How crypto went from mania to mainstream

July 29, 2021, 9:45 AM UTC

Four years ago, Fortune published a cover story delving into what we dubbed “Blockchain Mania!” At the time, enthusiasm—or, let’s be honest, hype—about the vast potential of the revolutionary technology underpinning Bitcoin was exploding. “Initial coin offerings” were raising big bucks from investors. The price of a single Bitcoin had shot past $3,000. And the total market value of all cryptocurrencies exceeded $135 billion. Looking back, those numbers seem quaint.

As with most revolutions, the crypto-uprising didn’t advance in a straight line. Bitcoin spiked in the months after our 2017 story, then crashed. Trend-chasing investors moved on, and blockchain initiatives inside big corporations floundered. But all the while, the crypto ecosystem continued to expand and evolve. Recently, digital coin prices have scaled new peaks, attracting first-time investors and institutional sharks. Even after a recent selloff, the total value of all cryptocurrencies is some $1.5 trillion.

More importantly, a new threat to the old order has taken shape, under the catchy name DeFi. As Fortune’s Robert Hackett explains with panache in our compelling cover story, “decentralized finance” could disrupt Wall Street and the financial sector the way open-source software transformed the broader tech world. Why rely on brokerages to process trades, for instance, if you can use a purpose-built algorithm that is faster, cheaper, and more transparent?

COV.0921.Crypto-Global 500 Cover
Cover by PplPleaser

Robert, who also wrote our 2017 story on blockchains, has covered alternative finance since well before it became more mainstream. We asked him to spearhead a package of stories that would capture this new crypto moment—from the raging debate over the climate impact of crypto mining to the vast sums being raised by Wall Street to get in on the action. The entire special digital issue can be found here. It includes the debut of a new Fortune ranking: the “NFTy 50” list of the most influential people in the fast-expanding world of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens—digital assets that offer a new way to buy and sell unique goods, from art to sports memorabilia. 

In another first, for the cover of this issue we collaborated with one of the foremost members of the NFTy 50: the digital artist known as pplpleasr. The 28-year-old, whose real name is Emily Yang, grew up in Taiwan and Vancouver. She worked on video effects for major movies such as Wonder Woman and Batman v. Superman. But when the pandemic hit, she found herself without a gig. So she began experimenting with digital art, creating work for the DeFi community. Pplpleasr quickly developed a following, and in late March an NFT she created—of an animated unicorn—sold for $525,000. The image she created for Fortune, she says, represents the personality and potential of the emerging digital world: “It’s a whole colorful, vibrant ecosystem and community, not just an investment platform.” Beginning Aug. 5, a limited series of NFTs based on our cover will be up for auction on peer-to-peer marketplace OpenSea. 

You may have noticed that there’s a new signature at the bottom of this column. As he explained in this space last month, my friend and longtime colleague Clifton Leaf recently decided the time was right to leave Fortune and take on new challenges. It’s my honor to be serving as the acting editor-in-chief. And if there are ways that we can serve you better, please don’t be shy about sending feedback. I’d love to hear from you.

Brian O’Keefe
Editor-in-Chief, Fortune

A version of this article appears in the August/September 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline, “From mania to mainstream.”

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