NFTs and Crazy Cycles

MCMThursday, May 20, 2021

So right now, NFTs are a big deal. If you're just joining us, NFTs are non-fungible tokens — like fragments of data that are stored on a distributed ledger, and done so in such a way that they can be definitively owned by a single person. That's a vast oversimplification of it, but in a nutshell: I make art, you can buy that art — and nobody else in the world can own it the way you do.

NFTs are currently in a huge upswing, earning tens of thousands or even millions of dollars for single items. There is a lot of criticism of the technology base to some NFTs — the dominant Ethereum blockchain chews through energy like Unicron at Cyberton's moons. But the thing is: technology changes. It adapts, improves, and shifts in strange ways. I have no doubt NFTs will be eco-friendly soon (some even are eco-friendly already).

The thing I like about NFTs is the promise.

I've been around long enough to remember the various internet-related crazes. The dotcom bubble burst while I was in university, but I was already close enough to feel the burn. After that, it's been a cycle of "huge potential" crazes that went... well, wrong.

Blogs, for one. Blogs were going to recalibrate the media landscape and give normal people a voice in ways that had never existed before. And it worked, sorta. Except now the major blogs are run by large corporations, and the voices we hear are the underpaid freelancers who have to hit their SEO targets no matter what.

Then there were vlogs, or (eventually) YouTube. Internet video would change everything! It would kneecap the Hollywood studios and level the playing field! Under-represented voices would be heard! Except... well, sorta, but no. You could argue there are some breakouts, and TikTok kinda picked up that mantle — but it never quite gelled the way it was meant to.

Last example, and most pertinent (to the dismay of the NFT crowd): ebooks. See, ebooks were around a long time before Kindle. Those of us who played in that space remember the agony of hand-crafting the things, working through all the technical hurdles just to produce something people with a certain subset of readers could open. When Amazon got into ebooks and made it open for everyone, it was like we were finally getting a shot at true egalitarian publishing. We were going to change the world, even without a big publishing house backing us!

And then things went sideways. The market got flooded with... well, everyone. A few smaller names floated to the top, but by and large it all came down to marketing and connections, which were reserved for the big publishing houses. Writers as a whole ended up getting paid less because ebooks messed with the (completely bogus) publishing industry accounting game. And yes, we got absolutely nowhere except that now if you say you've got an ebook, people back away slowly and avoid eye contact.

That is, I fear, where NFTs are headed. There was talk recently that Instagram is getting into the NFT game, and that scares me more than anything else.

Because here's the thing: just like with ebooks pre-KDP, we are dealing with a rough-around-the-edges technology that only certain people can figure out. Just like with ebooks, we are going to change the world because there's no central authority setting the rules. Anyone can sell an NFT, and the voices that might otherwise be silenced are given a platform. And just like with ebooks, we're — at least on some level — hoping the mainstream world will buy into our dream, too.

Here's the thing: when the mainstream arrives, they steamroll your culture and put their own idols on your throne. It's not malicious, it's just how it works. And I can feel that day coming for NFTs, and it scares me.

Point being: if we want this world we're creating to survive, we need to double down and not just support each other, but defend each other. When newcomers arrive, back them up from day one. When people stumble, help them back to their feet. The lure of boundless riches is strong, but if we're not careful about this, we're going to end up looking back on these days as the end of an era — and then go back to buying our Frozen NFTs with $DSNY.

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