On a dry, hot weekend in August, a crowd of several hundred appeared among the many pine trees of Idyllwild, a former gold rush town within the San Jacinto Mountains of California. These were members of Friends With Advantages, or FWB for brief, a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) that was taking its online community offline for the primary in-real-life gathering of its kind, billed as an “immersive conference and festival experience on the intersection of culture and Web3.” I’m crypto-curious, proof against anything that requires I spend more time online, but optimistic about its guarantees of wealth equity and anticipate our collective give up to its inevitability. I went to FWB Fest to reply some nagging questions: Am I late to the party? Do I would like to be at this party?
Skeptics (hi, dad) think cryptocurrency is just too dangerous and speculative. Believers think it’s the currency of the longer term, and that it has the chance to shut wealth gaps, empower artists, and alter the way in which we use money, as cryptocurrencies are exchanged without central regulatory authorities like banks or PayPal. Crypto’s fans are also not afraid of the world’s many acronyms. Fest attendees were largely within the latter camp; one described this moment as a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to vary money distribution.”
Festival-goers stroll the grounds at Idyllwild Arts Academy.
Photos by Glenjamn. Courtesy of FWB.
The festival took place at Idyllwild Arts Academy, a personal highschool on a sprawling campus within the woods. Being white and in my 30s, I seemed to be in the bulk, though the population skewed male. Otherwise, I made no try and mix in with crypto’s cool kids—I ignored the “bucket hat” bullet on the packing list that we were sent prematurely. Many others didn’t. The uniform, as one attendee explained to me, was coded luxury: “Your sunglasses are from a truck stop and your shorts are Old Navy, but then the sneakers are Balenciaga.” On day one, I used to be deeply off-brand in a pink floral LoveShackFancy dress. I also had the sensation that everybody was on mushrooms without me.
In between performances by artists like Sudan Archives, L’Rain, Kilo Kish, and James Blake, there have been hikes, meditation, and foraging. Panelists hosted talks on the longer term of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and topics like “How To Eat a Fruit.” Tickets to the all-inclusive weekend cost .5 ETH (shorthand for Ether, the currency on the Ethereum blockchain), or about $927 on the time of writing.
FWB members pack into the food hall through the fest.
Photos by Glenjamn. Courtesy of FWB.
Full membership to the FWB community will cost you 75 FWB tokens. A single token currently trades at $9.33, though it’s been as high as $186. (FWB does offer a “local” membership for five$FWB, or around $50.) Unlike other DAOs, where entrance requires only buying the token, FWB functions like an online version of Soho House, requiring each an application approval process and buy of their currency. As holders of the token, members are incentivized to contribute to projects that raise the token’s value, and so they can earn more of it through their participation. After you’ve gotten through the gates, all of it goes down within the Discord, the private server where members vote on issues and discuss NFT drops and latest projects.
Every DAO serves a special purpose—some raise money for charitable causes, while others offer rewards like first access to NFTs. There are hundreds. In 2021, the singularly-minded ConstitutionDAO raised $47 million in ETH to bid on a rare copy of the U.S. Structure at Sotheby’s. (They lost, and the organization has since disbanded.) FWB is a social DAO, “focused on merging culture and crypto.” Its co-founder is Trevor McFedries, a DJ, music artist, and tech luminary who created the token in 2020 and sent it to his network of friends, granting them access to a personal Discord. At first, FWB was essentially a chat room for artists and musicians who were impacted by the pandemic; it’s since grown to three,000 global members.
A key difference between members-only places like Soho House and a DAO is that “our members vote on expenses every month, our members vote on partnerships every month. Nothing happens without people’s say. Even my salary, if someone had issue with it, they may vote ‘no,’” said Raihan Anwar, one in all FWB’s cofounders and their “digital social butterfly.” Like many other FWB members I spoke to, he had an extreme level of enthusiasm for the community. “Our goal was to construct probably the most positive workshop for artists and creatives to explore crypto.”
Musician James Blake with FWB co-founder Trevor McFedries.
Photos by Glenjamn. Courtesy of FWB.
A number of festival attendees brought their dogs and a few bought their kids, including a baby named Eeth, after the cryptocurrency. Everyone seemed less serious about the Web3 gold rush (Web3 is the umbrella term for crypto, NFTs, and DAOs) than they did in meeting their Discord friends IRL. McFedries explained a shift towards crypto’s latest era: the group wasn’t a lot Libertarian types but those “serious about creating higher economies for creators.” The weekend had on the forefront energy without being smug.
Next to a Menotti’s truck on the festival grounds, where one could get a coffee and a coffee NFT, I sat down with Eileen Skyars, FWB’s head of promoting. “It’s so essential for me to be here early and for me to onboard other underrepresented creatives,” she told me. (Skyars is Jamaican and Filipino and identifies as each African American and Asian American). “I’m a primary generation immigrant—numerous our parents didn’t have 401ks. I’ve talked to people here who identified that very same way, where they were like, ‘Yeah, I got into crypto for this expansive possibility it has to shut wealth gaps.’ On top of that, I believe we’re just in a generation that was born into the web and financial crises—we don’t really imagine in 401ks. Why am I going to construct eternally for this financial future when there could also be no future? There are all these questions coming out of the pandemic that make investing on this space look really attractive to young people.”
Although there was loads of Instagram bait within the swag and scenery that was also attractive to young people, I didn’t see a single arm prolonged for a selfie, and hardly any bent-neck scrolling. On the music sets I attended within the parachute-covered amphitheater, festival-goers watched not through the screens of their phones but, radically, with their very own eyes.
