Unlike seemingly every other attendee at this year’s South by Southwest, I don’t care a lick about cryptocurrency. I care deeply, however, about the 2003–2007 prime-time teen drama The O.C. There was a time not long ago when those sentiments combined would have seemed like gobbledygook. But that time has passed: it’s 2022, and celebrities from A- to Z-list are flapping their gums about crypto, the blockchain, tokens fungible and non, and a host of other fintech jargon that I’m actively trying not to understand. Most of the celebrities who’ve spoken out support digital currencies, flaunting their investments in things like Bitcoin and NFTs. There is, however, one skeptic among the throngs of the suntanned Hollywood elite: Austin’s own Benjamin McKenzie, a.k.a. Ryan (from Chino) Atwood, former star of The O.C.
McKenzie first made the push to establish himself as the nation’s only reasonable celebrity last fall, when he cowrote an article for Slate with journalist Jacob Silverman headlined “Celebrity Crypto Shilling Is a Moral Disaster.” Having read it multiple times, I can’t fully explain what the article was about (because that would require me to understand crypto, something I do not want for myself), but it mentioned Kim Kardashian and something called Ethereum Max, an unstable new digital currency that Kardashian was paid to promote to her hundreds of millions of followers last summer. The value of Ethereum Max plummeted, but that hasn’t stopped other celebrities from continuing to shill for new financial technologies in ways that seem reckless and potentially illegal. At least that’s how Ben McKenzie sees it.
For many current and former Us Weekly subscribers, it may feel strange to see Ryan (from Chino)—whose chief interests in Newport Beach were punching people and being quiet—speak so passionately about numbers. But as I learned very quickly during McKenzie’s March 13 SXSW panel, “Trust Me I’m Famous: Ben McKenzie Questions Crypto” (which was attended by a mix of crypto people, O.C. fans, and, I’m pretty sure, friends of Ben McKenzie’s parents), he’s actually been an economics nerd for decades, having graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in that very topic. McKenzie opened the event with an endearing stump speech detailing his interest in economics and experiences with Hollywood charlatanism and fraud. In the conversation that followed, with journalist Jacob Silverman (with whom McKenzie is now writing a book) and Vice technology reporter Edward Ongweso, McKenzie more than held his own.
I have long been distrustful of cryptocurrency, so if any man were going to make me interested in it, it would be a former teen heartthrob who seems to be echoing my concerns. For a few moments, I was intrigued by the information McKenzie was presenting to the audience. It does seem that crypto is a big deal, either because it’s the inevitable future of the worldwide financial system or because it provides yet another method for the rich to get richer. It would behoove me to have some idea what any of this means, but all I remember are the comparisons between the current crypto markets and the Wild West, and a bunch of references to fiats, which I now realize didn’t mean cars. Even Ben McKenzie, as charming and patient a teacher as one could hope for (even more patient than Sandy Cohen teaching Ryan [from Chino] how to golf!), could not make me pay attention for more than 20 to 25 minutes before I mentally shut down.
That being said, I’m glad McKenzie is using his platform to warn people about the dangers of cryptocurrency. There’s a reason celebrities are successful marketing tools: people pay attention to what they say even if they seem unqualified to say it. There should be someone balancing out the Kim Kardashians, Paris Hiltons, Jimmy Fallons, and Reese Witherspoons of the world who are potentially inspiring their legions of fans to make risky financial decisions. I’m glad Ben McKenzie has taken it upon himself to lead the charge. As much as I hope to never ever fully understand what cryptocurrency is, I don’t begrudge anyone who’s actually interested in the subject matter, and I wish Ryan (from Chino) the best of luck.