Four Lessons From the Super-Awkward Devcon Sing-a-Long Featuring Vitalik Buterin

Dozens of Ethereum programmers and leaders, including Vitalik Buterin, were involved yesterday in a horrific disaster at Ethereum’s Devcon conference in Prague. It was captured on video by CoinDesk, but please be warned: you cannot unsee the following footage.

OK, so nobody was physically harmed in this catastrophe. But a roomful of developers being goaded into an awkward, ukulele-led singalong about the Serenity proof-of-stake upgrade to Ethereum could certainly be regarded as a form of torture, for both participants and viewers. None of us will ever be able to cleanse our minds of the horror as the emcee again and again tries to get an indifferent crowd to sing along about B-U-I-D-Ling and ICOs, nor the anxiety of hearing Vitalik’s voice waver into the void.

So we’re here to help you process the trauma. First, some reassurance: CoinDesk’s video seems to make things look worse than they are, because the crowd isn’t being recorded very well. What (little) participation there is gets almost completely lost. More importantly, though, as with any deeply disturbing experience, there are positive lessons to be learned. Here are just a few:

It Still Wasn’t as Embarrassing as Ethereal
This year’s Consensys-sponsored festival, the Ethereal Summit, aimed to be blockchain’s answer to South by Southwest, from its hipster setting in a cavernous Queens warehouse to guest appearances by big-name comedians. But that just made it all the more cringe-y by the time you got around to the gallery full of iffy “blockchain art” and, especially, self-help pseudoscientist Deepak Chopra fielding questions about blockchain’s potential to help humanity reach a higher plane of consciousness.

Even a room full of tone-deaf programmers is cooler than that.

Vitalik Is Leading the Way Toward Humanity
Vitalik, fairly or not, is often seen as the visionary, boyish god-emperor not just of Ethereum, but of the entire blockchain world. And fairly or not, he is almost always described in terms of his inhuman awkwardness, constantly compared to an android or an alien or a bird or a preying mantis.

If you (like me) have also struggled to connect with your fellow human beings, you could do worse than following Vitalik’s lead here: Do something completely out of your comfort zone, in public. Show your vulnerability. People will love you for it.

Steve Ballmer Did it Worse/Better
If you want awkward, look no further than former Microsoft CEO and notorious hypebeast Steve Ballmer. Here he is screaming like a sweaty psychopath at a Microsoft meeting in 2006, and here he is doing some dad dancing to Fergie as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers in 2015. Finally and best of all, here he is in 2013 crying, screaming, panting, AND dancing as he announces his retirement, partly to the treacly strains of “Time of My Life,” a.k.a. the theme to Dirty Dancing.

Here’s the thing: Steve Ballmer is plenty embarrassing, but he doesn’t give a damn. And that’s ultimately what makes his antics not really embarrassing at all. Ballmer’s gonna Ballmer, and he’s not going to hold back. Don’t we all want to be like Steve Ballmer?
Well, maybe not. But you get the point.

Dare to Be (Distributedly) Stupid
In stark contrast to Ballmer, what makes the Serenity singalong so mortifying is exactly that nobody’s diving in head-first. Instead, a bunch of Devcon lanyards are slouched into their chairs watching a grown man play a ukulele, and at first, they can’t summon up the nerve to lend him some backup. But very, very slowly, people appear to get in the swing of things. There’s some tentative singing, some cheering, and some admirably coordinated clapping by the time it really peaks. It makes the whole thing much less awkward as it goes on!

You know what that sounds like to me? Bitcoin and blockchain’s progress from 2008 to 2018. It turns out maybe the sneaky Devcon organizers were onto something after all. Just like a blockchain, a singalong without everyone joining in is a sad, even awful thing. But once the crowd shows up, it’s something greater than any one of us could create alone.