We don’t really imagine in 401ks. Why am I going to construct eternally for this financial future when there could also be no future?
On this universe, social currency isn’t earned through Instagram followers or by how closely we are able to reach the ever-changing beauty standards. Web3’s essential platforms are Discord and Twitter, where identities are sometimes shielded by avatars. Expertise, connections, and getting “alpha” info ahead of the curve—that’s the clout this crowd runs on.
But the academic elitism and buy-in comes at the fee of accessibility. “Crypto has an access problem. There’s such a high barrier to entry by way of understanding half of what is occurring,” Makayla Bailey told me in between music sets. Bailey is a 28-year-old Black woman based in Recent York and a director at Rhizome, a digital arts nonprofit. “I believe saying ‘we welcome everybody’ isn’t enough. You may have to do things that address a few of the structural issues at hand, like class, race, and variety.” But of FWB, she said, “It’s one in all the more welcoming spaces in Web3 that I’ve experienced up to now.”
While Web3 guarantees for equity and access—the language can at times lean utopian—the identical dynamics that exist in corporate spaces exist in these communities, too. The “Social Justice and Web3” event, led by Naaya Wellness founder Sinikiwe Stephanie Dhliwayo, was one of the vital dynamic but least attended events I sat in on. At one other discussion, held in a classroom and led by three women, one male attendee walked in late, sat on the teacher’s desk, and looked as if it would speak louder and longer than all three women who were leading the discussion.
Still, there’s progress. At Saturday’s keynote “Dissent by Design,” Nadya Tolokonnikova, a member of the feminist protest art collective Pussy Riot, discussed using Web3 for activism. In response to the war in Ukraine, Nadya’s UnicornDAO raised nearly $7 million in two days with the sale of an NFT of the Ukrainian flag. Without the specter of government interference or the bureaucracy of a conventional non-profit, funds were raised and quickly distributed to Ukrainian residents. One major donor was the Ukrainian-American owner of OnlyFans, Leonid Ravinsky, who donated $1.3 million. “It showed us the ability of Web3. Crypto is helpful not only for people pumping their bags, but for public good and for peace,” Nadya said on the panel. And in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade, UnicornDAO created an abortion fund that gives transportation, lodging, and health services.
Since cryptocurrency could be used without the placement tracking of banks or ATMs, it’s been critical to Nadya’s survival. “As an activist in Russia, we would have liked to make use of [it] to remain alive.” After Pussy Riot performed an anti-Putin “Punk Prayer” at a Moscow cathedral in 2012, Nadya, along along with her fellow members, was jailed for 21 months. She’s considered a “foreign agent” of Russia, and as a result of her status, she doesn’t share her location in real time.
Later within the evening, she and I sat together on a porch outside the artists’ cabin, behind the twinkle-lit bar serving natural wine from Martha Stoumen and offering cans of the disturbingly-named water Liquid Death. The artist Weyes Blood was playing a set within the amphitheater. I asked Nadya, whose latest Pussy Riot album is titled MATRIARCHY NOW, learn how to bring more equity into the cryptosphere. “In numerous cases, when women or some other underrepresented communities are being asked to take part in something, they’re just getting used as currency for virtue signaling, and it’s essential to ensure that that they really receives a commission or get tokens for his or her participation. Ensure that to bring real value to individuals who contribute to your diversity,” she told me.
“Last 12 months only 5 to 10 percent of total NFTs sales were done by female artists, which is terrible,” she said. To shift those stats, UnicornDAO collects art by women-identified and LGBTQIA+ people. Its board members include the musicians Sia and Grimes. “If we keep [this community] exclusive, it’s gonna be only a room of white males sucking their very own dicks, which is how a lot of the parties look nowadays.”
Nadya of Pussy Riot, who says she’s used cryptocurrency, which doesn’t track a user’s location, to “stay alive.”
Photos by Glenjamn. Courtesy of FWB.
I considered our psychedelic-forest surroundings; how I hadn’t been at a gathering this massive since 2019, or one this specific, ever. Is crypto the longer term, or is it only a moment in time? I asked Nadya. “I think it’s the longer term. It brings ownership back to people. On Instagram your account could possibly be deleted at any given second. Despite the fact that I provided my content free of charge, and helped [Instagram] to develop their platform and create generational wealth for Mark Zuckerberg, I could be kicked out at any time. Once you join Web3 social media platforms, you own your piece, you own your properties. You own a bit of land in that social media system.”
One other accessibility issue is the time commitment that understanding and maintaining with a constantly-evolving ecosystem demands. The always-open market breeds a culture of FOMO. On Sunday, a conversation on mental health was led by Yana Sosnovskaya of Zora, where artists expressed the anxiety of seeing their NFT prices fluctuate, and others shared the pressure they felt to have all the best expertise and language within the Discord. An amazing strategy to take care of the ups and downs of crypto and Web3, one attendee said, was “to have friends who don’t know what crypto and Web3 is.”
Despite the anxieties, there was a hopeful and quietly rebellious energy to the weekend, perhaps not unlike the gold prospectors who rushed the region within the 1860s, most of whom got here up empty-handed. These Friends With Advantages seemed joyful simply to search out relief from pandemic loneliness and a spot to channel millennial disillusionment. That’s a celebration I can get behind. Whether or not it yields gold feels irrelevant.
Hannah Summerhill is the co-host of the Kinswomen Podcast. Her book with Yseult Polfliet Mukantabana, Real Friends Talk About Race, comes out April 2023.