspected it might have been a scam, he said that he was hurt by this assumption and that the event's issues were due to a last-minute change in venue that was beyond his control. He also said that he was actively reaching out to the influencers who attended to see how he might be able to improve Boosto's event participation in the future.
"The ironic thing is that I'm sick of people getting scammed," he said. "I made the cryptocurrency influencer website so that we could point out the influencers people can trust online so that they don't get scammed."
Charles said that many people interested in learning about cryptocurrencies rely exclusively on YouTube influencers for their information.
"The thing is that crypto is so new, and all of these crypto influencers suddenly popped up out of nowhere and people don't know who to trust," he said. "I hate banks, and I hate scams. That's the whole reason I'm into crypto."